'The Venture Bros.' Creators On The Show's Legacy, Its Fans — And Its Cancellation
An era of American television ended in September.
Its death came quietly, with news of its passing drowned out from all sides by crumbling institutions, environmental disasters, a historic pandemic and pervasive social unrest. As with all matters of public interest in 2020, its demise was announced via Twitter.
After spanning three presidencies and surviving several cultural sea changes, The Venture Bros. was cancelled after 17 years on the air.
If you've never heard of the animated series despite its longevity, you're far from alone: Neither the half-hour comedy nor its home, Cartoon Network's late night programming block Adult Swim, are often mentioned in the same breath as HBO and AMC or what's conventionally viewed as "prestige TV."
The Venture Bros. began airing its first season in 2004. It followed Dr. Thaddeus S. "Rusty" Venture, his sons Hank and Dean — the titular brothers of the program — and bodyguard Brock Samson on episodic romps in the action-adventure and science fiction vein.
The premise might sound a little more familiar than its actual name: As detailed in the exhaustive tome Go Team Venture!: The Art and Making of The Venture Bros., the show began as a series of doodles by co-creator Jackson Publick in the late '90s. The artist and writer was riffing on the inherent absurdity of dragging children around on globetrotting misadventures, a genre trope memorably depicted in Saturday morning cartoons like Jonny Quest with roots dating back to the paperback tales of Doc Savage and Tom Swift.
When the show's pilot aired in 2003, The Venture Bros. didn't seem all that different from other Adult Swim offerings of the era like Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Sealab 2021, all of which sent up old children's cartoons with the unwanted wisdom and dark humor that inevitably comes with adulthood.
By the end of its first season, there were signs Venture was evolving into something different. Unlike its animated peers — even comedic shows that wrung poignancy from their storylines like The Simpsons or Futurama — the events depicted in its episodes lingered. That is, rather than conforming to the classic sitcom trope of reverting back to square one after each installment, the plots and character nuances had long-term consequences; several seasons could go by before a given episode's ripple effects were truly felt.
"There was just a natural instinct to care about continuity and that anything that actually happened was going to stay happened," Publick says. He and co-writer Doc Hammer wrote all but one of the show's 86 installments spread across seven seasons. "If somebody blows a hole in the wall, it's either being fixed or staying in the wall for the rest of the season. Sometimes we'll do a whole season about renovating a house."
This may seem unremarkable in the streaming era, when the instant availability of shows has made it easier than ever for viewers to consume, memorize and scrutinize the tiniest of details at a whim. But this was still a relative rarity when the series started in the early 2000s — The Sopranos had yet to air its own famous finale, and seminal "golden age" TV shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad were still years away. Even on its own network, Venture shared the airwaves with goofy, stakes-free 11-minute programs like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken.
Its intensive continuity left a lot for viewers to sift through: The Venture lore encompasses decades-worth of fictional hijinks intersecting with real historical events, and its cast quickly ballooned in size and never stopped expanding. Many luminaries stopped by to voice guest roles, including J.K. Simmons, Cristin Milioti, Kate McKinnon and Jeffrey Wright.
Co-creator Hammer — who recently rewatched the show in light of its cancellation — says despite its outlandish world of super-science and bureaucratic villainy, Venture is "a very realistic show."
"I think from maybe season three or four on, every episode just stopped being joke cannons," Hammer says. "I can't think of one episode that doesn't have a true core of some sort of hurt or want or love or failure inside of it — sometimes as its nutty center. When I rewatched it, I realized it's not just a funny show- it's a show with a lot of truth."
The harsh realities of The Venture Bros. are now accepted as de rigueur in so-called mature American animation. Breakout success Rick and Morty just took home its second Emmy for its own twisted send up of sci-fi clichés, and the Venture family tackled the cascading cause and effects of intergenerational trauma long before BoJack Horseman garnered widespread acclaim for doing the same.
Hammer pegs Archer, which is currently airing its 11th season on FXX, as the first time he encountered something on TV that resembled The Venture Bros.
"Archer was the first time somebody took what we were doing and fixed it," Hammer says. Like its forebear, Archer refrains from holding viewers' hands through its callback-heavy humor and often obscure pop culture references.
"A lot of stuff we were doing that wasn't really being done ... I think just became the way people started consuming things," Publick says. "I do think we did a bunch of things first. I don't know — just based on how we were never a breakout hit — how much active influence we had, or if maybe [The Venture Bros.] made people go 'Oh, you can do that.'"
Besides advancing a particular storytelling style, The Venture Bros. also presaged the influx of nerdy cultural concerns into the American mainstream. Comic book characters that were once considered niche curios like Doctor Strange were parodied on the series long before they became multi-million dollar Hollywood bonanzas. Many of the show's spoofs, including its take on the Sorcerer Supreme himself, developed into fully-realized characters.
Seemingly by accident, Publick and Hammer stumbled upon a vehicle through which they could indulge their every creative whim: The world of The Venture Bros. was one where David Bowie may or may not have been the head of a global supervillain organization, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper never died and swapped rock 'n' roll for organized evil, and renegade journalist Hunter S. Thompson was a top operative for the show's equivalent to Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. By its end, Venture had become an excavation of 20th century pop culture and beyond, all filtered through the distinct perspective of two weirdos who'd somehow found a network willing to nourish their profoundly geeky obsessions.
