Go Team Venture!: Creators prepare for 10th anniversary (and fifth season) of cult hit ‘The Venture Bros.’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Venture Bros.” may be the smartest, funniest show on television. And yet a lot of people may not have even heard of it.
There are a few factors that contribute to the show’s relative anonymity. One, it’s a cartoon, which makes a chunk of mainstream viewers unfairly (and very inaccurately) dismiss it as a “kids’ show.” Two, it airs as part of Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block, meaning it usually runs late at night, among reruns of “Robot Chicken” and “Tim and Eric.” Three, the show that “Venture” lovingly sends up — the classic ’60s animated kitsch “Jonny Quest” — is pretty far removed from pop culture memory. And four, “Venture’s” long production schedule means fans need the patience of Job to endure the wait between installments — season four ended in 2010, and season five will debut June 2.
But none of these handicaps matter to the series’ devotees. “The Venture Bros.” — a half-hour comedy/action series dedicated to the trials of a family of adventurers — commands one of the most passionate followings on television. One popular wiki describes it as “the show you love, violently.” The long wait between seasons seems to intensify fans’ longing, rather than diminishing it. And the quality of the show when it is finally delivered makes their devotion feel completely worthwhile.
“Venture” isn’t merely funny. It’s audacious, daring. Unafraid to take risks. Devoted to continuity and an ever-growing mythology. Full of rich characters who refuse to remain stagnant — they grow and evolve as the show goes on. In a world where so many series are content to maintain the status quo, “The Venture Bros.” insists on shaking up its universe — making it feel more alive than most any other program on the air.
That attention to detail and care for its characters is a big reason why “Venture” makes fans wait so long between seasons. The show is a labor of love for its writing staff. Both of them.
The silent partners
“Production is about 14 months long, and before you can start that, you have to write three to six scripts if you don’t want to get burned in the middle of production and start being late with everything,” said Jackson Publick, the show’s creator and co-writer, in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
“And so, that takes a couple months. It takes a few months to come up with the ideas that make up those scripts, it takes a few months to do everything else that you couldn’t do when you were making the previous season.”
Working on the fifth series of episodes was also a time of transition for Publick and fellow writer/producer Doc Hammer — the show recently switched to a new animation studio, meaning new artists, a new budget and so on. Still, both writers note, the biggest factor in “Venture’s” prolonged production schedule is their dedication to doing the heavy lifting themselves.
“It’s hard to compare us with other shows, because there are just two writers on this show,” Doc Hammer said. “We don’t have a writers’ room — there’s not a lot of other shows that do that, if any. So, because of that, it takes a little bit more time, just to physically make scripts with two people.”
Publick and Hammer’s devotion is not limited to writing — Publick directs all the episodes himself and both are constantly busy producing the episodes, performing the voices of multiple characters, going to sound mixing sessions, etc. They are hands-on at virtually every stage of the process.
“To get it on quicker, you would have to be asking us to change the way we make the show, and that’s — you would not be getting quicker ‘Venture Bros.’ You would be getting ‘Quicker-Something-Else-Called-Venture Bros.’ There is no way around it,” Hammer said.
The early DNA of “Venture Bros.” lies back in the Saturday mornings of the 1960s, where action cartoons thrilled kids with tales of swashbuckling heroes and their hair-raising adventures. Publick (real name Christopher McCulloch) and Hammer (real name Eric, uh, Hammer) came of age in a later decade, but they have an undeniable nostalgia for those bygone days of UHF thrills.
“I have an older brother, so almost everything — including clothing — filtered down through him,” Publick recalled. “He was a child of the ’60s, I was a child of the ’70s. He would turn me on to all these things, and he got me into collecting comics — imitating him is probably why I started drawing.”
Hammer’s exposure to such shows came from the power of syndication and lazy programming directors.
“Channel 11 decided that it was perpetually 1968, so you’d watch, like, black-and-white Superman and Casper. It was the worst syndication ever. So when I was growing up, it might as well have been a different decade.”
Their shared fondness for that world of cheaply animated thrills made them the perfect writing partners when opportunity knocked in 2003. Publick — whose talent for writing off-kilter adventure was honed by years of working on the animated and live-action “Tick” series — was able to produce a pilot for Adult Swim based on an idea he’d been toying with: a comedy inspired by the old “Jonny Quest” cartoon, this time about a pair of boy adventurers named Hank and Dean Venture, with their crackpot scientist dad and a hulking bodyguard in tow.
Few could have predicted how in-depth and complex the show’s fiction would become during the course of the next decade — though to hear the writers themselves tell it, keeping their varied creations straight in their own minds is actually the easy part.
