Shadowlocked Interview with Jackson Publick
As one-half of the creative team behind Adult Swim’s quirky boy detective send-up The Venture Brothers, accomplished writer/artist/voice-actor/director/producer Jackson Publick wasn’t yet born in time to see the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and isn’t particularly well-versed in failure. Yet both the futuristic worldview of the early 60s and the propensity for humankind to flop in spectacular fashion are major themes in Publick’s writing. For those unfamiliar with the Venture-verse, The Venture Brothers is, for lack of a better comparison, Jonny Quest… if Jonny grew up, now dimly realizes that he has become a bit of an overrated loser, and resides in uncomfortable, grouchy, pill-popping middle-age-dom.
Thus describes Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, the ever-exasperated Venture patriarch. From that starting point, The Venture Brothers follows Rusty, his two well-meaning but idiotic sons Hank and Dean (the titular brothers), his hyper-violent bodyguard Brock Samson, and their family robot H.E.L.P.R. Over the course of the series, now four seasons and counting, the Ventures have inhabited a sort of parallel universe where the space race is in full swing, science is king, and superheroes and supervillains are bureaucratically regulated. Throughout it all, Dr. Venture has to deal with failing experiments, his irritatingly-enthusiastic sons, frequent attacks from his neurotic and equally-frustrated archnemesis The Monarch, the eventual resignation of Brock “Swedish murder machine” Samson, and his total inability to live up to his father’s legendary reputation.
These shortcomings, and the hilarious situations that stem from them, are the brainstorms of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. Publick recently sat down with Shadowlocked and reflected on his beloved pet project’s origins and themes, as well as a possible glimpse into its future.
How is preparation for season 5 going?…
Um…slowly. [laughs] Because I’m enjoying the first real time off I’ve had in about eight years, and enjoying it maybe a little too much. Doc has written one script for Season 5. I have been trying to write a script for Season 5, but I’ve been traveling a lot and, frankly, drinking too much because I quit smoking two months ago.
Thanks! So I’ve been trying to figure out how to function and how to be a writer without smoking. People tell you “oh yeah, I smoked for years and then I quit. I haven’t smoked for ten years and I still have cravings.” That just sounds like the worst nightmare in the world, you know? Then you hear about some guy who was 50 who couldn’t take it anymore and killed himself and you think “oh my God, will it ever, ever get better?” [laughs] Like isn’t there some kind of age you hit, like maybe 37, where you just kinda relax? But ultimately, the cravings are not…well, I hate it, but it’s not the prison that I expected it to be. I just look at it by thinking “well, there are a million things that I can’t have every day that I want”. Like when a nice, tight skirt walks by. [laughs]
Now that you guys are working on writing the episodes and pre-production is in the works, is there any chance that you can give the fans an idea of what to expect in the coming season?…
Um, I make it a habit not to do that, but the reality is that we haven’t hardly written any of them yet. I mean, Doc’s written that one draft of one episode, so I know what that one’s about. But I won’t tell you. [laughs] We will inevitably be asked to answer for some of the things that were left up in the air in last year’s season finale. We’ll see some development, I’m sure, of (Henchman) 21 now that he’s left the Monarch. And now that (Colonel Hunter Gathers) been left in charge of the OSI, that will have to be dealt with. We do have some arcs in mind and some cool revelations that we’ll get into. But I think our goal is to, you know, continue growing the (Venture) boys in their different directions and sorta get back to a little bit of focus on Dr. Venture. Because he, to me, is the core of the show and I think he didn’t get as much attention paid to him last season, compared to the boys.
Well, you always have to flesh out other characters to keep a show well-rounded. Personally, I’ve always considered Rusty to be the best character of the series because the show is built around him and the funny way in which he, almost against his will, ends up having to be the one keeping the family together…
Yeah, he is the true protagonist of the show. We gave the spotlight to the other people around him lately, but I think Doc and I both have it in mind to figure out how to get back to him and get him back to doing some science again. We kinda dropped that for a while. But yeah, maybe we’ll see him actually making some stuff again and trying to improve his reputation. And just like how I’m sick of having writers’ block, I’ll probably write something in about Dr. Venture having frustrations with ‘science block’. [laughs]
To expand on that idea of writers’ block and the pressures that people in your situation are generally under – it’s one thing to be sitting at home in your pajamas trying to think of the next ‘Great American Novel’, but when you’re the brains behind a show that millions of fans are waiting for to see what happens next, that must be pretty interesting…
Lately, I’ve been more aware of having a little trouble with that, because I’m more aware of that situation than I used to be. I mean, that’s never the way to write and that’s not ever the way we wrote (the episodes) before. We owe the fans more than ‘okay’ writing. We owe them our best effort, so we’ve always tried to hold our own feet to the fire as far as the quality of our work and stuff like that. Sometimes it helps to be under the gun when production is actually moving and sometimes it hurts us. Last season was a little too rough on me in the fact that we were always behind and were constantly late with the scripts and there was never a chance to catch up and feel okay. So I was lamenting the days of, like, the beginning of season 3 when I got to sit around for a couple of months before production started and I didn’t have 20 jobs; I only had maybe 3 jobs. This is the first time off I’ve had and the first chance to just write and not have to do any director/producer stuff. And I think I kinda need a fire under my ass to get going.
