The Popdose Interview: Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer
It’s hard to think of two more beloved figures in the world of animation right now than Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. For ten years the duo have written and produced four seasons of one of the most popular original shows on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block — The Venture Bros. What started in 2003 as a clever spoof of ’60s adventure cartoons like Jonny Quest has since evolved into a wholly unique program that boasts a rich world of characters, storylines, and of course laughs.
To the delight of its fans, The Venture Bros. was renewed for seasons five and six in March 2011. After a nearly two-and-a-half year wait since the conclusion of the fourth season, the premiere of season five is just days away (Sunday, June 2nd at midnight ET/PT to be precise). Publick and Hammer sat down for a phone chat with yours truly to discuss the upcoming season, the merits of fan fiction, and smoking. And they even accidentally provided Popdose with exclusive information about an upcoming character making his on-screen debut in season five.
Popdose: Just to make you guys more comfortable, and so you can feel like you’re at a convention, I am actually wearing a costume for this interview.
Jackson Publick: You’re kidding me. One of our characters, or some anime bullshit?
Doc Hammer: Are you dressed as Sailor Moon?
No, I don’t have the midriff for that.
DH: Well, since all we have is our imagination here, I’m painting you as an Adonis in my head. You look beautiful in your Sailor Moon costume.
I appreciate it. Actually, I come off more like a bearded, slightly pudgy Henchman 24.
DH: 24 or 21? The older one?
The dead one.
DH: I would’ve chosen the Sailor Moon costume by the way.
So we’re about a week and a half away from the season five premiere. Can you share where you are in the production schedule of the show right now?
JP: Done. Like, super-done for two months.
DH: Right now we’re worrying about season six and we’re doing Shirt Club.
Yeah, I read about that and I was unreasonably excited for it because I had an Order of the Triad shirt that disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
DH: Well they’re designed to do that.
JP: They’re made to only last four years.
DH: They’re made for ex-girlfriends. They’re door prizes for carnal congress, my friend. This year, when Shirt Club comes out get a whole set just to reward that lucky lady.
In this case I’m married, so that would be kind of depressing if she ended up taking my shirts away from me.
DH: You could find them at least, they’re just in the drawer next to yours.
Yes, I really should make more of a habit of rifling through my wife’s drawers. And I just realized how that sounded out loud.
DH: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Can you give us any hints as to the designs for this year’s shirts, or are you still working on that?
DH: They’re just as insider-y. We actually have a couple that went into five colors. Last year, when it was two-color we were like, “Oh no, how are we gonna afford this?”
JP: One shirt is five-color. I think the most we go to is three. Maybe there’s four. I don’t know.
DH: Once you see our use of five-color, you will look at us like we’re completely idiotic. [Jackson laughs at this.] There’s one color, and then we have like three different colored dots. But the shirts will be great. We get real excited about Shirt Club because it really is two people that have better things to do, by hand worrying about t-shirts for our fans.
I think it’s a nice touch and it’s a great signifier of fandom because you know who’s a fan when you walk down the street and every, oh, fifteenth person gives you that look, and you just kind of nod to each other and you know you’re in on the same thing together. It’s really cool.
DH: Oh when I walk down the street I play a punch buggy game. No, every time I see a known Shirt Club shirt I look at them like, “Wow.” They’re like Venture insiders. Even I, who am inside Venture, look at them like, “That’s how you do it. That’s a real fan.”
That’s real hardcore. The next step is probably a tattoo.
JP: How do you feel when you see a bootleg?
DH: I’ve seen licensed bootlegs, but I still look at them like, “I’m so glad you’re a fan but where were you in season three, sir?”
You guys keep a pretty hectic schedule, production-wise. Do you ever get to sit back and just enjoy the results of your work or is it always just back to the grindstone?
DH: Mostly the latter. We do get appreciated, like if we go to ComicCon or something and all these people just want to tell us how the show has affected them. That is kind of sitting back and realizing that we’re not the only two people that have seen the show. But no, we’re not doing blow off whores’ asses or anything. We don’t really get to reap the benefits of making this. Although I did get some dental work paid for by The Venture Bros.
DH: And that wouldn’t have happened if I had a regular job or something.
Can you share that with us or would that be a HIPAA violation of some kind?
Crowns? Bridge work? Caps?
DH: Oh, I had two fillings and a root canal. I’ll tell you this, for one of my fillings, when she was putting the filling in I was adamant about it being as yellow as my teeth. And she says, “Oh, this is the darkest color that we make.” I’m very proud of my human-looking teeth. My not-Hollywood, not-white-at-all teeth. Very proud. Like David Bowie, I have smoke-too-much teeth.
I was watching some clips of your previous Con appearances and I noticed you were rocking the electronic cigarettes. Is that something you do in public due to anti-smoking regulations or is that an attempt to actually kick the habit?
DH: Well we did something called “Let’s All Smoking,” which is a parody of The Dick Cavett Show, where everybody’s smoking. So we smoke the e-cigarettes, but if we could I would rather smoke real cigarettes and give our guests, who are primarily non-smokers, a cigarette so they have to sit there and deal with the headache and everything. They’re getting all clammy and…
JP: [laughing] Yeah, they’re all sweaty and they want to cough and there’s the smell.
