The Mad Genius of ‘The Venture Bros.’: TV’s Craziest Cartoon
For those that aren’t fans—deeply devoted, obsessed fans—it’s almost impossible to know where to begin if you want to explain the hilarious, incredibly dense, subversive comic book universe that is the long-running Adult Swim cartoon, The Venture Bros.
The simple answer is this: The show started out as a parody of Jonny Quest, the ’60s cartoon about a boy adventurer and his super-scientist dad. But The Venture Bros. explores a world where there are actual, real-world repercussions to a childhood that was spent battling costumed villains and all manner of super-powered beings with plans for world domination, many of which saw kidnapping him as a means to that end.
As you’d expect, Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture has grown up to become a pill-popping, seething cauldron of insecurities and neuroses, resentful of his far more successful father, and wholly unable to get over the fact that he peaked in celebrity and promise as a 12-year-old. He hasn’t “invented” much of anything that isn’t a rehashing of his dad’s now-obsolete 1960s gadgets, and he’s not even a real doctor, clinging to an honorary degree to cover for the fact that he never graduated from college.
In his desperate, pathetic attempt to live up to the life that was both thrust upon him and promised to him, the familial history is repeating itself, this time as comedy. His two sons, Hank and Dean, are emotionally stunted, Hardy Boys-ish goofs, isolated on Dr. Venture’s sprawling compound, homeschooled and socially inept, way too eager to leap into the next battle against Dr. Venture’s many antagonists.
Granted, said antagonists are just as flawed, bungled human beings as Dr. Venture himself, and their grand plans to “destroy” him are revealed to be an empty game filled with melodramatic sound and fury sans any desire to actually do harm. As the Monarch, Dr. Venture’s archenemy, says after breaking into his lab: “What can I do to this guy that life hasn't already? I almost feel sorry for him.”
The larger answer to what The Venture Bros. is: It’s a show about failure. Not just Dr. Venture’s personal failures, but also the failures of the ’60s jet age to live up to its promise.
“It’s me voicing my disappointment that we don’t have that kind of magic going on any more, that level of enthusiasm and hope,” creator Jackson Publick said in a Reason interview. “That extends to the kind of cultural stuff that was going on in the ’60s, a youthful generation thinking they could change the world. I’m voicing my displeasure at having been born in a time when some of that magic, for lack of a better word, is gone, and some of those promises that were made in all of our pop culture were never met. My laptop is the coolest thing that’s come out of that. I’m still waiting on my jet pack.”
As writer/producer Doc Hammer added in the DVD commentary to the Season One episode, “Home Insecurity,” failure is the thread that ties all the characters together.
“It’s about that failure happens to all of us,” he said. “Every character is not only flawed, but sucks at what they do, and is beautiful at it and Jackson [Publick] and I suck at what we do, and we try to be beautiful at it, and failure is how you get by...It shows that failure’s funny, and it’s beautiful and it’s life, and it’s OK, and it’s all we can write because we are big failures.”
That might scan as bleak or morose, but I guarantee you, The Venture Bros. is a comedy—and a hilarious one at that—while simultaneously containing a world as complex and intertwined as the Marvel Comics universe or any serial drama on television today.
Take this scene from the Season 6 premiere, “Hostile Makeover.” (Spoiler alert) Hank Venture is ziplining from the top floor of Venture Industries’ new Baxter Building-like mega-headquarters to save a young woman that he believes is drowning. Of course, said woman is the daughter of Wide Wale, a whale-sized, bespoke mafia don, and a bigwig in the New York Chapter of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, the regulatory body and thuddingly bureaucratic trade union for costumed villainy. As you would expect of Wide W(h)ale’s offspring, she’s not drowning at all because she has functional gills.
Gobsmacked with joy, Hank accidentally loses hold of the rope and begins tumbling hundreds of storys to his seeming death, only to be caught in midair by a Ghost Rider/Punisher amalgam motorcycling up the side of the glass tower and leaving an exhaust of flames in his wake. Like any superhero, he begins reciting his tormented backstory to Hank in his best Christian Bale/Batman growl. He’s an ex-cop that lost his family to the mob and his ensuing rage and desire for revenge against the forces of darkness drove him to become... the Night Dick.
Hank’s reaction? A barely stifled giggle.
It’s a brilliantly surreal, action-packed, beautifully shot scene, and Publick and Hammer simultaneously punctuate and deflate all its puffy, overblown cinematic glory with an inspired bit of juvenile silliness: a dick joke.
In a post-credits scene, just to drive the gag home, as he’s exiting alongside Stars and Garters (a lingerie-clad Captain America) the Night Dick glumly complains that “He laughed at the name.”
And for all the heroic derring-do, everyone involved failed. Hank didn’t save the damsel in distress, and the Night Dick (I’m still giggling) loses all of his tough-guy bravura, openly mocked by the teen he just rescued.
Granted, getting the full belly laugh does require a knowledge of the entirety of the sprawling mythology that Publick and Hammer have created. That can be daunting, given the immensely detailed, intertwined histories the characters share. To get a sense of the massive size and scope of what we’re talking about here, this eight-minute recap of the first four seasons should get you started.
The 2015 supersized episode “All This and Gargantua-2” served in large part to clear the decks, or at least prune a few extraneous narrative threads. Though only one character was killed off, it set the stage for the Venture clan to move to New York after Doc inherited his far more successful brother’s fortune.
It’s not exactly a reboot, but in terms of the overall arc, we’re higher up on a spiral, at the same point in terms of latitude and longitude, but with the entire weight of the show’s history still lingering underneath.
I spoke with Publick and Hammer by phone, and they said, “That’s an incredibly accurate way to put it.”