When you first got the Venture Brothers pilot picked up in 2003, did you ever think you would still be working on the show eight years later, with such a devoted following?
No. [laughs] I thought we would make, you know, a pretty good show. We’re still not really a huge hit. I figured that, if we were lucky, we’d have a nice niche audience that would allow us to keep making the show for three or four seasons and that’s as long as I’d be able to go without being sick of it. I didn’t know that it would take eight years to get there or that I’d still want to do it after four seasons. It’s pretty cool and the fan base is great and the culture at large is kinda just…around, you know? Our show is a little too nerdy and a little too, you know, ‘insider-referency’ and geeky to be huge. We used to get notes about that in our scripts, telling us things like “peel back whatever this weird Henchman 21 geek banter is that you’ve got in here”. And there’s been a million superhero movies since then and stuff like Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Nerd culture took over.
And you guys were kind of at the forefront of that…
Yeah, all these things that we were referencing that weren’t mainstream are now mainstream! So who knows? Maybe we do have a better shot at having a broader audience than even we expected.
I read in a previous interview where you and Doc mentioned that the show’s main theme is ‘failure’. I really liked that quote personally. Did you originally mean to create a show with that particular theme from the outset, like “here’s what the outtakes from Johnny Quest might have looked like”?
Yeah, yeah. It was definitely in my mind, but I didn’t completely realize that’s what we were doing until Doc encapsulated it in that expression – that the show was about ‘failure’. But I knew that I was trying to say something about a bygone era. My whole kick was the jet age and the space race and all the optimism of the 60s and how that all disappeared and how Dr. Venture embodied that because he was the star of that universe, you know? Like how in Jonny Quest and everyone in the 60s thought we’d all have jetpacks by now. And I’m certainly not the first one to complain about that. [laughs] So with the show, we created in Rusty this kid who was the red-headed future star of the space race and it all went nowhere.
We put it into the architecture of the show, too. Right now, if you go to the right places, you’re surrounded by all these glass skyscrapers that were built in the 60s. I remember when I did the pilot – I kept this big, thick book with me called The Year of 1960. It’s an architecture book and it shows you all these buildings that were made during that decade. When you see the sketches of them and you see the nice, glistening, black-and-white photos of them when they were being built, you get what they were going for, with the modernism and the aluminum and the glass. You think “oh yeah, there’s this elegance, this fancy elegance, to it all”. You know, modern architecture. But what I’m surrounded by right now are these buildings that are dingy and kinda sad-looking and just reek of the decade that they were built in, as opposed to pushing towards the future, which was what so many people were really trying to do in the 60s.
The 1964 World’s Fair came to symbolize all of that to me. I wasn’t around yet, but my parents went to it and I have some of the handbooks for that World’s Fair. I really got into that imagery. And, you know, we based the Venture complex off of some of the things at the Fair.
It’s almost as if all of those things were supposed to be precursors to how things were going to look in the future and it just never happened
Right, exactly. And it turns out that the future is “you go bald” [laughs] and you never quite live up to your father’s shadow or whatever. When we referenced that… nobody cared about that when we started this show! And then Iron Man 2 just had this huge nod to the ’64 World’s Fair! It’s just amazing.
There have been a lot of surprising developments in recent seasons of the show, most strikingly perhaps being the death of Henchman 24. As far as the fans go, have you had to deal with a lot of backlash to your creative decisions or do you typically find that most fans go with the flow regarding that kind of thing?
Uh, I would say out of all the things we’ve done, that one got the biggest expressions of lament. I think the fans kind of trust us, though. I think that, at heart, the people who really love the show appreciate that we would even do something like that and stick to it; like that kind of thing can happen on this strange animated sitcom.
