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Venture Bros. Creators on Making an Auteur-Driven Show: 'People Don't Really Get That in Cartoons'

Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick break down their feature-length finale, Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart.
  • Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart (Image: Adult Swim)
    Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart (Image: Adult Swim)

    We didn’t think we’d live to see it: After seven seasons and 20 years, The Venture Bros. is finally wrapping up with Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart, a feature-length special helmed by series creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick.

    When The Venture Bros. premiered on Adult Swim in 2003, its premise — an embittered former “boy adventurer” confronting the day-to-day challenges of his waning career and dysfunctional family — seemed broadly aligned with the rest of the network’s programing, which at the time consisted largely of ’60s and ’70s cartoon sendups. But even at the outset, The Venture Bros. was different. Its cast was wholly original; its world had its own internal rules and politics; characters’ actions had lasting consequences. The show very quickly established a coherent continuity, and by the end of its second season, it had left behind its parodic roots for something far more complex. Its scope and density continued snowballing until its untimely (and inexplicable) cancellation in 2020.

    Behind it all — and we mean all — were Hammer and Publick. They wrote all but one of the show’s 80-plus episodes, designed nearly all of its characters, and filled the majority of its voice roles. As a result, there’s a distinctly personal, handcrafted quality to The Venture Bros. It’s a direct conduit to the minds of its fervent creators, whose airtight grasp on art history and culture is matched only by their extraordinary knack for finding the human in the fantastical.

    When The Venture Bros. was canceled, Hammer and Publick were in the middle of writing Season 8. In 2021, it was announced that a series-concluding film had been greenlit. That film, Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart, releases on digital today and on Blu-ray July 25th. Primetimer spoke with Hammer and Publick about their writing process, finding beauty in failure, and bidding farewell to their creation. Read on, and Go Team Venture.

    [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the beginning of the SAG-AFTRA strike, and contains minor spoilers for Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart.]

    To start off, I’d love to know what this show’s conclusion means to you. How does it feel to leave these characters and this world behind after 20 years?

    Jackson Publick: That one’s easy. I don’t like it! I don’t like it.

    Doc Hammer: Honestly, I’d love to keep going. I don’t want to leave this show. It was part of a money-making machine, and for no reason we understand, they stopped wanting to make money off of us. I get it as much as you do, possibly less. It’s sad, like we had to see our kids go off to–

    JP: To Vietnam!

    DH: Yeah, I’m just like, “I guess you guys aren’t gonna write to us. You live in my head.” Jackson and I are still the co-parents, we’ll still call each other and bat ideas around, and I’ll think, “Should I write these down, or does it not matter?” So yeah, it sucks, what can I say.

    In the past, you’ve talked about how, when you co-wrote episodes, you would write designated scenes separately and then bring them together into a unified script. Was the process similar for Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart?

    JP: Yes, that’s how we always write. And we’re 3,000 miles away from each other now, so there isn’t much of a choice.

    DH: We did it much more collaboratively than usual, which meant we outlined for a long time, talking to each other every day. But when it came to scenes, we just divvied it out and said, “Okay, you write this, I’ll write this,” then we put it together and went, “Okay, you cut this, I’ll cut this.” Then we have an outline, it’s too long, we start writing, it’s too long, we read through, see how these things play out, then we go, “Now we know where we’re going, now we can write a final draft.”

    How did you decide what to cut and what to prioritize in the shift from the canceled eighth season to a feature? Are there any big ideas left on the table or did you hit all the beats you wanted to?

    DH: Oh, we hit maybe two beats out of the hundreds that we had.

    JP: [Laughs] I think we did better than that.

    DH: We did our job. Our job was to write a movie. Did we have a whole season? Absolutely. Did we want to include a lot of it? Absolutely. Could we? No. So we did what we do, which is write The Venture Bros.

    JP: Plus, we’re well versed in overwriting and then needing to cut things that we love. I’ve never written a script for the show that doesn’t have a 12 or 16-page gutter of stuff that didn’t make it in. And they’re usually the scenes that I wrote first, because that’s what made me want to write the episode.

    DH: Yeah. We’re really good at destroying our own creation.

    Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart addresses a lot of mysteries that the show has been circling for ages. How long have you guys known the answers?

    JP: Some of them we’ve known for a few years, and were consciously writing towards. Some of them we had older ideas about, and we needed to change them for the film. I’ve been thinking about the boys’ mother for more than half the show’s life, and I had some ideas about her that we’ve just aged out of. Plus, we’ve been making this show so long, when we started, the ’60s weren’t as long ago as they are now. Certain things start to disqualify certain storylines or characters historically, because you think, well, this person can’t be 90.

    Can you tell me how the characters of Bobbi and Debbie St. Simone came about? They feel very fully formed right out of the gate.

    JP: Bobbi existed before the film. That’s who I was referring to when I said I needed to change the story. Mantilla ‚ Debbie — is a new creation. She sort of arose from the necessity of swapping some ideas around for season 8. We were really planning on digging into Force Majeure.

