Go Team Venture!
An Interview With Jackson Publick III, Co-Creator of Adult Swim's The Venture Bros.
By Jeremy M. Barker
These days, the most common thing you're likely to hear about Cartoon Network's Adult Swim is, "It used to be good." For the countless insomniac pop culture geeks who made the late-night programming an unprecedented hit, Adult Swim was meant to be a hipper Nick at Nite, a clearinghouse for canceled adult-oriented cartoons, produced in the wake of The Simpsons' lasting popularity. The early line-up included the perennial favorite Home Movies, as well as the anime crossover hit Cowboy Bebop, and other canceled animated sitcoms like Baby Blues and The Oblongs. The only 15-minute short (now a mainstay) was reruns of the stoner hit Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.
Since then, though, the channel has been overrun with 15-minute throw-aways, everything from the gross-out comedy of Robot Chicken to the Internet hype of Tom Goes to the Mayor. The original programming has generally been a let down, wallowing in pop culture references and, occasionally, just plain incomprehensibility. But one of the few shows that points back to smart humor and plot-driven half-hour shows that made Adult Swim a hit is the slow-burning The Venture Bros., which this May returns for its second season.
The Venture Bros., like many Adult Swim shows, is a comic pastiche of old shows and pop culture. The plot centers around the title brothers, Hank and Dean, a pair of adventure seeking seeking teenagers painfully outdated, sort of a mix of Johnny Quest and the Hardy Boys. Their adventures (or rather misadventures) largely stem from their father's, Dr. Thadeus Venture's, entanglements. The pill-popping son of a famous scientist, Dr. Venture is the inheritor of a crumbling empire, a delightfully amoral loser who at one point uses orphan body parts for a shameless experiment. Filling out the crew is his bodyguard Brock Samson, a Race Bannon-esque (though not Race Bannon, who at one point comically dies in the show) thickneck who only uses knives, loves Zeppelin, and has a remarkably robust sex-life. Filling out the cast are Venture's unwanted nemeses, led by the Monarch, a comically neurotic "evil genius" dressed as butterfly, and his right-hand "man," the evil scientist Dr. Grilfriend, perhaps the show's most original character: a shapely woman dressed like Jackie O. with a deep, burly man's voice.
Last year, I did an email interview with co-creator Jackson Publick III, a longtime writer for TV who worked for both the animated and live-action versions of the cult classic The Tick. Publick and co-creator Doc Hammer have frequently claimed they don't watch much TV, which seems sort of hard to believe for a show so rife with pop culture references. In response, Publick wrote: "The thing is, as children of the 1970s, we grew up on TV. And as freaky obsessives of the 2000s, it's all stored in our heads—sometime in shocking detail, thought between the two of us we can usually fill in whatever blanks one of us can't remember. The show was definitely inspired by a childhood recollection of Johnny Quest, and an adulthood acquaintance with Tom Swift novels fueled it further. Once we were into it and realized it could and should go way beyond those two influences, it began to draw on everything."
Drawing on everything is a fair description. One episode is based on Ziggy Stardust's "Space Oddity," and David Bowie makes a behind-the-scenes character appearance in another episode, hiring a mercenary to get back his panda (his companda) from a megalomaniacal Walt Disney stand-in. Publick even brought up Bowie in the interview, commenting off-handedly, "if we actually ever put David Bowie in the show, he could be the real David Bowie, but he might live in a hovering fortress and be friends with Aristotle Onassis, who is alive and well but has a metal face and a laser."
That sort of inanity mixed with subtlety infuses the show and accounts for its reputation as one of Adult Swim's "smart" shows. Although the show does draw a lot from the collective pop culture memory, Publick draws a line.
"My sole complaint about the message boards is that once they picked up on the fact that we play around with a lot of pop culture referencing, they started trying to figure out the source of every single joke or character, as if we base everything we write on something preexisting. Which, if it were true, would cheapen the show so much. I'd just hate to be lumped in with that kind of humor because I'm so offended by it when I see it in other shows. Merely shouting out to the audience 'hey, remember that episode of Diff'rent Strokes?' is not writing, and it's not funny. What I like to think we do is trade in archetypes and iconography. We use pop culture to flesh out our characters by putting them in the same world our audience lives in, but we also put them in the same world as other fictional characters."
The Venture Bros. is also a action show, beyond the humor, and in many ways it's one of the most transgressive on Adult Swim, with violence rivaling some of the anime imports and some of the most overt sex acts on any show. In the wake of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction," I couldn't help but ask about standards and the FCC. "Last season we had very few notes from the standards people, thanks in part to Family Guy, which had started re-running on Adult Swim in the interval between our pilot and our first season. It sort of pushed what you could do on the network because in a reasonable world, how could a block that calls itself ADULT Swim not be able to show—at 11pm, on CABLE—the same material that was once shown in prime time on a broadcast network?"
But beyond that, "The Adult Swim people were pretty supportive. They're trying to do something new and create memorable, envelope-pushing television. If anything, we were asked to rise to the occasion. Not necessarily encouraged to be 'more adult' or to be shocking for shocking's sake, but to push things because doing something unforgettable is what makes something...well, unforgettable."
When the first season ended almost two years ago, the entire series seemed to be closed up, as the finale ended with Hank and Dean dying in a scene pulled from the end of Easy Rider, but Publick assured me that he hadn't intended to end the series there. "Season One was not intended to be a closed story because 13 episodes doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what we want to do with these characters or the stories we want to tell," he wrote. "Had there been 52 episodes in that season, you might have something. But we figured we couldn't lose: if we got cancelled, there was no better way to go out than by killing our title characters, and if we got renewed we had an excellent cliffhanger to our season to make the viewers come back next year. There is a master plan of sorts, but it's a loose one."
New episodes of The Venture Bros. start on Adult Swim's Sunday line-up on June 25th. Season 1 is available on DVD May 30th.