I was going to say, and I’m not going to mention any names, but on some certain popular cartoons every episode just seems like a one-off and characters are static and nothing ever really happens…
Right. And they’ll flashback to things that never happened that completely change your understanding of the characters…but it doesn’t matter [laughs]. So yeah, I think that at the core, people respect that about us and know that we wouldn’t just ignore character histories. But I think killing off (Henchman) 24 hurt the most out of everything we’ve done. You know, looking back on it, it was kind of mean. He didn’t quite matter enough for us to do that to him and yet his absence makes him matter more than he ever did. We broke up a comedy team! Like, why would you ever do that?! It’s stupid! But we did it. And I think some of (the fans) are still laboring under the belief that anybody can come back on the show, because a lot of people have. And you see some of this fan fiction where they are talking and imagining a way that we’ll bring 24 back… and it’s just not going to happen. [laughs] They say things like “well, we could have Dr. Venture clone him!” and I say “c’mon, use your head! What reason would Dr. Venture ever have to clone the guy?”
Big fans of the show heard some great news from you in March when you revealed that Adult Swim had renewed VB for two more seasons, which would make a total of six. Not to put you on the spot, but have you and Doc started kicking around the possibility that the next two seasons might possibly be the last two, or are you hoping that there are more stories to explore beyond the sixth season?
(long pause) I… I would say that we’re going into this… probably thinking that they’ll be the last two. There’s probably going to be more specials and stuff in there, as well, but I’m thinking that’ll be enough to build the show to a place where we want to. Now we may find as we get halfway into Season 5 that we’re not ready yet, you know? The network’s pretty good at being flexible with us. I think right now we’re supposed to do 10 episodes of Season 5 and 10 episodes of Season 6. We dropped it down to 10 to make it easier on ourselves and hopefully make it so we could get them closer to each other, instead of two seasons taking four years or something like that the way they sometimes have in the past. Thirteen episodes (a season) has been killing us, two halves of a “season” with eight episodes apiece is too weird and fragmented, so we figured “let’s do 10!” That seems to be what other shows order anyway.
And we’re hoping to do a long-form special or two, like a 60 or 90 minute kind of thing, in there somewhere. Plus the network is really cool with us, so I think if we get to, like, episode 9 and say “can we do 11 for Season 5 because we can’t get to this certain plot point without another episode?”, they would probably say “oh yeah, sure”. Or like this past season, where we said “hey, can we make the finale an hour long? Because we’ve got a story that we think is worth it and we want to go out on a bang.” And they were fine with it. Um, so I kinda feel like these two will be the last two, but I say that having thought exactly that about Seasons 3 and 4 when those got green-lit together. I really thought that making four seasons of anything would be enough and it would be the classy way to just stop. But the characters demanded more.
And I had a hard time making Season 4. I was pretty miserable through most of it. I felt really beat-up and exhausted. We didn’t write it like a “last season” and we knew that. So it surprised me more than anybody when we were writing the finale and came up with three or four really good ideas for Season 5 episodes that got us laughing and writing down notes again and we just ended up saying “aw crap, we gotta do more of these” [laughs]. It was just too good. One story in particular that we came up with was just too good and so perfectly self-contained and we knew we had to keep going.
As much as I’d like to, I’ll resist the urge to pry…
I have always found it kind of cool that you and Doc have voiced so many of the characters on the show, apart from doing the writing and everything else. I read that you have voiced over 20 characters, some major and some small. Do you have a favorite that you enjoy voicing over the others?…
I think it’s the most fun to perform as The Monarch in the booth and it’s the one where I can go crazy the most. I probably do Hank and Sgt. Hatred the most; like I’ll just speak in their voices in conversation when Doc and I talk to each other. We’re often just trying on these voices to see what happens. It’s how Sgt. Hatred became a character. Both of us just kept talking in this voice that expressed a certain kind of personality that we eventually gave to that character. And I always get a kick out of doing the “Sean Connery” Colonel Gentleman voice, too.
And now that you’ve quit smoking for a couple of months, I’d bet that it’s a little easier to perform as The Monarch…[laughs] It has been. Believe it or not, that was one of about 20 reasons why I decided to quit. I was kinda starting to hear differences in my voices between the early and later seasons, along with my range. Also, having to edit out my wheezes was kinda telling me that I needed to make some changes.
A HUGE thanks to Jackson Publick for an extremely entertaining interview and a lot of laughs.
Written by Gabriel Ruzin, Shadowlocked[Venture Bros. Blog]