‘The Venture Bros.’ Creators On How To Look Way Smarter Than Your Friends
The Venture Bros. has been on Adult Swim for over 10 years now. Despite that considerable amount of airtime, there’s only been five seasons with a total of 63 episodes. The amount of detail put into the show by its creators, Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, is partially why fans had to wait so long for a fifth season. Hammer and Publick aren’t ones to write an episode and have it completed in a week’s time, a la South Park, so a full season of The Venture Bros. takes 13–14 months to complete.
Season five went through a transition with new behind-the-scenes workings and with the duo at a new studio, but the show and its miserable characters remained the same. The Venture brothers & Co. have been through some transitions over the years as well, and speaking with Hammer and Publick, they wanted to make sure it was an emotional one, embracing their more sentimental side.
If you want to hear what else they had to say about the show and its recently concluded fifth season, continue onward:
From the start of the show, there didn’t seem to be that “finding your footing” feel a lot of shows go through. Did you both have a clear idea for what the show was from the start?
Publick: Yes and no. In some ways, it’s changed a lot and found a new thing that it was, but it was pretty committed to itself from the beginning. It’s hard not to watch the earlier episodes now and go, “Oh, we didn’t know what we were doing.”
We were trying very hard, but even for the pilot episode, there was a confidence in not bothering to explain itself to you.
Were there ever discussions about whether people would get the more obscure references?
Hammer: You can make a couple of big jokes and get away with a little joke. There’s going to be a handful of people whose heads will explode at the little one. They’re going to think a joke was made just for them, because it was.
Publick: We can’t help ourselves. We call ourselves out on it for a while and go, “Really? Who’s going to get that?” Also, we now have full in confidence in that, if they miss that [reference], there’s the big joke later or, because we now read the Internet, we know that five or ten people will get it.
Hammer: You can watch the joke, google it, and then watch the show with your friends and laugh. When they don’t laugh, you can explain it like you got it the whole time. You’ll look way smarter than your friends.
Publick: The thing I loved about the cartoons I grew up with is, to this day, I’m still just starting to get certain references from Bugs Bunny cartoons. I’ll see some film noir movie and go, “Wait, that’s what Bugs Bunny was quoting!” I like the idea we made the unfolding fortune cookie for ten years from now.
Have you both always kept tabs on what people say about the show online?
Publick: I loathe to admit it, but, yeah.
Hammer: Jackson is a big fan of early returns. He needs to see how people receive it. The Internet pisses me off more than it pleases me. If I read something good, then I don’t believe it. If I read something bad, I take it personally. I try to stay off it, because I don’t have that fortitude. I’m too much of a pansy.
Publick: I’m of two minds about it. If you have an episode you feel strongly about and see people going “wow” online, then that feels good. Seeing people bitch about it never feels good, though. The blow is only softened if they have the dumbest arguments, like, if they didn’t get something. I generally don’t take it to heart, except for the first three hours of the night an episode premieres.
Hammer: I don’t have the balls for it. We make something that goes out into the public and people can get online and quickly write: “Doc Hammer Sucks.” I’ll read it and say, “But I don’t suck. Maybe I’ll find this person, bring them homemade cookies, and show I’m a regular person who doesn’t suck.”
That’s unreasonable, so I decide not to read it. Jackson has a more stable relationship with it, while I have a Twitter account that talks about my bowel movements. That’s how I use the Internet.
And the humor can be divisive. Some people didn’t get on board with the subplot about Sgt. Hatred’s pedophilia, but I thought that was one of the funniest parts of that season.
Publick: That’s exciting comedy for me, but it’s a touchy subject, and reasonably so. It’s not something we intended to hammer in constantly. Our show has a wide variety of viewers and every episode has something in it somebody will love and the other half will be uninterested in. I think the sum of it all ends up being satisfying for them, though.
After you became popular, did the elements fans were drawn to impact where you went forward?
Hammer: Did you say we became pod racers?
Publick: Popular [Laughs].
Hammer: I like to think we started racing pods. I don’t know when we became popular, because I’m so completely out of touch. I think we hit an understanding of what the show was by season two. The first few episodes we were inventing the show.
Publick: As far as reacting to expectations, we didn’t at all. I think we’re aware we have to entertain people and surprise people, but that starts with entertaining ourselves first. It’s not that we don’t care about our fans. We like our fans, but we want to amuse them properly.
