In the third season of The Venture Bros., creator Jackson Publick and his partner Doc Hammer opened things up considerably. The already impressive world of not-so-super scientist Rusty Venture, his endlessly naïve sons Hank and Dean, and their short-fused bodyguard Brock, deepened with stories behind familiar faces like The Monarch and his new wife Dr. Girlfriend, as well as providing history for minor characters and bringing well-connected new ones to the screen. Mysteries past and present were unearthed, building to a balls-to-the-wall action climax that changed the status quo of the Venture-verse. The effect was a solid mix of the geek-friendly comedy and oddly touching pathos that the series is famous for, a tone that rewards its viewers for their willingness to accept and embrace the absurd. Season three came out on DVD and Blu-ray on March 24, and to celebrate, Publick talked with The A.V. Club about the dangers of getting too backstory heavy, the challenges of a bifurcated season four (which airs its first eight episodes this fall), and just why he had to break up the unstoppable duo of Henchmen 21 and 24. (Warning: This interview discusses some the big twists at the end of the third season, so spoilers ahead.)
The A.V. Club: The DVD release of season three is uncensored. Do you think seeing the male nudity in, say, “The Doctor Is Sin,” changes the tone of the episode?
Jackson Publick: Ahhhh, it probably does, for better or worse. Yeah, I’m sure it does. ’Cause there’s no way to not go, “Jesus Christ, that’s a penis.” But you know, that’s the way I saw it when we were making it, so it still works for me. There is a charm to black bars, sometimes it makes the joke better, and other times, it kind of ruins things. That’s one of the rare instances where we really meant to show a penis. Sometimes we’ll have somebody on the toilet and we’ll draw them so you can’t see their junk, and then the overseas studio makes it so you can see it. We’re like, “We weren’t trying to make a pee-pee joke, for once!”
AVC: Venture Bros. is an extremely honest show. Does that kind of writing appeal to you?
JP: I don’t know. The truest stuff seems the funniest. Where can you take a cartoon that it hasn’t gone before? You can only take it to the more real, I think, if you want it to be surprising and different. We also write what we know, so pretty much any jokes about personal human embarrassment, I’m sure happened to one of us.
AVC: Season three had Sgt. Hatred, an implied pedophile. That’s pretty dark stuff; how do you know where to draw the line?
JP: For some reason, we never worried about it too much with him. Only in retrospect. Of course you know you’re being a little naughty when you make jokes about that… but we’re so proud that we made a likeable pedophile. [Laughs.] Because he’s not actively doing anything, we would never be graphic about it. Of course there’s a line—every once in a while, if you play around with race, or sex, or any of that stuff, you just kind of know when it feels ugly. There’s some stuff that made it into the show that was intended in one spirit and came out a little uglier, either because the way it’s read or the way it’s drawn—
AVC: Like what?
JP: I don’t know, there’s stuff like in the Dr. Quymn ep. [“Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman.” —ed.] It’s a little more crass than I meant it to be. I don’t quite feel right about that episode. [Laughs.] I think it’s got a lot going for it, but… I don’t know. Some stuff, when you’re writing it, it’s in the voice of a character, so you have it in your head a certain way. Then sometimes it backfires, like it doesn’t have the shine on it that you hoped it would that would make it feel okay to make that joke. [Laughs.]
AVC: This is a show that obviously puts a lot of trust in its audience. Has that developed over the years?
JP: I think we’ve always been pretty good about trusting them. We’ve always been not afraid to reference things that only 10 people will get. We think they’ll figure it out—they’ll Wikipedia it, or they’ll just not get it, and the next joke comes soon enough. As far as telling a story, I guess that’s one of the arts of screenwriting—how to be as brief as possible, as economical as possible. Sometimes it may just be the result of one of us editing and having to trust, because we’re over time. It’s like, “Eh, they’ll get this.” You don’t have to show the scene where the guy walks to the car, you can just show the scene with the guy in the car, and you know he had to get there. Long story short, we do trust our audience quite a bit, and it’s more fun to trust them, to write for that.
AVC: Season three had a lot of mythology and backstory…
JP: Too much.
AVC: Do you regret that?
