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Interview with ‘The Venture Bros’ creator Jackson Publick

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Today on Skwigly we meet Jackson Publick (also known as Chris McColloch) – creator, writer and director of Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros. Beginning a career in animation as a writer for The Tick in the mid-nineties, Publick gravitated toward storyboards for a number of shows including King of the Hill, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, PB&J Otter and Sheep in the Big City before initially developing The Venture Bros for Comedy Central. When the show was ultimately picked up by Adult Swim in 2003 it went on to become the network’s longest running series. We caught up with Publick at London’s MCM Comic Con last week to reflect on the impact of the series.

Can you start by telling us a bit about your animation background before you developed The Venture Bros?

Well, my first job in animation was writing for The Tick animated series, back in ’94 I think. I was still in College when I got the job, and then while I was working on that I saw a storyboard – an animation storyboard – on Ben Edlund’s kitchen table and I said “oh what’s this storyboard? I could do that!” So I started doing storyboards, and once The Tick got cancelled that’s how I made my living – it’s a lot easier to find storyboard work than it was to write for things that I wasn’t involved with.

So would you describe your strengths as more on the visual side or the story side?

Definitely more the story side. I draw pretty well but I’m not amazing honestly – and I was never a very disciplined artist growing up – I wanted to be a comic book artist, but I was not good at keeping a sketchbook and just drawing from life – I like to draw to tell stories. And likewise I’m a crap prose writer, I like writing for things that are going to be in a visual medium, but I sort of can’t do one without the other. At this point it’s easier for me to write and let other people do the drawings and maybe put a post-it over it and say “errr more like this”

And did you always see the stories you were telling in a very visual way in your head, or has the training of being a storyboard artist changed how you approach story telling?

Sure, that process hasn’t really changed – other than I get way too specific in the scripts about exactly what a shot should look like. But I’ve actually laid off that, I would say I was more guilty of that when I was less experienced, just trying to spell out way too much for people who should get a shot at interpreting it themselves or will know to do a lot of the things that you’re telling them to do.

And Venture Bros was originally developed for Comedy Central, but then picked up by Adult Swim. Did you find yourself moving in a certain direction to match their sensibilities?

Well there were a couple of years in-between. I didn’t develop it for Comedy Central exactly, I just pitched it to them – the week that I had an inspiration, sat down and wrote the pilot, happened to be during a time that I was pitching something else to them that they were about to say no to, and they did and they said ‘do you have anything else?’
I said ‘sure, I’ve just about to finish this thing that I just got really excited about’ and I pitched it and they were like ‘meh – we think the retro thing would get old’ – it was a little more post-modern and aware of it’s retro thing, which was maybe a little more in vogue at the time.
Then it was probably close to 2 years before I took another crack at it, because in between I got hired to write The Tick live action show that Patrick Warburton was in, so I moved back to LA for a year and a half, and also the last company you would imagine optioned The Venture Brothers for a little while; Will Vinton?

Oh really? 

Yeah – they’re known for their puppets and stop motion, but they were starting a CG division and they thought they could make a go of The Venture Bros as a CG show, which I hadn’t really imagined – I wanted it to look bad on purpose, I wanted it to look like limited animation like Marvel cartoons from the 60s, and that was kind of in vogue in time.  Once they were pitching the CG I thought ‘oh no’, but then I thought about it and it’s much more subversive to make a snarky, darkly comic show look gorgeous and cinematic than it is to make it look crappy on purpose. So they got me thinking bigger, but it ended up not working out with them. The second The Tick got cancelled and I found myself with nothing to do, I re-pitched it, and in that time Adult Swim had started up – they didn’t exist before that.

So was it the same show by the time it was pitched to Adult Swim?

Well it was the same pilot script. The only thing I really had to change was that 9/11 had happened in between the first and second pitches, so I had to remove the part where a model of NY City got blown up. Not the biggest problem.

And a lot of the show, and your back catalogue of work, is rooted in pastiche and you take a lot of references from other people, so what inspired you to develop the show in that direction?

I guess it’s just my nature!

And Johnny Quest in particular, how did that influence you?

