The Venture Bros. entered into its fifth season with its characters in a state of uncertainty. Dean Venture, the oft-cloned son of Dr. Rusty Venture, had discovered his past as a freak of science with dubious claims to reality; Rusty was struggling with how to raise his sons the right way after years of adventuring and fatalities; Sgt. Hatred, the family’s former arch-nemesis and current bodyguard, had to face shifting physical realities; and Hank Venture was, well, Hank Venture. But the fifth season also found Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, the creative team behind the series, at the top of their game. Mixing a rich, complex mythology inspired by comic books and pulp serials with complex, vulnerable leads, the co-writers managed to find a new balance for show’s ongoing storylines without betraying anything that had come before. With its teen angst, super-villain conspiracy, gender-bending, and robot dating, the fifth season could get a little messy, but the core concern with character, one of The Venture Bros.’ hallmarks, remained. The A.V. Club talked to Publick and Hammer recently about how the shorter episode order affected their approach to writing for the show, their views on best way to serialize, and how to find the success inside of failure.
The A.V. Club: At nine episodes, this season was the shortest the show has done so far. What prompted that?
Jackson Publick: It was shorter by design and as part of our new contract once we decided to do a fifth and sixth season. We actually asked to do only 10 episodes each time, because 13 was kind of killing us, and other shows seem to do them in, like, nine- or 10-episode spurts. So we figured that would be a better way to not get us overwhelmed during the season, and also to try to shorten the space between seasons. But then we ended up airing one of them early, and we ended up combining two of them into an hour-long episode, so it looks like it’s eight. But it’s still 10 half-hours. And it was easier to produce. But we ran out of episodes. We kind of wished we could’ve had 12, honestly. By the time we got to the end, we were like, “Shit, we’ve got a huge thing we want to do that would take two episode slots.”
Doc Hammer: If we’d had 12, people would’ve said, “How come there are only nine episodes?”
JP: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. Because that one would’ve been an hour long also.
DH: So, we’d still get yelled at.
AVC: Did the shorter episode order change your approach to structuring the season?
JP: A little? I don’t think it had anything to do with the 10-episode thing, but we did kind of plan out the season a little more than we usually do. We had the big board going. And also knowing that we had a season six kind of planned—because we knew where we wanted to go with season six, even before we started season five—and where that sort of midpoint is, and where the changes happen, is something we thought about. But when you’re actually going and you’re writing, it’s like, a script is always due, and there’s a lot of pressure, and once you’re actually in production, you’ve just got to write the one you can—not the one that necessarily should be next. So we write out of order. One or two stories sort of popped up out of nowhere, and we did them, and they weren’t necessarily part of the “plan,” but they were writable, and we wanted to write them.
AVC: Like what?
JP: “Bot Seeks Bot” was like a joke, you know? It was almost a dare. It was something we had joked about wanting to do an episode about. We didn’t have a story. We were like, “Wouldn’t it be funny to get those two robots together, and just drag people through a whole episode of them?” It was just kind of a running joke with us. And then one day, a story literally popped into my head, and I went, “Oh my God, I got it.” [Laughs.] So that one had to be written.
AVC: How important to the season was letting Dean know that he was a clone?
DH: Well, Jackson and I had it written out on the big board, which is just a giant dry-erase board in the AstroBase, that Dean finds out early, and Hank finds out near the end. That was how we did it. The Halloween episode was written to be an early episode, but it ended up being a special. So Dean found out before the season started that he was a clone. But in our original concept, in the way we were writing it, Dean found out very early.
JP: Because of what we did with him in the prom. We knew that Dean was going to spend the season in a black speed suit being really upset. And it seemed natural to give him a better reason than just he had his heart broken in the prom episode.
DH: It helps to have a really dividing motivator for Dean. Our constant battle is turning the boys into very separate entities. If you watch the pilot, they’re the exact same person. Throughout the first season, they’re very similar. They’ve just been kind of dividing ever since. So this season, there’s a clear division between these two boys. Hank’s got a very steady voice, and Dean now has a steady voice. So when we go into the sixth season, the boys can be separate, which is fun for us.
JP: Yeah, Hank had his rebellion season in season four, and then came back around to who he always was in a way.
DH: Yeah, this is Hank’s try-out season.
JP: But he is two minutes older, so of course he’d go through his rebellious phase first.
AVC: Given how much of the show’s humor has come from the Venture brothers’ obliviousness, how did you decide to leave that behind?