JP: Probably a little bit? Somebody just asked me to tell them which three episodes are the best examples, like, “Hey, I want to show this producer some good Venture Bros. episodes, what should I show him to give him a taste of the show?” And I’m like, “You should show season-three stuff, because it’s the best-looking and the most cinematic, and our timing gets better, and technically everything gets better.” But then I had a really hard time deciding which episodes to pick, because they’re all so steeped in their own mythology and backstory. We did overdo it, me more than Doc, on backstory. It’s not that I regret writing anything, I just regret putting them all into the same season. [Laughs.] But you get in moods and you get into motifs and stuff like that. You do it in one episode and you want to explore it in another episode. I think when it’s said and done, if you just shuffle the episodes around, the balance is pretty good.
AVC: Speaking of continuity, do you ever feel prevented from telling a story you want to tell because of older episodes?
JP: Not usually from telling stories. Maybe there’s a joke you want to make or something like that, and you go, “Oh, that character can’t say that.” It hasn’t happened too much, and we usually figure a way out of it. Like, “Oh, no, just because this character said this—he’s a liar, so we don’t have to stick with that.” [Laughs.] It can happen, sometimes it can be a little tricky to dance around stuff. More often than not, we find fun things that we didn’t realize were the case, like “Oh, these two characters have never met, even though we’ve written for both of them dozens of times. So when I put them in this scene together, they have to remark about how one of them’s a dwarf, or somebody has to go, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
AVC: Season three ended with the death of all the Hank and Dean clones. How long had you been planning that?
JP: I personally didn’t care one way or the other. I think that was all Doc’s. I think he felt that was important, because maybe it felt like the temptation to use that crutch would’ve been there? To me it didn’t matter, because I figure that gag and that type of story of cloning the boys, we did it, we’re not going to need to use that again. It doesn’t matter to me if there’s still a room full of clones in the basement, and it was funny to have the boys discover them and Doc Venture have to talk his way out of that and say they’re Christmas presents. But I think it’s a good thing, because now the boys are real, to some segment of the audience who felt weird that they were watching and loving clones. They’re real boys now. [Laughs.]
AVC: It changed things up for next season…
JP: And 24 [The Monarch’s Henchman] dying.
AVC: A lot of fans were upset by that.
JP: I think because it’s just so mean, y’know? If we killed The Monarch or Brock, they’d be upset, but in a sort of satisfied way, because that’s the big stuff, that’s supposed to happen. That’s how you change the game. You don’t kill a harmless guy that people grew to like. He wasn’t important enough to love or hate until he was gone.
AVC: That’s almost how the first season ended, when the boys got killed. You introduced consequences.
JP: Yeah. We messed around with [Henchmen 21 and 24], they were these invincible henchmen. I mean, we murder henchmen all the time, and for these two dumb-asses to live all the time… We wanted to show a) how they do it, which is by hiding in a car every time there’s a fight [Laughs.], and b) that they’re susceptible as anybody else. Particularly because they were getting cocky about it. They became self-aware sometime this season, and were like “We can’t die.”
AVC: Season four is getting split into two sections, the first airing next fall. Does this present any challenges in keeping the sections connected?
JP: Really, it’s two halves of the season. We had to do it, because we were just too busy. There was no way to come back from that and keep the production going, spending all this time at the studio, directing the shows that we’re already making, and there’s no time to write. It was either split it, or keep getting later and later and living under that pressure of knowing you’re already failing, you’re already late with a script you’re supposed to start. So we split it, but we were fortunate that the episode we had just written sort of finishes a little mini-arc. These were pretty standalone episodes, for the most part. People will be asking questions about certain things, and some of them get answered in the eighth episode. Without feeling like one of our big, overblown climaxes, it does kind of feel like we put a chapter to rest. Or at least started a new chapter. I don’t know how people will take it. I see it as two halves to the same season. There’s no cliffhangers, and I think the first eight are pretty self-contained.
AVC: Was that a conscious choice, to be more self-contained?