Would these changes mean that we’d finally get to see Doc succeed?
“I’m not sure how much of a success inheriting your dead brother’s money is,” Hammer said. “That might be considered a blip in some macabre way. But I wouldn’t call it a success.”
“I think it’s a ‘success’ at least on the level that it does put a new spring in his step and you’ll see this season, it does make him kind of evaluate his priorities,” Publick said. “But if you look at the psychological benefits of succeeding, he wouldn’t have any of those because everything came to him through a will. So I think he’s the same kind of scared jackass.”
“It’s like falling in love again,” Hammer added. “Where you’re like, ‘Oh, my life’s so much better and so much different.’ You’re really the same asshole. You just have another person that doesn’t know what an asshole you are yet. This season is a little like falling in love again.”
I mentioned a note they had received from an Adult Swim executive after the first season, that the show was “too nerdy.” To any objective viewer, far from taking the note, it seems as if they’ve doubled down.
“When we double down on something, it’s with a purpose—to illustrate the value,” said Publick.
“That was probably at the beginning before he realized what this show really was, and what culture we’re preaching to, you know?” Hammer continued.
Which, yes. The geeky, superhero and sci-fi obsessed world that The Venture Bros. both satirizes and adores was still very much seen as a subculture when the show first premiered in 2004. It’s not just that seemingly every single movie being made is part of the Marvel, Star Wars, and/or Batman axis; it’s that the way a devoted fanboy will interact with and consume culture has become the norm. There is no popular entertainment product without a dedicated following ready to pore over and debate every single character and plotline to the nth degree.
In a sense, we’re all Henchman 21 and 24, delving deep into how the Smurfs reproduce in the midst of a crisis. For Hammer and Publick, that can present a problem in and of itself.
“We were just doing this, and it seems like the world has kind of jumped on board,” Hammer said. “It got a little farther than I thought. I mean, it’s very difficult now to make a show when you know that everything we show, somebody can make a screencap of a downloaded high-definition version of the show and pore over it ...We have to look over every still of the show, knowing somebody’s going to look at it with these eyes of making it canon. It’s difficult. It makes me wish I was writing a fucking Flintstones episode where it doesn’t matter.”
Hammer does take great pleasure in “poring over the details. And I do like going, ‘Oh, this is going to be on the screen for two seconds. I’m going to make it the most beautiful thing in the fucking world. But now I feel like I have to.’”
Then again, “Who wouldn’t love to write a Flintstones episode, that’s what I’m saying,” he said.
Of course, the Flintstones never gave two of their male characters breasts, or allowed Hank to spend multiple episodes gallivanting around in an Iron Man-ish super-powered exoskeleton that was made for a woman.
“When you first want to experiment with drag, the best way to do it is to be invulnerable,” Hammer explained.
“Yeah, a fucking gender conquistador,” Publick chimed in.
I asked if the notion of the comic book/geek fanboy world as largely a woman-free domain is what led to the show’s examination of gender issues. After all, the stereotypical notion still exists that if these dorks would just put down their darned funny books, maybe they’d get laid, or at least be able to speak to a potential sexual partner without turning into a quivering pile of emotional goo.
“You’re answering your own questions, actually,” Hammer said. “We are playing inside of a world that has always been this kind of young, male-dominated thing. So when you’re playing around in that, and stretching things to their ultimate and quasi-realistic end, that’s where you’re going to get your gender issues.”
“Nobody on this show seems to have a mommy,” Publick added. “And just like the way children think, or old, male-oriented action was set up, all women were either just a creature you obsess over that you can’t have or they’re the Dragon Queen who’s trying to destroy you.”
“Yeah, they’re untouchable or they’re the femme fatale,” said Hammer. “It seems like we’re starting to slip more women into the world, and maybe that’s because they’re in New York now, and because also nerddom has changed.”
“We are kind of adapting sort of subconsciously as our characters start to mature a little. And as the culture around these kind of genres and stuff changes also... Our stock and trade is commenting and playing with nerd comic book culture. As it changes, we do.”
Given that Publick and Hammer write and direct each and every episode on their own in addition to providing the voices for many of the characters, there’s often a long wait between seasons. (It’s been 2½ years since the end of Season Five.) But that degree of creative control is part and parcel of their process, one that starts with “throwing a bunch of shit up on the board and kind of loosely discussing the major thrust or the bigger arc that we want to make sure we hit and then, you know, we’ve just got a handful of dumb premises and it’s just a matter of which one of us latches on to one of them.”
Sometimes characters have sprung from writerly challenges. “We have a long history of writing down our worst ideas and then daring one of them to do it, and then getting something kind of good out of it,” Hammer said. One such example is Dr. Henry Killinger, an otherworldly Mary Poppins-slash-villain whisperer who sounds and looks like the former secretary of state and carries a “Magic Murder Bag.”
Said brainstorming sessions also lead to one-liners about Jacob Riis. When Dean briefly moves to New York in “Bright Lights, Dean City,” he snags the only apartment he can afford—a crappy SRO. When Dr. Venture checks out his son’s new pad, he quips, “Are you waiting for Jacob Riis to take your picture?”
It’s not just showy erudition. There’s a reason behind the sea of references both high- and lowbrow that pepper the show’s rapid-fire, quip-tastic dialogue.
“We learned a long time ago, and maybe it was a bad thing for us to learn, that no matter what joke we make, somebody will get it,” Publick said.
“The little jokes are really for these people that are never going to have a joke about their lives on television ever again,” Hammer said. “When we mention Stiv Bators in an episode, there’s a small group of people going, ‘Wow. My childhood has resonance. I thought that I was completely alone in the world.’ It’s a big joke to not that many people, which I think is really valid.”