DH: It’s hard to keep it around. I mean, that is something that’s hard to write for forever. The show evolved as we evolve.
JP: I mean, we did make a conscious decision at the end of season one to start making them much more individual. But as far as pulling them away from some of the dopiness, or at least finding a different angle on it, that was just natural; you just don’t want to write for two idiots all the time. And also, they’re teenagers—like, you want them to be capable of sarcasm and stuff like that with each other. They’ve got to feel like real people, even if they’re heightened.
DH: You get a lot of space when you murder them. [All laugh.] At the end of season one, we actually killed them, so at that point—
JP: Right, so when we bring [Henchman] 24 back, he’ll be a very different character. He’ll have grown a lot.
DH: Yeah. In season six, which is all prequel. [Laughs.]
AVC: Dean was more negative this year than he’s ever been on the show: dressing in black, being openly sarcastic to his dad, while still being the same old Dean. How hard was that to balance?
DH: I wouldn’t call it “hard,” but we had a lot of discussions about that.
JP: It’s the same thing with, like, Henchman 21. We made him a badass, and we put him through his shit, but he’s still who he is underneath it. It’s how we naturally write for these guys; we’re just shading their circumstances a little different and letting them breathe just a little more.
DH: And with 21, he had a whole season to become competent, badass, and then eventually leave. Then [he] spent this season returning to who he is, so you never get this sense that he just changes who he is and becomes a completely different person. He’ll always be that person. Dean’s the same thing. When people go through rebellion, they don’t change and become somebody else. They just take all those things that have happened and incorporate it into who they are. They’re still the same person. Dean is systemically the same person.
JP: Joe Piscopo became a bodybuilder, but he stayed funny.
DH: Same with Carrot Top. They’re hilarious. When Dean works out, that’s the end of Dean. [Both laugh.] He’ll hit 40 and start working out.
AVC: Did you ever consider having Dean confront his father about the fact that he’s a clone?
DH: Oh, it’s been considered, but we’re not finished writing the show. I mean, his rebellion is going to keep moving forward, and I’m sure it’s going to start settling, because you’re not always in a stage of rebellion.
JP: Right. And now that Hank knows … There was a scene from one episode that got cut, actually, where there was a bit of a confrontation. But it just wasn’t time yet.
AVC: One of the season’s best episodes, “Momma’s Boys,” brought back Myra, the former bodyguard convinced she’s Hank and Dean’s mother. The lack of maternal presence in this show has been important in shaping these characters. Do you think you’ll ever reveal who the Venture brothers’ mother is?
JP: Well, I’m not going to answer that—
DH: See, what we’re going to do in the future is impossible for us to answer. But we like other motherless worlds. It comes from this kind of ’70s-cartooning motherlessness. Like Jonny Quest just had a lack of females, and any female that was there was just somebody’s love interest and vaguely—even those that weren’t voiced by a man, you watch them, you get a sense they might as well have been voiced by a man.
JP: [Laughs.] Right, like Jade from Jonny Quest.
DH: Yeah, anybody could just go, “Ohhhhh.” It isn’t necessary to have a female show up.
JP: I think there’s a lot going on with that. It’s inspired by the boy-adventure stuff when there were no moms around, but once we became aware of it, I mean, it’s part of why these people still live in this kind of adolescent world. They’re unsupervised, and they grew up like that.
DH: Rusty had no mom, and his boys have no mom, and that’s two generations. And Jonas, we haven’t said yet. That’s not a lot of moms, and the women that are in the Venture universe are either completely unhinged or the most stable characters on the show. Everything is very schmucky and middling with these guys, and the women just bookend it. It’s a strange thing. I don’t even think we did it intentionally. It’s just where a woman’s voice plays into our stories is to be either very dominant or a really upheaving voice, like Myra. She comes in and makes a complete fucking mess and then disappears.
JP: Because if there were any genuine women in this world, if any of them got real wives or girlfriends, they’d stop doing this stuff, with the exception of the Monarch, the way the rest of us stop reading comic books when that happens. [Laughs.] But now it’s cool for girls to read comics, so.