Hammer: I think we do the exact opposite. If we start hearing rumors about something they’re predicting, we’ll actually rethink things. We’ll go out of our way not to give them what they want.
Publick: Let me put that in a better light! We want to surprise them [Laughs].
Hammer: Right. What you don’t want is really what you want. You want to be challenged. When you get that record and you like it immediately, it goes away. If it’s a weird and challenging record that has something you like, then you listen to that stupid thing for the rest of your life; it’s your favorite album.
Publick: After owning it for a year you go, “What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I like this?”
Hammer: Oh my God, that’s me with every Pixies album. Everyone of them! They’re crack for me.
Publick: That’s me with every Wes Anderson movie after Royal Tenenbaums and every Coen Brothers movie after Barton Fink.
Hammer: Because they give us what we don’t expect. They’re geniuses.
Doc, you’ve discussed the obsessive detail put into this show before, but when does that obsessiveness begin? Are there discussions over every comma and punctuation?
Hammer: Jackson and I are not that similar of people, but we have similar outlooks on things. When we write it’s almost indiscernible for when it comes to who wrote what. The one thing we have in common is we’re immaculately particular people. The wording we use is as important as the sentiment we’re trying to make which is as important as everything, and I think it’s that what makes the show seamless in the way everybody speaks. We’re particular bastards, so we overthink everything.
Publick: Totally. Even the layout of an email we’ll analyze. “I don’t like that paragraph break there. I don’t like the way it reads.” Even with texting each other, there’s no abbreviations and we’re super careful with punctuation.
Hammer: [Laughs] We could publish our texts with each other and they’d read effortlessly fine. Each word is carefully picked. Anytime Jackson and I write we are writing. We should publish our emails, because some of them are better than our show.
[Laughs] How much satisfaction can you both takeaway from an episode? Can you feel 100% satisfied by an episode or is there always question over what could’ve been done differently?
Hammer: It’s tough. The satisfaction an artist gets from their work isn’t the same satisfaction someone enjoying the art gets. We definitely get a huge satisfaction from following a vision through, creating characters, or reading each other’s scripts. There’s plenty to enjoy when making something, but we never get to see what other people get to see. We have no idea what The Venture Bros. is like. We don’t even know if we like the fucking show. I’m sure you yourself have made something that you can appreciate but can’t quite love it because you spent so time on making it work.
Publick: I will say, there’s not an episode in existence where whatever didn’t come out the way I wanted it to or is an actual mistake that won’t nag at me until the end of the time. In the last couple of seasons, and this season in particular, those things are fewer and father between with every episode. Making it, there is a certain satisfaction when things turn out right or pretty damn close to what you wanted. Occasionally you go, “Wow, we pulled that off.”
Was there a moment or episode from this season you had that reaction to?
Hammer: For me, every stage of it was gratifying. When we came up with this season it seemed undoable, because we had this idea of having it take place over a long period of time and having something completely ridiculous be a small plot, like, the idea of something mutating and changing in a short period of time. That is a very hard thing to do. As we kept writing it we’d find these little beats, and as we came back to that beat, something has changed and the audience feels like they’ve been watching this change occur. Exchanging scripts back and forth and then see it come together is gratifying.
Publick: To watch that and not cringe at an animation flaw and see it move like live-action is amazing. It’s amazing we can do that now and get to enjoy it on that level. In the production, it’s my job to find every flaw and the ones that can’t be fixed, and that’s why my job kind of sucks. My first reaction to everything is: here’s the 20 things that are wrong with it. Unfortunately, that’s how I have to live. “O.S.I. Love You” was one of those episodes that came together, and that was a bitch to direct.
How about “Bot Seeks Bot”?
Publick: I love that episode, but that was an episode so playful and ridiculous. Some of these are so direction and animation proof. Doc will write ones a little more dialogue-driven and playful, and you don’t have to worry as much for those episodes. I try to make a really good spy movie, so the animation has to be good. “Bot Seeks Bot” was one of my lighter and more playful ones, so it can survive not being visually told as well. I did have some issues with the quality of the inking on some of the animation, but a lot of that will only ever bother me. Also, a lot of it is hidden by that saturated club lighting.
Hammer: The thing about “Bot Seeks Bot” is that it’s as funny on TV as it was in the script. You had to read the script for “O.S.I. Love You” four times before you knew what the fuck was going on, and it wasn’t particularly funny on the page. It was a tough read, but onscreen it was exactly what we wanted. That’s a very different episode from “Bot Seeks Bot.”