However, Publick and Hammer feel there's a crucial difference between how The Venture Bros. interpreted geek culture and the current landscape littered with Star Wars sequels and superhero franchises, namely: the weirdness. Using self-admitted "adolescent terminology," Hammer asserts "the geek's stuff got thrown into the hands of the jocks."
"For most of the superhero movies, it's like smarter people tweak the right things to make them a little less disturbingly geeky," Publick says, referencing comic book adaptations' tendency of toning down the more ridiculous elements of the original text.
The Venture Bros., on the other hand, relished in examining how deeply flawed people would respond to living in such a fantastic world. Publick says it would be "a nightmare."
"We were trying to do our own way of making it an adult thing. You're a geek who reads comics and you grow up and it's still a part of your blood — now what?" Hammer says. "That's what The Venture Bros. was: It was for these people who once held that as sacred, and now are ready to really dig into what kind of a miserable life that is."
He and Publick are just now getting used to referring to the show in the past tense. The obsessive and iconoclastic qualities the pair brought to The Venture Bros. that made it memorable may also have contributed to its undoing. The show's production took an infamously long time, with Publick and Hammer involved in essentially every stage of creation. The writer's room was just the two of them, they voiced vast swaths of the characters, and although they had help, they were even involved in direction, editing and sound mixing. There's a reason why only seven seasons were produced across 17 years: These things take time.
Referring to their creative partnership as a case of "unibrain," Hammer says he and Publick were so in sync with the show's characters and principles that it would have been impossible to bring more people onboard.
"We didn't have a writer's room; we didn't develop one early enough, we didn't know enough people," Hammer says, noting he and Publick came to instinctually anticipate one another's train of thought.
"If we let anybody else in, Jackson and I would just stand up and go 'Well what show are you even watching?!' [because] they don't know exactly what we're thinking. We know what each other's thinking because we're thinking the same thing; we have very similar responses to who these characters are. And we would kill ourselves — it actually takes a year to break somebody in, to be in a writer's room, and that would throw us more off schedule."
He adds, "Now that we're done, I look back on it as the coolest thing we actually did. I mean, these are the moments in television that are truly unique, that [Muppets creators] Frank Oz, Jim Henson kind of thing, where two people are so in tune they create a universe that is absolutely like nobody else's. So I'm glad we didn't have a writer's room... [a character making a passing reference to punk musician] Stiv Bators would have never made it past the writer's room and now it's canon."
Previously, Publick and Hammer had said it was unlikely that The Venture Bros. would ever close with an explosive, definitive conclusion; the lives of its characters wouldn't stop unfolding when the show ended, viewers just wouldn't be privy to them anymore. Because the show had been greenlit for an eighth season, the last episode that aired in 2018 was explicitly written with the assumption there'd be more. Instead, the show was cancelled earlier this year just as new scripts were being drafted.
Now that the season seven finale has unexpectedly become the show's closing statement, they're navigating the strange prospect of being dissatisfied with their own open ending.
"We would never end the show with one of our characters going away," Hammer says, referencing the last-minute departure of Hank Venture from the core family unit. "We have a character walking away from the Venture family, which is not the way Jackson and I think of the Ventures. There is love and family at the core of all this, and yes [it's] dysfunctional... but love and family is a deep part of our show. And to have somebody flip his gears and just go off in search for himself... that's not the kind of ending we would ever write. That doesn't feel good to me."
The duo maintains hope there'll be more. They spent the better part of two decades nurturing The Venture Bros., and were prepared to say more with it. An official Adult Swim tweet claims they "also want more Venture Bros." while Publick and Hammer say there have been on-again, off-again talks of one last special. But they're pessimistic about its odds of returning as a semi-regular show with proper seasons.
Even with its premature end amid a year from hell, Publick and Hammer are fully appreciative of what The Venture Bros. accomplished and the fiercely devoted fanbase it spawned.
"I am proud that we made something almost entirely on our terms and it worked," Publick says. "I didn't know how much we would mean to a lot of people, and to know that that's from just spilling your guts and trying your hardest to make the thing as good by your standards as possible... means a lot."
"When you're a writer and people give you advice, they say write what you know, which is really shorthand for write who you are: Write your experiences, write your truth, don't second guess other people's expectations, don't take somebody else's voice and use it as your own, write what you truly are," Hammer says. "I have done a lot of things creatively in my life, but The Venture Bros. is the one where we threw out the idea of trying to be anybody else... mainly because we can't! We can't show up at the party as the most popular guy, but we can show up at the party with a car shaped like a butterfly."
But hope springs eternal, and given how miraculous the very existence of The Venture Bros. was, they're not writing anything off.
"In my deepest dreams, I want to be something like Star Trek, where two years later people go 'The fans have spoken — you're coming back!'" Hammer says. "I'd be like hold on, let me dust off my idiocy and get right back to it."
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