DH: The strange lack of women—we have a very strange dominance of gender-role-shifting. Three of our characters have breasts; we have a large homosexual cast. The amount of just messing around with stereotypical gender roles without women there—we do it to a degree that’s strange. I’m surprised more people don’t speak of it. We really do mess with masculinity and femininity, even with the women. Our biggest female character has an incredibly masculine voice that people seem to be okay with. People seem to be okay with Hunter’s removing of his penis and putting his penis back, missing being a woman; Hatred’s sexuality is a complete catastrophe. It’s not just the obvious women or lack thereof on our show. It really is just the gender roles on our show are insane, and therefore very sane, in my opinion.
JP: It’s a sexual Lord Of The Flies.
AVC: Would Hank’s use of the “sexy” female body armor, starting in “SPHINX Rising,” be part of this?
DH: Oh that falls into both Hank having breasts and Hank completely not caring about his gender role. And the fact that Hank plays dress up more than anybody.
JP: It’s also like getting the best bike ever. It just happens to be a lady’s bike. He doesn’t need that bar in the middle; he’s fine with it.
DH: When you’re a Hank, and somebody gives you a new bike and it’s super cool and it’s a lady’s bike, he buys a dress so he can make it fit. [JP laughs.] Because he has the area. He doesn’t care. “Now I can wear a dress. It’s fine.”
JP: “I can wear a kilt and a dress.”
DH: “I can double my wardrobe, and have the convenience of a dress. It’s a one-garment wardrobe, like a speed suit with no legs, that you can poop out of.”
AVC: By the end of the season, Hank comes across as the most together guy on the show in a lot of ways. That seems to connect with the way the season overall had more success for the characters. Was that a choice, to have more success in a show about failure?
DH: I don’t think Hank comes off as the most successful. Hank is the most balanced person on the show, but he’s still Hank. He’s still the kind of person that, when the chips are down, he dresses up as Batman. That’s not exactly the most successful.
JP: He’s not sane, but it’s that insane response to an insane world. That was kind of a revelation that we had. We enjoyed writing for Hank because he could be crazy, but then we did realize one day, Hank’s just cool with everything. Probably mostly when we were talking about what’s up with Dean. We realized, you know, what a good kind of counterbalance Hank’s just level-headedness about everything is—his crazy level-headedness. He rolls with the punches. He does enjoy the adventure aspects of their life that Dean is so sick of, and that Rusty hates, that he thinks are a drag; those are the best part.
DH: Hank’s just all in.
JP: He’s in.
DH: It doesn’t matter what the event is. Hatred shares a lot of that with Hank. That Hatred’s excitable, and he’s in.
JP: That’s probably why they got along after a while.
DH: And why Hatred feels especially affectionate towards Dean, because he is so different. That’s the challenge for Hatred. Hatred’s affection for Hank is incredibly friendly; they’re very similar people. But if you watch the episode, even from when Hatred first shows up, he’s very protective and affectionate towards Dean, because he registers that Dean is kind of a broken kid. And Hatred, of course, has no ability to fix that, which is the joke.
JP: But as far as what you’re saying, that this is just an upbeat season, a little more successful—I don’t know.
DH: Were you conscious of that, Jackson?
JP: Yeah. I think there were moments where we wanted… I think you and I are both sick of every interview mentioning the “It’s a show about failure” from five years ago. I don’t think we made a conscious effort to fight that or anything, but every year, we push what we do as writers a little more. An area we hadn’t gone into very much was positivity. I mean, all our victories are still satiric, but there are definitely places where we said, “I want to see these guys do something. I don’t want to just have everything fall on its face all the time.” Am I wrong?
DH: No, I get that sense too. But there are still these moments of playing with what failure is. I don’t think our failure was ever, “These people are incompetent.” I think our failure was they’re so terribly human in a world of comic book inhumanness, and that’s kind of our long joke. These people are stuck in a world that could only exist in an inhuman Saturday morning show, and they’re real. It’s a big mess. So you have 21, who I don’t think really succeeded, but you get a sense at the end of the season that he’s a good person, that he’s good at things, and at the end, he just goes back to what he knows. He goes back to what he loves. I don’t see that as a failure, but I don’t see it as a success. I see it as a guy being real in an unreal world.
JP: I would say we were celebrating humanity a little more? Maybe that’s what you detect is a slight tone of kind of celebrating the humanity, or celebrating the beauty of failure, to go back to that quote. I think the tipping point for us might have been the prom episode, when we realized we could just have kind of a nice ending where everybody was together, and not go, “Here’s a cliffhanger,” or “Here’s a big, horrible thing.” Yes, the fly women are freaking out, and Dean says “Fuck you,” but there was a sweetness to the ending of the prom—a really compromised, Venture-style sweetness.