DH: [laughing] They’re uncomfortable, it stinks, and Jackson and I are just blowing smoke out of our noses when we talk in that weird, repugnant dragon thing that we do. That’s the way I’d rather do it.
Do you guys have any plans for the premiere night? Or is it just another work night for you?
DH: Jackson, what are you doing when the show airs?
JP: God, I don’t know. Sometimes the studio will throw a premiere party. We’ve had those before. They’re almost never on the actual premiere night because we’re on late at night on a Sunday, so I don’t know that any of our premiere parties have actually been on premiere night. I’m usually just home.
DH: Yeah, I’ll probably be watching it on television alone.
JP: Maybe a little cupcake with a candle in it.
DH: Actually, I strip down to nothing but my underpants and just watch it.
JP: And sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
DH: Yeah. Then I point to the TV and go, “Me! Me! Me!” all naked, so my neighbors bang on the wall. And then I answer the door in my underpants.
The pilot episode of The Venture Bros. aired in February 2003, so if my math can be trusted you guys have been at this for a decade.
JP: Don’t say that.
Could you have imagined when you started this that you’d still be going at it ten years later?
JP: Nope. Didn’t even think about it.
DH: I didn’t imagine it. It didn’t even occur to me. Ten years is a long fucking time. People have been telling us for the past few days, “It’s been a long time.” Don’t do that, you’re just going to make us not want to do it anymore. You’ll be like, “Oh it’s so fresh, it’s like you just started!” And we’ll be like, “Yes!” I’ve been walking around going, “Goddammit, I should’ve directed the new Thor movie!” So now we feel like we’re still doing the same fucking thing ten years later.
So have there been projects that have come you way that you’ve had to turn down because of the show?
JP: I’ve taken a meeting or two that were like, “We’d love to work with you sometime,” but nobody’s ever gone, “We want you to write or direct this,” and have me have to go, “Sorry, not right now.”
DH: We might actually be whores, who knows? If they offered us the right thing we’d be like, “So long, Venture Bros.!,” but nobody’s put us to that test. We are faithful only because we live in a town with one woman.
Was there a point in the run of the show where you said to yourselves, “Hey, I think we’ve got something going here. People really seem to be responding to this”?
DH: Has that happened yet?
JP: I think season two we probably started to sense that things were better, and I think the ratings were getting better. The most profound thing was that first that we had to do a big room at San Diego [Comic-Con International]. You remember that, when we walked in there to give them the video and we were like, “There’s no way we’re going to fill this room.”? We couldn’t believe it. I think we had 200-person rooms before that and that was like a 4,000-person room. That was weird to me. And then to hear, “Oh, people have been on line since this morning” and I said, “What?”
DH: And all we do is go up there and talk about our childhoods and our genitals. It’s the worst panel ever. And people can’t wait to see these stupid things.
One thing that was different coming into this year is that you were renewed for two seasons rather than one. Did that change your approach to either producing or writing the show? Or did you still look at it as, “Let’s just take it one season at a time”?
JP: We’re kind of one season at a time about it but I think we feel a little more comfortable about it.
DH: We did join [the seasons] psychologically.
JP: Certainly when we were writing some of season five we were thinking of things that we weren’t going to do until season six, and kind of compartmentalizing a little bit. Like when certain ideas would hit us we’d go, “Oh yeah, let’s do that next season after we do X episode this season, because that’ll set that up.” There was a little bit of that, but that’s really just planning for a 20-episode season in a way.
DH: It did take a lot of the pressure off of one, worrying about being canceled or two, thinking maybe we don’t want to do this anymore. It made it so it was a fixed kind of thing so we could really look at the future. I think all of the changes were really psychological for us. And we’re really appreciative. Imagine making a show and then putting it on the air and sitting on your hands and going, “Geesh, will they let us do it again?”
I know for the fan community, the [season four-ending] “Operation P.R.O.M.” episode definitely had the feeling of an episode that closed the season but also could have served as a series closer. A lot of fans were nervous about whether it was the end, and were waiting for an announcement from Cartoon Network.
DH: It’s funny that you had that feeling because it was really the opposite for Jackson and I. After doing “P.R.O.M.” we really thought, “We have so much more to say about these characters.” A lot of people mistook it for the end of The Venture Bros., so it was weird. In our lives it was like, “Oh God no! This opens up a lot for us.”
JP: Maybe that’s the way to sell this two-and-a-half-year break. Oh, The Venture Bros. have been un-canceled, they’re bringing it back. It ended with season four, but they decided to bring it back.
DH: Yeah, we’re like Arrested Development now. We’re coming back.
I was going to say Family Guy but I think Arrested Development is a much more favorable comparison.
DH: Thank you. We’d much rather be aligned with that.
Jackson, you’re really in touch with the fan community through your LiveJournal and your Tumblr, and I know you just recently joined Twitter. Have you ever allowed, either consciously or otherwise, feedback from the fans to seep into the writing of the show?
