How My Son's Favorite Cartoon Made Me a Better Creative

The surprisingly deep lessons of Adventure Time

It's hard to imagine the level of creativity it takes to be a parent, until you become one. Besides coming up with fresh bedtime stories on-demand, we often have to craftily navigate hefty questions in simplistic terms a child can comprehend—no easy feat. So, it's unfortunate that a lot of people perceive being a parent to mean being creatively past your prime, since most of these skills also make you a better creative. But I'm not going to unpack all of that here. 

I'm here to talk about the adventures of a boy named Finn, his magical best friend Jake the Dog, a Princess made of Bubblegum, Marceline the Vampire Queen, Ice King, B-MO and my personal favorite, Lumpy Space Princess—and how this cast of characters has unwittingly inspired my creative work. 

I generally have a minimal appetite for kid-targeted entertainment. True, the bar has been raised from the days of Barney—with animated movies like Inside Out designed for whole family appeal (while also rendering me lachrymose). Despite these anomalies, my threshold for episodic kid shows has customarily been low. 

Four years ago, my son discovered Adventure Time. The voice talent felt oddly familiar, sincere and relatable—an unusual juxtaposition for a cartoon (and a welcome respite from the squawks of SpongeBob). Surprisingly, I found myself on the couch watching alongside my son, rather than sneaking off to take care of the dishes. 

Beyond the seemingly basic "boy and dog have adventures" premise, there's nothing conventional about the series. Even the way they use language. 

I mean, what kind of show uses math-related terms ("Algebraic!" "Rhombus!" "Mathematical!" ) instead of "Awesome!" Math = cool? Bizarro land, indeed. These contradictions were captivating. I soon found myself totally immersed in the depth of rich, unexpected, wonderfully weird and surprisingly philosophical storytelling. 

Episodes play fast and loose with societal norms, stereotypes and perceptions while delving into fairly challenging subject matter—death, abandonment, fear, relationships, consent—with great ease and wonderment. It's undeniably insightful, profound, unexpected and memorable, yet simple, like all great creative should be.  

The show started to influence my own creative work. A few episodes have inspired campaign concepts in some way. But perhaps more important, Adventure Time has altered how I approach concepting—tasking me to challenge conventional thinking. "What is the most unexpected, weird yet relatable scenario that still feels on brand?" "How can I bend language in this headline?" Or even, "How would Finn and Jake confront this brief?" These questions help reorient my perspective and push the work into previously unexplored territory. 

I believe Marceline The Vampire Queen's mom said it best when she noted, "Something weird might just be something familiar viewed from a different angle." Ain't that the truth? 

Sometimes when I'm just stuck, this show can seriously deliver some real life nuggets of wisdom. "You're letting your brain dial turn your fear volume up." Or "Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something." This insight can pop me out of the creative hamster wheel right quick. 

Watching Adventure Time with my son yields quality time together, which is more meaningful than anything else. But an undeniable bonus of being a parent (one of many) is that a kid's cartoon inspired me to grow and push myself creatively. And that's ... totally math. 

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Erin Fuller
Erin Fuller is a single mom and senior art director at Planet Propaganda.

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