The end of July marks the conclusion of San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest festivals of pop culture in the country. For a guy like Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, it’s both an exciting and unusual time.
“It’s the one place in the world where you feel like you’re famous, if you’re an animator,” he says. “Ever since ‘Phineas and Ferb’ hit.”
“Phineas and Ferb” is Swampy’s claim to fame: 200-plus episodes of zany cartoon fun that ruled the Disney Channel from 2007 to 2015. Swampy co-created the series with fellow “The Simpsons” and “Rocko’s Modern Life” alum Dan Povenmire; it chronicles the adventures of the eponymous step-brothers, their sister and their pet cum secret agent Perry the Platypus.
Gargantuan titles like “Phineas and Ferb” practically mandate trips to San Diego, but this year Swampy won’t be in attendance. Instead, he’ll be at Surfer Jack Productions, his Venice-based studio, which is busy with projects ranging from the joyful (a 13-episode adaptation of New York Times-bestselling picture book “Pete the Cat”) to the arcane (“Goblins Animated,” based on a webcomic about the lives of monsters in “Dungeons and Dragons”). “Pete the Cat” features the vocal talents of Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews and KT Tunstall, and “Goblins Animated” taps legendary voice actors Phil Lamarr and Billy West.
Like their choice of projects, Surfer Jack Productions is anything but typical. The big animation studios are predominantly based in the San Fernando Valley, but Surfer Jack is staying put near the intersection of Abbot Kinney and Venice Boulevard. Swampy surfs before the workday, and his office (aka Surfer Jack’s meeting room) is a shiny vintage Airstream trailer out near the front.
The building itself is “teeny,” but that offers collaborative advantages. “Our head writers are literally 10 feet away from our directors and storyboard artists,” Swampy says, “so the artists or the directors are able to literally call out to the writers and ask them to change the line. It’s a little bizarre for how most studios work.”
Most studios also don’t throw a monthly party with drinks, guests from the community and artistic pursuits like pouring molten metal, but Surfer Jack is a product of Swampy, and Swampy is a product of the Westside. Born in Santa Monica, he bought a fixer-upper in the Venice area in 1987. “In the process of fixing the house up, I fell in love with Venice and just thought, ‘I don’t need to leave,’” Swampy says, “and that also came at the time when I was going through a career change, from being a computer marketing executive … to getting a job on ‘The Simpsons.’”
While changes to Venice have not made Swampy and Surfer Jack’s tenure a cakewalk, Swampy remains optimistic. “I’m working hard, financially … to preserve this place and this environment,” he says. “Things will change and the pendulum will swing back and forth, but I haven’t seen anything, over all of these years, to let me know that Venice won’t be an interesting, whacky, fun place to be. I don’t see that changing.”
— Andy Vasoyan