JP: Yes and no. I mean, if you’d asked me when I started the season, I’d have said “Yeah I’m gonna try and be a little less flashback-y and a little less continuity-oriented.” Although I start every season like that, because we end every season with a couple of episodes that string together and finish a story. They’re usually involving all these relationships between all these characters, and I start getting a little sick about how serious we’re taking all our stuff. [Laughs.] We’ve gotta remember that we’re a comedy show, and we’ve gotta remember that we can fly to the Arctic or Egypt or to the jungle whenever we want, and have stupid adventures. That’s just as much a part of the show as the intrigues that persist in these characters’ lives forever and ever. I start every season by writing a string of more stand-aloney episodes, even if—“The Invisible Hand Of Fate” is a total standalone episode, but it’s incredibly tied into all the mythology of the show. Consciously, that was part of it, and part of it was necessity. We were really under the gun, we were behind on scripts, and you’re always writing the script you know you can write right away. So if you had an idea for a story, that’s the one that’s getting written right away, as opposed to the one that’s like a half-idea and you’ve really got to work it out some more. Also, Doc and I were writing separately for most of the eight, and we didn’t get to put our heads together and really consider where we were taking everything, and exchange information with each other. It just naturally ended up like that, and I’m happy it did.
AVC: You said at the end of a season, you have to step back and realize it’s just a comedy show. Do you usually err toward taking things more seriously?
JP: I can after a while. I try to safeguard myself from doing that. I mean, it’s easier sometimes to write in that vein than it is to challenge yourself to come up with a new villain or a new place to go or a new set of circumstances, a self-contained, good story. You know, all your souls, you have to keep them sharp. It’s good to go back and really delve into things, it’s good to get away from them sometimes. I probably am more inclined to take it a little too seriously, I think my approach is to make the funniest James Bond movie ever. [Laughs.] I think Doc approaches it differently, he’s more concerned about comedy and the characters, and I’m more plot-oriented than him. I think he’s way better at dialogue and comedy than I am. You end up with a good balance over the course of a season. I wouldn’t want all of them to be the way I write, and I wouldn’t want all of them to be the way he writes, but both are totally what the Venture Brothers are, and what Venture Bros. needs. When we write together, it’s a pretty good balance.
AVC: In talking about a Venture Bros. movie, you’ve mentioned it could be live-action. How would that work?
JP: How would it work? [Laughs.] Why wouldn’t it? You know it would be tricky. You’d have to rethink some things, obviously. That would be kind of fun, though. To have to have that job. To make convincing boys would be tricky, to make them not be these annoying, Malcolm In The Middle cheesy actor kids would be a challenge. And our style—it would be a delicate thing, because our style in the cartoon is, we try to play things straight and let the comedy speak for itself. We don’t wink at the audience too much. I dunno. I’d want Wes Anderson to make it, and then get somebody else to do the action scenes.
AVC: Dr. Girlfriend’s henchmen, the Moppets, have inspired a lot of hate. Why do you think they stand out?
JP: Half the time, we forget they’re there. Doc doesn’t like ’em anymore either, I think for that reason, because he forgets they’re there, and we feel a burden to include a character that you don’t necessarily have anything for. They don’t have to be in every scene with The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. I like ’em because they’re vicious, horrible little bastards. I like anybody who is out of place or isn’t playing the same dumb-ass game everybody else. Like everybody else is, “We’re in our Monarch outfits, this is half make-believe.” Even when The Monarch is trying to murder people. It’s like a real serial killer showing up at a Halloween party. It’s just creeps you out. I’m hoping that the audience hates them because they’re just a little creeped-out by them, but I don’t know, maybe they’re terrible characters and I’m just stupid to like them. It’s good to have them in the toolkit.
AVC: They represent a different kind of threat.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. They represent somebody who’s just not buying into the rest of the crap.
AVC: It’s been said that Venture Bros. is a show about failure, but so is most comedy. What makes your brand so effective?
JP: We all feel like failures, I guess, and we all are failures. And finding the beauty in that, instead of just pointing a finger at something and mocking it, maybe that’s the difference. That we try and find the beauty in it. The show is riding such a wave of nostalgia all the time, whether it’s for records or movies or whatever we loved when we were kids. All the retro, space-age design that surrounds these guys, the houses they live in, and all these ghosts of great men that came before them… It’s really the sunset on the American Dream. [Laughs.] There’s a poignancy to it that doesn’t belong in a comedy show, and we like trying to strike that nerve.