Even in those bigger episodes like “O.S. I Love You” you find these somber character moments. Do you always look for those smaller character reveals in those more action-heavy episodes?
Hammer: We reveal a lot in the small ones too. I think every episode has a character realization. You even find out about the characters even in the sunny, breezy episodes. “Spanakopita” has a lot of information.
Publick: I think we look for those moments more than we used to. We probably started to hit our stride with that stuff in season three. We were more confident about everything and realized we were capable of genuine emotion without being corny. I think that’s a part of what keeps us going, not making a snarky, post-modern “let’s make fun of old comic books” kind of show anymore.
Hammer: Well, I don’t think we ever had that.
Publick: No, but we definitely had more of that. We had less of it than most stuff on Adult Swim, but more of it than we do now. We didn’t hit those moments where we were cable of making it a little bit sad or happy for our characters in the way we can now.
Hammer: I always thought that was one of our great secrets: we have a show that has no real irony in it, because we’re kind of dead serious about all this stupid stuff we’re doing. We’re not making fun of sentimentality; we’re truly writing emotional things. It feels new because people haven’t seen a Neil Simon play in a long time.
Publick: I was just thinking about Neil Simon this morning. I was writing a scene in my head and I thought, “I want this to feel like a Neil Simon play.” Everyone is yelling at the same time.
Hammer: That’s kind of what we do, but we’re doing it in a more contemporary way. We’re really just writing old classic dialogue.
Even though you both have more money to make the show now, do you still run into limitations?
Hammer: I can only afford one boat and half the cocaine I need. You mean money for the show? I thought you were talking about my personal finances…
Publick: [Laughs] Not really, no. We used to hit that wall a lot. Like, we can’t afford to license pop songs. I’ve written a million scenes to songs I love, but we can’t get them. I think every time we’ve done it it was earned, because it’s better for its rarity. In post-production, we couldn’t do a lot of creative retakes. We could make the overseas studio redo something if they just absolutely got it wrong, but if the mistake was on our end, we wouldn’t have the money to pay for it ourselves. We didn’t have the money to have it be as nice as we wanted it. Now, we have the budget to do it. There are still limitations, but, again, those compromises have been lessened.
Hammer: We’re one of the rare shows in contemporary comedy that isn’t created in the editing room. The scripts are word-for-word. It’s rare there’s any kind of improvisation on the show, but it happens occasionally. Ever since the Apatow Empire things have become created in post-production. Our show is done almost as a play and we’re very budget conscious. We have the footage for the scenes we make, it’s done, and the funds are made for the best takes of what’s on the page, so the limitations have served us well. We work well within those limitations.
The show has been on for over 10 years now. When a season is over, like season five, are you able to take a break?
Hammer: It’d be nice to take a month off and live a little bit before we started writing, but we don’t have that kind of time. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered this, but writing is like death: you go out on the road to live, but then you stop to write down what happened. It’d be nice to have a few minutes to recount what happened, but when we do that, people start yelling at us!
Publick: This was the first season I wasn’t decimated after making it, so I was hot to jump back into writing. You do need a few months of thinking, working at stuff, watching movies, reading books, and talking to real people.
Hammer: To recharge your battery, I don’t suggest sitting down with your notebook.
Publick: Maybe you’re hot to write the next two episodes, but what about the eight after that? In retrospect, I could’ve taken a vacation, but all I could focus on was when we were going to start writing again.
Hammer: Also, you have a relationship with writing. You have to step back for a little bit and want it again. The ideas will flow and you’ll want it again. The way we screwed ourselves was coming up with a lot of season six while working on season five. We got hot to do six while working on five, so we robbed ourselves of freeing ourselves of it.
Do you both see an endpoint for the show?
Publick: No. We’ve changed it so many times. The show has gotten a new lease on life like, at least, three times. Any ideas I got about how to end it years ago are gone now. A part of me would just want to leave it as a, “Well, these characters are going to go on and we’re just not going to watch them anymore,” as opposed to, “Everyone is dead now.” I don’t know. Maybe we’ll go with “everyone is dead” now.
Hammer: I love those endings of, “And life goes on, so fill it in with your head.” Those things have no end. You just stop telling its tale.
Publick: While also leaving itself open for you to go three years later, “You know what? I got a really good story for it.”