“You’ve gotta remember that we’ve lived with these characters for the past 10 years. So there’s nothing like having to think about the mythology and all that kind of stuff. We just know these people, for 10 years. That’s longer than most relationships. So they’ve kind of — I know it sounds like a ridiculous cliché, but they create their own arcs, and they kind of write themselves. All we have to do is decide what to do with them,” Hammer said.
“If anything, keeping them within the confines of a 22-minute episode is the trick,” Publick added. “Because every time we sit down and write one, you’re writing for weeks straight. Like, hour after hour. So there’s like way more going on in our minds with these guys, and their relationships, and where we want them to go, and where they’ve been and stuff, than whatever gets onto the screen. So, we always kinda know a few steps ahead what’s going on with them.”
The invisible hand of fate
That deep understanding of the “Venture” universe extends far into the future — such as the already-in-progress sixth season that the writers are working on now.
“The hard part is actually figuring out what we’ve actually told anybody yet, you know? Doc and I have been talking about stuff that was going to happen in season six since we started writing season five. And it’s actually kinda hard to remember,” Publick said.
The pair’s forward thinking means they already have many of the show’s biggest plot twists in mind, years before fans ever see them. A famous example is season two’s revelation that the show’s teenage protagonists are in fact clones — their father had whipped up numerous copies of his notoriously “death-prone” children.
“We knew from day one, because we were going to kill them a couple of times that season, and then decided to save it,” Publick said.
“Doc having a twin inside of him and the boys being clones were very early discoveries,” Hammer added. “That’s why when season one ends, our theory was, either we never get picked up and we killed our main characters — and that’s cool — or we get to keep developing them, and they’re clones. So it was a win-win.”
This isn’t to say Publick and Hammer do not give themselves room to experiment. One of “Venture’s” most memorable traits is the show’s willingness to shake up the status quo. Last season saw one of the series’ longest running characters — bodyguard Brock Samson, voiced by Patrick Warburton — quit the family’s employ and remain absent for nearly half of the episodes.
“We were just playing with characters. And sometimes, people just go in and out of lives,” Hammer said. “Sometimes when you take away a very strong character, it makes people get invested in the other characters.”
“We’ve done that a lot. We dig holes for ourselves, kind of on purpose,” Publick added. “We have done shit in finales where we go, ‘I don’t know how we’re gonna get out of that, but we’ll figure it out.’ And we try and figure out the absolute last thing that people would expect. It kinda becomes a puzzle that we play with ourselves.”
Careers in science
One factor that helps the pair navigate the maze of their own creation is their involvement as performers, as both writers voice numerous roles in the show. Publick plays one half of the titular brothers as well as main villain The Monarch (among many others), while Hammer gives voice to femme fatale Dr. Mrs. The Monarch and Venture ally Billy Quizboy (among many others). The expansive number of characters they play in the cast gives the pair the chance to try out dialogue on each other well in advance of recording.
“That’s actually how a lot of the writing gets done is just, like, riffing in those voices and taking on those attitudes,” Publick said.
“Jackson and I will write in those character voices. Even stranger, we will write in the opposite’s, too,” Hammer said. “Like, he’ll do Billy and I’ll do White, even though he’s White and I’m Billy. So we don’t care, we’ll do bad impressions of each other.”
That kind of experimentation can even lead to the creation of new characters — Hammer readily admits that the role of the effeminate soldier named Shore Leave started as his bad impression of Dr. Venture. Hammer’s normal speaking voice is strikingly similar to one of the most popular characters in the “Venture” canon: a former Monarch stooge known simply as Henchman 21.
“He’s like the voice of the guy watching ‘The Venture Bros.’ He really is like the insider/outsider,” Hammer said of the character. “And that’s a fun guy to write for. And he’s an uber-geek. So are we.”
Return to malice
As they prepare for fans to experience the new season, it’s clear that Publick and Hammer’s passion for their work — their desire to make it as good as it can be, and to respect the universe they’ve created enough to never let it stagnate — is a big part of what makes “The Venture Bros.” unique in the pop culture landscape.
“It’s interesting to put people through changes,” Publick said. “That’s more interesting to us than coming up with a villain of the week, or coming up with a new weapon for The Monarch to menace somebody with. That’s where our true interest lies, and we can’t help but change these characters constantly, or push the limits of what they’ve been established as. Because people grow, and that’s what’s interesting about writing for characters — or at all.”
The show’s understanding of that fact is part of what makes it so uniquely beloved by fans, and makes those viewers grateful for the effort put in by the creators — though Hammer himself doubts their work will inspire others to make shows in the same vein.
