The Venture Bros’ Jackson Publick on the evolution of a cult classic

We talked to Jackson Publick about how The Venture Bros has grown

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Few shows earn such dedicated fans as The Venture Bros. Since it first aired on Adult Swim back in 2003, the animation from Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer has delivered a detailed, multi-layered, complex and hilarious riff on the classic comic books and adventure stories of the 50s and 60s, and it’s continued to develop. The characters have grown and the stories have grown with them.

Well, Dean and Hank have grown. And Henchman 21 and Sergeant Hatred. Dr Rusty Venture and The Monarch are pretty much the same as they ever were, still trapped in a never ending cycle of thwarted dreams of success and revenge.

Now, the fifth season is finally airing in the UK (along with the previous four seasons) on Spotify mobile, and we took the opportunity to talk to Publick at London’s MCM Comic-Con about how the show has changed over the years, the nature of Venture Bros fandom, and why having a David Bowie character was essential.

How have you found the British Venture Bros fans so far?

I’ve only met one UK fan so far. Last night I was walking through Leicester Square and a kid came up to me with one of our t-shirts on and went “Are you…is your name Jackson?” and he was with his mother and he was nervous. So he seemed pretty cool and he asked me some weird questions about an episode from three seasons ago that I couldn’t answer, actually!

Is “I have some very detailed questions” a fairly typical Venture Bros fan encounter?

Probably more than most shows, yeah! Because we have such a deep continuity and it’s clear we care a lot about our characters and pretend to know more about them than we do. We’re constantly hinting at things that have happened in the past, or off-screen. You’re supposed to just be aware that “Oh, these two characters have a history but we don’t know what it is yet.” So we kind of easter egg these ideas through it and people track them voraciously!

Are you surprised by the extent to which the show has developed?

Oh, yeah. I knew it would evolve but I didn’t know to what extent. Obviously it’s very different to what we started with. It’s not the snarky little parody show that it used to be and it’s maybe not as concept-driven, it’s more character-driven than it was. We were always invested in our characters, we always knew that we wanted to be the kind of show that cares about its continuity. We just didn’t know it would get this…heavy! [Laughs]

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Has there been a conscious decision to be a bit more forgiving with your characters, to maybe not make their stories so emotionally punishing?

Not so much. Lately I think we started to think in those terms. I think it’s just a natural result of liking them a little more, or just caring about them and wanting to be honest about who they are, and what should and shouldn’t happen to them. Not doing things just for the sake of a joke. This is not a show where, if something blows up, it’s back to normal in the next episode, that doesn’t happen. If something blows up in our show, it’s a smoking wreck in the next episode! So then I guess you have to be a little more careful about what happens to these people.

Have any of the characters surprised you with the direction they’ve gone in? Henchman 21 has obviously come a long way!

Yeah, he’s the biggest surprise. None of the henchmen had names or personalities for most of the first season, and then Doc Hammer wrote an episode where he said “I want one chubby henchman.” In fact, all the henchmen had the same character model, they were just supposed to be anonymous for the most part. And then one of them got Ray Romano’s voice and another one was made to be chubbier and nerdier, so we could do a joke about the Star Wars kid from the internet!  Then we just liked the rapport between these two guys and then we started writing more for them, and then of course we just wrecked his whole life and we killed one of them! He’s probably the biggest surprise.

Other than him, I personally have fallen in love with Hank and I like tracking where he goes. He doesn’t really change so much but he’s just fun to write for and it was fun to realise what his personality is, what his role is, that he’s a little bit crazy and that things just roll off of him. Dean carries everything inside of him and he gets upset and he gets messed up by everything, and Hank just goes “This is cool!” Hank’s just watching the show, you know?

It’s so much fun to see where they’ve ended up, I guess that started with removing Dr Venture’s ability to keep cloning them?

Right, that was so necessary to the continuation of the show. We knew that before the end of Season 1, that these boys can’t be these idiot ciphers of “Aw shucks” 1950s,’ 60s expressions and stuff. And we realised that the information was there. We had already given Dean a bit of a love interest and we had already given Hank some pretty strange obsessions. And he’ll constantly drop pop cultural phrases that just shouldn’t have been part of his childhood at all, and you wonder “Where did he hear that, where did he get that idea?” So we realised alright, Hank’s a little crazy! And Dean’s the emotional one; he’s the more sensitive. So from that we just extrapolated and deepened everything going on with him, made the divide more and more clear.

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And on the other hand, Dr Venture on the Monarch are caught in this self-perpetuating cycle!

Right, Rusty Venture is the best example because he’s a victim of the world he was born into. Sometimes he tries to escape it a little bit, but lately we’ve been having him double down on it. In our newest season he sort of re-commits to it.