DH: Yeah, for “Dean’s accidentally in the KKK,” it’s adorable. [Both laugh.]
AVC: “Spanakopita!”—the episode that has Dr. Venture going back to a Greek island where the natives made up a festival for him—seemed like a great expression of this. It’s neither success nor failure; it’s just sort of acceptance.
JP: Yeah. We were excited about episodes like that, particularly because there’s a deep tragedy to that, at the heart of that episode. [Rusty] was abandoned by his dad, and nobody came to get him, and these poor bastards who kidnapped him tried to make the best of it, in that Life Is Beautiful kind of way, and this idiot kept believing it for 30 years. But he gets to have it. They let him have it.
DH: It’s a sweet delusion. A lot of Doc’s life is a sweet delusion. Ted [the talking teddy bear toy Doc believes is his best friend in “Momma’s Boys”] was a sweet delusion. The Ted episode and “Spanakopita!” were very similar; they both ended with that sense that we lost everything, but it seems to be okay. Also, the sweet delusion. Dr. Venture really is deluded. He’s barely a successful scientist; he’s living off the back of his father, and he always has been, but at the same time, his father threw that crap at him, he destroyed his life, and Doc is doing what he can with it. He’s not a wholly tragic character.
AVC: The Guild versus the O.S.I. seemed to heat up this season.
DH: We would’ve loved to keep going with that, but we ran out of time.
AVC: There was a big buildup that was left hanging by the last episode.
JP: Well, we knew what we were going to do with it, and we were going to do it in the next episode, but there was no next episode. The next episode you see, we’ll deal with that, I think.
DH: The episode that aired last, which works in a weird, ersatz version of a finale—but that was written as the penultimate episode. We were going to do three that just kind of dovetailed into each other. We keep doing something new every year, do something that we didn’t try before, and our last three episodes were picking up after the last one. So the last two you got to see, it ends, and then it picks up right where it ends, and we were going to do that three times and have a big ending. And then, well, we had to write the première, and the première turned out to be an hour, and there goes an episode.
JP: We had two half hours left, and our options were write a half-hour première and a half-hour finale, write an hour première, or write an hour finale. We had a bunch of business we hadn’t written for the première yet that just had to be done, so we definitely had to do that. Then that story got huge, so it was a more sensible option than trying to cram the finale into a half hour, or trying to write two totally different stories when we were getting really close to the end of our deadlines.
DH: We got okay with the idea that the heat up between The Guild and O.S.I., which is secondary to the show—the show’s really about the Venture family—we figured it would be okay to let that build up and then walk away from that until next season when people can be anticipating the buildup.
JP: The last episode is really the next day. Whatever shit’s going to go down as a result of the “Bot Seeks Bot” stuff would take more than a day. It was good to bring the focus back to the family for the very last episode, because not a lot of episodes this season were about Doc, Hatred, Dean, and Hank as all carrying equal screen time.
DH: Jackson and I think in episode flows, too. We intentionally write episodes that feel breezy and a little less intensive of plot. We will intentionally write an episode that really moves forward this long arc plot that we have. Some people understand what we’re doing; other people watch it and be like, “I don’t care about this episode,” because it’s not about the long story that we’re telling. But we do it intentionally. It’s the way we like to watch our show is to have it kind of go up and down and flow and return to basics and get heated up and give you things to follow over the long course, and then give you just a small story when you get to see the Monarch again. We’re interested in our show like a book. It has its chapters that go in and out.
JP: Yeah, and we’re not interested in making a 10-part miniseries, just like we’re not interested in making 10 standalone sitcom reset episodes. It’s the mixture of the two that we get off on. When you look back at a full season and you see that, you’re cool with it. Maybe while you’re watching it, you’re like, “Oh man, this episode doesn’t answer my questions.” But as a whole, the seasons work really well. They’re nicely balanced.
AVC: Serialization has become increasingly prevalent on television in the last two decades. Are there shows you look to as a model for what you do, or do you just follow your own way?
DH: I think we’re more of a part of it than we are using them as a model. I think we just have the same opinion. It’s not necessary that shows have to be like I Love Lucy, where it starts again like it’s the first episode. It’s just not necessary. So we can tell longer stories. At the same time, we don’t write a soap opera. This is not Falcon Crest. So we don’t feel we have to pick up where it goes. There are stories from somebody’s life. You have days where your story is just being right there, it’s what happened that day, and then you have another day when it’s picking up with a story that started earlier. We run it just like life. We pulled out a character who was a semi-main character this season that was in our show six years ago. That’s like life. People come in and out of your life.