“I hope not. Because one of the ways that we do that is, there’s only two writers. Just me and Jackson. And I don’t wish that upon anybody. That’s a lot of f***ing work! It would be so nice to have a writers’ room of people just throwing stuff at you, but we don’t work that way. We like to take each story, and craft everybody’s arc, and that’s where you get that ‘Venture Bros.’ feeling from.”
Who is Team Venture?
Getting into the comedy/action series “The Venture Bros.” can be a little intimidating for new viewers. The show’s characters and storylines have grown increasingly complex and intertwined over the course of its 10-year history.
For those looking to catch up, here’s a quick primer on the series’ main figures and how they got where they are:
- Hank and Dean Venture — The title characters, the Venture brothers are twin teenagers with an appetite for adventure and a distinct lack of common sense. Dean, the redhead, is the slightly more level-headed of the two (groomed by his father to follow in his super-scientific footsteps), though he’s still quite immature. Hank, the blond one, is wildly impulsive and more apt to wear a Fred-style neckerchief. Both brothers have an unfortunate tendency of dying on a semi-regular basis, leading to their father taking the precaution of having a few dozen clones lying around, just in case (though the destruction of his lab means that option is off the table now).
- Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture — Though a self-proclaimed scientific genius, in actuality the elder Venture is a bit of a blowhard simply coasting on his reputation. Growing up the son of a genuinely brilliant scientist, the boy Rusty found fame as the subject of a cartoon dedicated to his family’s exploits. Now an adult, he has few true skills to offer and tries to bluff his way through life using whatever capital his name can offer — leading to an existence of quiet desperation, sporadically interrupted by tragic failure.
- Brock Samson — Described as part-Swedish, part-Polish and part-Winnebago, this hulking brute of a man is more nuanced than he might seem at first glance. Oh, sure, he’ll rip your leg off at a moment’s notice, but he may — may — be introspective about it later. A government agent who retains his license to kill (he needs to renew it every few years), Samson was assigned to bodyguard the Venture clan and grew to think of them as family — even after he resigned to join old compatriots in a shadowy group called “S.P.H.I.N.X.”
Dr. Byron Orpheus— A tenant in part of the Venture family compound, don’t let Orpheus’ intimidating look and melodramatic speech fool you — he’s one of the good guys. A necromancer who specializes in the dark arts, Orpheus has helped the Ventures on numerous occasions, though his reliance on magic frustrates Dr. Venture, who believes in science. Orpheus also leads his own team of heroes, The Order of the Triad, in addition to raising a teenage daughter named Triana (whom Dean carries a torch for).
- The Monarch — Dr. Venture’s arch-nemesis, as assigned by an international evildoers association named The Guild of Calamitous Intent, The Monarch is a butterfly-themed supervillain who maintains a floating “Cocoon” headquarters and dozens of loyal (if inept) henchmen. Bombastic and theatrical, The Monarch’s passion for mayhem is far in excess of his ability to cause any.
- Dr. Mrs. The Monarch — Formerly known as Dr. Girlfriend, this gravelly voiced bombshell with a striking resemblance to Jackie Onassis is easily the brains of the Monarch’s operation. Ruling his Cocoon by his side, it is usually up to Dr. Mrs. The Monarch to clean up the messes caused by her husband’s clumsy attempts at villainy. Through it all, she remains stubbornly loyal to The Monarch, who she truly does love — despite a few hiccups along the way.
- Henchman 21 — Formerly just another number among The Monarch’s horde, the pudgy geek known as 21 has undergone a tremendous transformation in the past few years following the unexpected death of his best friend, Henchman 24. Whipping himself into top physical shape and earning the respect of everyone else in the Cocoon, 21 struggled with the passing of 24 before reconciling with his friend’s memory at the end of season four, simultaneously quitting The Monarch’s employ and joining — temporarily at least — the strange Egyptian-themed agency known as S.P.H.I.N.X.
- Sergeant Hatred — Few characters have gone through an evolution as pronounced as Hatred. Once Brock Samson’s commanding officer, Hatred temporarily became a supervillain before returning to the side of good, and with the departure of Samson from the Venture compound he has taken up the mantle of the family’s bodyguard. A giant man of action without Samson’s aptitude for destruction, Hatred also is not allowed within 50 feet of children (for good reason).
- Master Billy Quizboy/Pete White — A pair of Venture allies who regularly pop up to help in difficult circumstances. Quizboy is a self-proclaimed “boy genius,” though in reality he’s in his mid-30s and simply has a glandular condition that has stunted his growth. White is an albino and former game show host, whose position as Billy’s quasi-assistant clearly irks him. Together, Quizboy and White make up the entire staff of the vaguely-defined business Conjectural Technologies (“How can we make your tomorrow better?”), located in a dilapidated trailer not far from the Venture compound.