    DH: I think we used the name Debbie because it’s funny when Dr. Girlfriend says it. Debbie.

    JP: For some reason that cracked our editor up every time.

    DH: And she was fully formed because that’s how Jackson and I write. We create someone until we can say, “I get her.” If we don’t understand her, we don’t do it. This show is how Jackson and I write to each other, and talk to each other, and think. It’s an incredibly organic process that’s just based on our communication, and we don’t embark on a character unless we know her 100%. We need to be able to have an argument, where Jackson can say, “She would do this,” and I can say, “She wouldn’t do this,” and we can both express it, because we both get her. That’s how we write.

    JP: Although, Debbie is the one of the only characters here who hasn’t already existed for 20 years in some form or another. So there was a lot of room for exploration there. I think that’s why we got Nina Arianda to voice her. We loved her in Goliath, and figured she would do something really weird and specific.

    DH: Her acting is so real. I remember, when we were recording her, I had to look at the script because I wasn’t even sure if what she was saying was on the page. It’s a magic trick. She’s incredibly talented.

    The film’s final scene features most of the core cast sitting around, drinking beer, and shooting the sh*t. It’s wonderfully low-key. Did you always imagine that The Venture Bros. would end on a note like this?

    JP: I think so. Not necessarily that specific one, but that was our general feeling. After a certain number of seasons, we started thinking that when we did end it, we’d just want something low-key. We wanted this sense of leaving the family behind, turning off the cameras, and their lives continuing.

    DH: It reboots itself in the last scene. The Monarch does an “I’ll get you, Dr. Venture!” It bookends itself and goes right back to the beginning. And you wonder, well, how are they going to do this now? But they will. We knew we wanted that.

    Early in the show’s run, you said that The Venture Bros. was a show about failure. Years later, you said that it had matured past that — that you’d like to see the characters grow and succeed where possible. Was Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart written with this goal in mind? Did you intend to leave things in a better place than they were all the way back in Season 1, even if the show does bookend itself?

    DH: Failure is always going to be a part of it. You can’t watch this ending and think there’s not a lot of failure in it, because failure is beautiful! It’s life, it’s part of success. We’re told as children that we learn through failure. You don’t learn by someone telling you what to do, you learn by doing it shitty, by figuring out that there are a million ways to not make a lightbulb. We can’t avoid it. The show was never really about failure, it incorporates failure because it’s about life, it’s about families, it’s about growth. All of those things include failure, and if they don’t, it’s fake, and I don’t recognize it. So I don’t think we ever actually grew out of it, or changed our theme. We just had enough time to look at that theme and say, “Look how broad this is, look at how much we can do with this.”

    Yeah, the show's scope has expanded so much since its premiere, and as far as Western adult animation goes, it’s still pretty peerless. Were you consciously trying to buck trends and make something unprecedented from the outset?

    DH: Oh, that was a f*cking accident. Our immediate charge was, “Let’s not get canceled, oh my god, we have a TV show.” It was a miracle that it happened, and Jackson and I just kept tightening up our relationship, tightening the reins, and it just became this unprecedented thing. I dare you to find another show with two creators who worked all the way from the first episode to the last episode, without a writers’ room, without anybody doing punch-ups, without anybody to call but each other and go, “Wait, what kind of car did Phantom Limb have?” It was just us, and that meant we’d have a show that came in late, we’d have nervous breakdowns, but it also gave the world something Kubrickian. Like something from the ’70s. It was an auteur-driven show, and people don’t really get that in cartoons.

    JP: And it meant that a lot of the things we did didn’t even occur to us as unique. We were just following our natural instincts, like, of course there’s going to be continuity from the last episode, why wouldn’t there be?

    DH: We didn’t even have time to talk about it!

    JP: And like, yeah, of course we wanted certain things to be scary, and certain things to be funny, and certain things to be dark. But I think it took us a while to get to genuine emotion. Earnestness came later, because even when we would do sentimental scenes they were basically jokes. Like, “Let’s do that Brady Bunch wrap-up thing,” and Jim [Thirlwell] would do that with the music. At some point, we wanted that emotion to be real.

    DH: I don’t know, I think we got earnest pretty quickly. Like when Brock does pushups while Hank talks to him. That happened immediately in the show, it was conversational, it was family. What was hard was realizing that it wasn’t a mistake. That this is our wheelhouse, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. When we got sentimental, we scared each other. Every time we handed in a script and it was touching, we were like, “Uhh, and then they go to Africa, or something!” We really scared each other. People should really re-investigate the later seasons. They’re still made by us, they still feel like The Venture Bros., but you’ll notice we stopped being afraid of doing those kinds of things.

    Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart is available for purchase on demand.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    Cole Kronman is a freelance media critic based in NYC.

    TOPICS: Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart, Adult Swim, The Venture Bros., Doc Hammer, Jackson Publick