JP: Nope. No way. The only thing we do is occasionally throw out an idea that crossed our minds because somebody else suggested it after the fact. We’ve seen stuff on a message board that was in our notebook and we’re just like, “Well, can’t do that now.”
DH: The fans and their guessing are actually ruining it. They gotta stop guessing, because we will throw it out.
JP: In that respect they are spurring us to greater creativity, the way having an editor say no does sometimes, where you just have to solve the problem in a more creative way. But that’s a rare thing. The worst thing you could do to a guy who writes a show is to go, “And here’s an idea…” Oh my God.
DH: You ever get those full-on, like someone sends you an email with their ideas?
JP: Yeah, it’s three pages long and they’re like, “It’s cool if you want to use it, I don’t need any money or anything.” Get out of here. I’m actually not going to read it.
DH: I never read them. I have a form letter that I send back that explains it’s not going to happen. At best it’ll mirror something that I did and you’ll be running around screaming about how it was your idea, and at worst I now cannot do my idea. And also the psychology of, “Alright, I know you guys write a show that I like so I know that you can do it, but let me just give you…,” you just gotta stop that. You gotta trust that we have more ideas. I promise we have more ideas.
JP: And usually the idea makes you go, “I can’t believe you even like our show if this is your idea. Like, you seem to think this is a superhero show about Triana [Orpheus]! ‘We think it would be really good if Triana got super powers!‘” What are you watching?
DH: You want them desperately just to make their own shows so I have something to watch. Make a show!
JP: Make a webtoon, anything.
You had a piece of advice for someone at one of the conventions you did when they were asking about getting started in animation. I believe what you basically told them was to take your idea and pound away at it, and eventually if it’s good enough someone is going to pick up on that. I would imagine that’s a better response than trying to just go the fanfic route, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and kind of glom onto something that somebody else has already created.
DH: It depends. If your passion for that specific art is because you’re inspired by Star Trek then yeah, write Star Trek fanfic. If your creativity is a little but more mutable then create your own characters. There are so many places you can get it looked at. There are so many ways to get it seen. In the old days you couldn’t do it, and now you can put the damn thing up on YouTube and if you’re not running around trying to be real proprietary over it, if you just give it out, people will come back to you and say, “Make more.” And somebody might actually throw money at you to make more.
JP: You don’t even have to make Xerox scenes anymore. And is writing fanfic not like a half step away from writing a spec script to get a screenwriting job? It’s like, “Here’s my spec Will & Grace, give me a job on a family comedy.”
DH: Or just do like a Fifty Shades of Grey and change the names of the characters.
Well I hope you guys enjoy my Dr. Morpheus limited webtoon series coming out this fall, I think you’re really going to enjoy it.
DH: Is that a copyright-free Dr. Orpheus?
Yes, with the Order of the Quadrangle. It’s really stellar stuff.
DH: You’ll have to come up with one more guy, and if I may recommend using Otto Aquarius from the original Team Venture. We don’t use him. Or Wolverine. Wolverine’s quite popular.
Yeah, ’cause I really want to sic Disney’s lawyers on me.
DH: Well you could have him be called the Badger.
JP: No, there was one already.
DH: Was there?
JP: Yeah. It was an ’80s indie comic.
DH: How about the Ocelot?
JP: There you go.
That’s gold. Print it.
DH: Rikki-Tikki-Deadly, how about that?
I’m looking at a list of the guest voices that you’re going to have this year [including J.K. Simmons, Larry Murphy, Paget Brewster, John Hodgman, Wyatt Cenac, Tim Meadows, Gillian Jacobs, Bill Hader, and Kate McKinnon], and it’s a pretty impressive list. Do you find that as the seasons progress you have an easier time getting celebrities to appear on the show?
DH: No, we get turned down all the time.
JP: I would say J.K. Simmons is probably the first real celebrity where we just went, “I like that guy’s voice, let’s try to get him.” Anybody else famous, we somehow met through other means.
DH: No, Kevin Conroy, we also asked him to do a specific voice.
JP: I don’t remember, how did we get Hader? He was recording Ugly Americans in the same place we were recording and might have just used that connection. I forget.
DH: And if we find out they’re a fan we just abuse it.
Speaking of which, I know you guys don’t like to tip your hand about plots or characters in an upcoming season but I did notice Bill Hader on that list. Would it be safe to presume that Professor Impossible is coming back?
DH: Bill Hader plays other roles on our shows, so it might be true or it might not be true. He was Prof. Phineas Phage, for instance. And he is Flying Squid.
DH: That’s a spoiler. He was never Flying Squid before, so there you go, a spoiler.
Hot damn, what a scoop!
DH: After four seasons, we’re finally revealing Flying Squid.
For the last question, I’ll go to one of your characters. Would the Monarch even know what to do with himself if he ever succeeded in vanquishing Dr. Venture?
DH: Oh my God, it would be the worst thing that ever happened to him. He would never get out of therapy.
DH: In the middle of dancing on his grave it would hit him that it’s the last dance he’ll ever get to do and feel good again.
JP [as the Monarch]: The last dance, Venture!
DH: He will dance himself to death on that grave. He will never stop dancing on that grave.