JP: We’ve always implied how much shit is going on off-camera. That was part of the joke of the show at one point, which was like, probably the coolest adventures we’re not going to get to see, we’re seeing some of the in-between time. A lot of that was just inspired by the boys’ adventure novels that inspired me early on. It’s as if you’re grabbing book 29 of the hundred-volume Venture Bros. adventure series, and then you don’t necessarily grab book 30 after that. You skip around.
DH: Sometimes book 29 is the one that they spend all of the time at the kitchen table building a robot.
AVC: This show has a complex mythology. In “O.S.I. Love You,” Monstroso tells Brock Samson that the Sovereign is, in fact, not the real David Bowie, but a shape-shifter who takes on David Bowie’s appearance. Would this count as a retcon? And how much do you try and keep the mythology consistent?
JP: First of all, you don’t even know if he’s lying. So we can’t really talk about it.
DH: You’ve got to remember that, the first thing when you found out that David Bowie is the Sovereign, he also turned into a bird. I’m a huge Bowie fan, but I’ve never seen him turn into a bird. That just never happens. To say that he’s “David Bowie,” is he David Bowie only from Labyrinth? How is that possible? It’s not a “retcon” at all. And also Jackson is a hundred percent correct. It took us four years for people to stop wondering if Dr. Girlfriend actually had a baboon’s uterus because somebody was mouthing off at a yard sale. What we clearly said was spinning rumors, and our audience, instead of making a comment on rumors, goes, “Fact! It’s a fact!” We have a bunch of real people, and they’re going to say whatever they want to say. Sometimes they lie, and sometimes they’re just plain wrong.
JP: Retconning is the name of this game, man. [All laugh.] In the bigger picture, we’re constantly doing it. As long as we do it smart—you have to keep surprising people, and things are never what they seem, and stuff like that. We’ve done a lot of stuff that we knew a long time ago was going to turn out the way it did, and it just took us forever to reveal things little by little. We’ve built new mythologies inside of what we already did. I’m not going to tell you which ones are which.
DH: I doubt there isn’t an author who doesn’t retcon. Even nature herself retcons. Evolution is based on the idea that you have to roll with the punches and change shit when it works better.
JP: Ah, evolution’s a theory, my friend.
DH: No, evolution’s been proved by genetics, my friend. Oh, I don’t want to offend all the people who—oh, whatever. [Both laugh.] The way it works, even the normal evolution of a life—that has nothing to do with how the world started, how you evolved as a person—is full of retcon. The only time I think we should talk about retcon is when somebody has a change that becomes impossible because they had stated that that was impossible early on. We’ll try to avoid that. But yeah, we fuck up the show constantly. Any time somebody gets on the Internet and says, “I bet it’s this,” Jackson and I phone each other and go, “Well, it’s not that anymore.”
JP: Yeah, when they guess something we haven’t revealed yet correctly, we look for the nearest way around that.
DH: And happily consider it a challenge.
AVC: Do you have any idea when the show will be back for season six?
DH: We’re shooting for somewhere in 2015. We don’t want it to go too long. We were trying to get it in the end half of 2014.
JP: We’re trying to get it to mid-fall of 2014. Very early 2015 might be more realistic, but we may end up with something like we did this time, where we release a special, or we release one earlier, and then rest comes on early the next year. We’re starting production next month. I think we get our first takes of episodes back from Korea in June or July of next year, and you’ve got to go through three takes and 10 episodes, and all of post-production. I think we only start turning finished episodes in to the network in September, so that makes it tricky to put on before the end of the year.
DH: We’re trying.
JP: We’ll figure something out. I would say, the smart money is on January/February of 2015, maybe with some surprise earlier than that.
DH: That people can remove entirely from our canon and yell at us that our season’s short.
JP: Yeah, and tell us that it doesn’t exist, and that it was five years between seasons.
DH: That we went out of our way to make sure they had something, and then they can tell us, “Unnnnh.”
JP: We know it was a long wait.
DH: When they complain, we know it really means that they love us, and we like that. We like that they complain that it’s a long time, because it means that there are a bunch of people waiting for us to do it, and that’s kind of a nice compliment.