Illustration by Pendleton Ward for TIME
April 17, 2014 6:17 AM EDT

Pendleton Ward, creator of the TV show Adventure Time, likes fart jokes. “It’s an art to perfect the best kind of fart joke. You can’t go too gross, because then it’s not a joke, it’s just disgusting. And it’s better when it’s hidden. There were a lot of farts in the pilot that were just like …” Ward makes a nearly inaudible fart sound, a quiet puff: whoo. “Like when Princess Bubblegum comes into the last scene, there’s a whoo noise. No one really even gets that one but me.”

Adventure Time, in case you don’t know it, is a cartoon about a 12-year-old boy named Finn and his best friend, a magic dog named Jake, who live in a land called Ooo. It has a lot of fart jokes. Now starting its sixth season, it’s Cartoon Network’s top-rated show among kids 9 to 14 and a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon: last fall the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured a Finn-and-Jake balloon. It’s also one of the strangest and most emotionally honest shows on TV.

Ward is a cartoonist who looks like a cartoonist. Only 31, he’s rounded, rumpled, tousled and blond-bearded, with little round glasses and a peacefully eccentric demeanor–he cracks his knuckles a lot and sometimes spontaneously imitates a trombone, pretty convincingly. I asked how he got the unusual name Pendleton and he gave me a nonexplanation that is a good example of Adventure Time’s enigmatic, absurdist logic: “It’s a blanket company. The story is that my mom had a blanket from Pendleton that was warm, and she wanted me to have a warm heart. But that story’s made up. I told her that, and she was like, ‘I don’t remember that–but I like that. I’ll tell people that.’ So that’s what that is.”

Making cartoons appears to be all Ward ever wanted to do. He spent his childhood in San Antonio, laying the foundations of a truly encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s and 1990s comics, video games and basic-cable cartoons. He alludes casually to Rescue Rangers (he had a crush on Gadget Hackwrench, but he’s “not proud of that”), The Real Ghostbusters and even Hammerman, the disastrous, short-lived MC Hammer cartoon. Ward was already doing animation in first grade, turning pads of Post-its from his mother’s purse into flip books. “She was a single mom, and I would follow her everywhere. She would give me these books, and I would draw in them to keep myself busy.”

Ward had the idea for Adventure Time in his senior year at Cal Arts, and after he graduated a studio called Frederator made it into a short that rapidly acquired a cult following on YouTube. On the strength of that, Cartoon Network picked it up and made it a show. Though not before Nickelodeon passed on it, twice.

You can see how it could be a tough sell: Adventure Time is a lot darker and more complex than you’d expect from a show where some of the characters are literally made of candy. “It has kind of a cute vibe,” says Nick Jennings, the art director. “When you look at it you say, ‘Oh, that’s a little kids’ show. Little mountains and funny rubber-armed characters and stuff.’ But the content isn’t little-kid.” Take the show’s bad guy, Ice King. He’s definitely evil–he kidnaps princesses–but there’s a lot of pathos to him too. He’s a lonely, depressed old man who lives with penguins in an ice cave that has–somehow this is the most poignant touch–a drum set in one corner. Or take Ooo itself: it’s fun and verdant, but every once in a while you spot a junked car or a busted old Mac Classic in the background, and slowly it dawns on you that what you’re looking at is a postapocalyptic world built on the ruins of our own.

But for a show set in a magic postapocalyptic world, Adventure Time is fiercely committed to its own brand of realism. It has a lot of internal integrity. The fart jokes aren’t there because they’re funny–or not just because they’re funny–they’re there because real people fart a lot too. “We don’t have a ton of cartoon logic,” says Adam Muto, a co–executive producer of the show. “There was a thing where if anyone lifted something from offscreen, Pen would flag it and say, No, they need to be carrying that the entire time. Because why would they just pull it from offscreen?”

The realism extends to Finn and Jake, who have big emotions, and lots of them. Adventure Time is never winky or jokey or ironic. When something bad happens, they feel it. “The boarders [the show’s storyboard artists] just pour themselves into it,” says Kent Osborne, Adventure Time’s head of story. “They’re using stuff that’s happened to them and breakups and feelings that they have that they’re still trying to work out.”

While Ward grew up on cartoons, Adventure Time often seems like an act of open rebellion against traditional cartooning–cartoony is a bad word in the writer’s room. “Hammy, over-the-top cartoony stuff never appealed to me,” he says. “We always try to break that and make sure that we turn clichés on their head.” So sometimes Finn and Jake learn something, sometimes they don’t. Episodes can end with a non sequitur or in the middle of a scene or a sentence. (“I think any episode that ends with them farting, that was Pen’s suggestion,” Osborne says.) In a couple of episodes, all the characters are flipped to the opposite sex: Finn and Jake become Fionna and Cake.

The show even rebels against itself. “Sometimes we’ll forget it’s called Adventure Time and just write whatever we want,” Ward says. “Like just sitting and talking to bugs and being mopey and then maybe humming a tune–that kind of stuff. I think everyone feels what they’re watching; everyone is empathizing with the characters. And my favorite way to feel is calm.”

This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.

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