And the same thing happens to the Monarch. Things go badly for a while and instead of giving up they decide to double their efforts to get back to where they think they should be. Like, “Wait a minute, I’m the Monarch! It’s time to chase Dr Venture!” We’re constantly taking that away from him, too. Like “Oh you’re not allowed to chase Dr Venture around.” And we still don’t know why he hates him so much but that’s what drives him and that’s the purity of his character and his mission in life.

And Dr Venture’s has gotten muddled by failure and the loss of his fortune and everything but once in a while we give it back to him, we give him a sad little victory! Sometimes he’s proud that he’s Rusty Venture. Other times he’s running away from his past.

Do you have a favourite character to do as a voice actor?

I probably like doing The Monarch the best although it can tear me up after a while if he’s yelling a lot. They’re all a lot of fun. For some reason I had a lot of fun doing Dr Z, which is probably why, he came back. There’s never any big plan to what we do, it’s just “I like doing that voice, let’s write more for him because we know that I can show up.”

There have been some great voice actors in recent episodes, like Aziz Ansari, Nathan Fillion and Kate McKinnon. How do you go about finding the right voices for these characters?

We were rarely able to get anybody in the earlier seasons. Nobody had heard of us, we weren’t paying well and we had no connections in Hollywood at all! But every once in a while you’d write a new character and you’d go “I really want somebody special for this,” or “I want to hear somebody who isn’t me or Doc doing this,” because I know our limitations. Or sometimes you underwrite a character and you realise this character’s only going to be interesting if we find somebody to play with it and do something fun with it.

Kate McKinnon was just kind of an accident. She was friends with Mike Sinterniklaas who plays Dean, she wasn’t on SNL yet and he said “My friend Kate is great,” and we got her in to do a character who was just a normal human being. Those are the tricky ones, they’re not super powered, they don’t want to rule the world, they’re not a mutant. She basically created a character where there wasn’t much of one. She did that a few times for us.

Other times we’ve written a character where we know this is a powerhouse character and we know we just need a cool voice for this. “We need Ian McKellen!” We can’t get him of course but we have a deeper Rolodex than we used to and we have an agent who helps us sometimes and we get some pretty cool people. We got Clancy Brown this season, which we’re pretty excited about. Jeffrey Wright, also, that was maybe the closest I came to actually writing a part for somebody.

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Did you always have James Urbaniak and Patrick Warburton in mind for Rusty Venture and Brock?

You know what, sort of.  James was a mutual friend of a cartoonist that I’ve known since I was 20-something and I had seen him perform in a strange sketch comedy thing in a basement in New York in like 1994 and I just remembered him. So when it came time to actually cast the pilot, of course I went and asked Patrick if he would play Brock because he was just perfect for it, and I wrote to my cartoonist friend and said “Do you still know that guy who played that weird little part in a skit that you did at the Knitting Factory in 1994?” and he said “Oh, that’s James, he was my roommate.”

I went and showed him my pitch book for the cartoon and as soon as I turned to the page with the Doctor Venture drawing, my friend just went “That’s who you want James for, right?” I was like “Yep!”

Has your working relationship with Doc Hammer changed much over the years?

Not really, if anything it’s worsened! We used to spend a lot more time together. When we started we shared the Astrobase, that’s our working studio, and we both spent a lot more time there back then because I lived with a roommate in a small apartment and I needed a place to go work, and we were constantly in one another’s orbit. Now we see each other only when we need to work. It’s changed a little because we don’t naturally have a lot of goofy conversations by accident anymore.

Everything’s a little more structured but we pretty much write everything the same way, we joke around and riff on something until somebody says, “Oh, you should write that down.” And then once in a while we actively write a story together. But mostly we get together at the beginning of a season and talk in broad strokes about what the arc will be, and throw a couple of ideas at each other, and then we kind of just write on our own and check in with each other once in a while.

Which is not always the most efficient way to write a television show. But if you know anything about us it takes forever for us to make our show and that’s probably half the reason!

 

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Finally, I have to ask: what was it about Bowie that made you want to write him in as The Sovereign?

I mean, he’s David Bowie! That’s all there is to it. He’s not one of us, or he was not one of us, or whatever. Clearly a god among men. Mysterious, strange, supercool person who must be a supervillain or part of the Illuminati or something if there’s any justice in this world. So yeah, how could you not be fascinated by him and go “Make him the guy!”

Adult Swim now has a dedicated UK home for FREE on Spotify mobile.

Catch seasons 1-4 of The Venture Bros. for FREE now on Spotify mobile, with all-new episodes from season 5 currently rolling out every Friday!

Click the link below to enjoy The Venture Brothers: https://open.spotify.com/show/62rEiLp41nSORn1Jy1eoWK