Well, the very first influence on The Venture Brothers was a very old Tom Swift novel that one of my friends on The Tick lent me; he’d had it in his childhood, and I read it and immediately saw that ‘Oh Johnny Quest ripped this off!’ And then I had the idea for these two idiot boys, and I kept them in my notebook for a few years and didn’t really do anything with it, and it was kind of only when I realised that all these super hero ideas that we didn’t get to use on The Tick, or ideas that I have for other comic strips that I’m doing with my friends and this Venture Brothers thing… they all fit under the same umbrella! I realised I can do James Bond, I can do Raiders of the Lost Arc, I can do Marvel Comics – all under this strange Johnny Quest-y umbrella because it does cross over with espionage and super powers and fake science fiction, so that’s when it kind of came together. And that was the week I sat down and wrote the pilot because I realised that all those dopey things in my notebook all fit together and I could do it as a fun cartoon. And the only people making anything that had the type of talent I was looking for was Comedy Central – South Park had just broken a lot of barriers I think.

Which Adult Swim seem to be doing now – Comedy Central have passed on the baton. Over the past decade they seem to have been an outlet for bolder, more daring animated content – so from your perspective, has the work of the network and their show creators had a significant effect on the animated landscape as a whole?

Absolutely! I think a lot of people have tried to imitate them – there are definitely people doing big things now who were either incubated at Adult Swim or at least did some time there. Bob’s Burgers is huge, and even though Home Movies wasn’t created for Adult Swim originally, they picked it up and made several seasons of it, so that was Brendan Small and Loren Bouchard of Bob’s Burgers. And Archer, you know, that came out of Adult Swim too. Several have imitated and failed, some have gone on from there. I think it definitely created a movement because before that the Simpsons were the only successful thing, and so only clones of that got on TV and Fox in the States was the only place where you saw ‘night time’ animation, and then Comedy Central did their part and they were a big part of it too, but Adult Swim – thankfully – have kept it strange. The only predecessor in that way was MTV’s Liquid television, and that was a big thing in the 90s and they did fun weird stuff, but they stopped doing that –  a lot of the people who work for me and on these other shows were MTV animators. Titmouse is the Production Company we use now and Chris Prynoski did Downtown for MTV and cut his teeth on Beavis and Butthead.

There’s always been this perception of animation as a kid’s medium, do you find that that has now changed because of the work that you guys have been doing , or do you find that quite useful as something you can still satirise and play with.

Yeah I don’t know why that is – I mean, The Simpsons was monumental and not a lot followed it. There were some bad attempts to copy it – Fox made some lame attempts to copy it. I mean The Critic wasn’t lame but it just wasn’t massive enough. But Hollywood’s changing and the internet allows for a real democracy, but it still takes about 10 years. People watching this stuff now don’t draw a line between the mediums – they don’t say ‘well cartoons are for kids’ because they weren’t born in the 10950s. And these are the people who are going to be in charge in a few years of the networks, and movie studios are starting to reach people who grew up on our shows

So have we lost some of the shock factor that was once so easy to create by doing anything un-Disney in a cartoon?

Yeah maybe, but I think that’s a good thing

On Venture Bros, you voice some of the characters as well. Was that always part of the plan, or is is just an on-the-day decision?

A lot of them are the latter. Half the way we write is just dropping in to character, and we’re just riffing on a voice or a phrase or something and we start having conversations (Doc (Hammer) and I) in voices and we say ‘oh that guy has to be in the show’.
Sargent Hatred’s voice we were doing in the studio for 2 years before he became a character – I think he started as Dr Strange’s suburban BBQ friend or something, we were just doing this voice and we gave it to him. I have a pretty strong idea of a voice in my head when I’m writing a script, and when I don’t that’s when I should really get somebody else to do it…or when we’re writing a character who isn’t as fleshed out because he’s new or he’s a normal human but you don’t want him to be boring but you know your own limitations.

And there are plenty of cases where someone fell through – like we were trying to get someone famous to do a voice and they said no and we were too far in to production and had to deliver an animatic next week, so I’ll just jump in and do it. Or occasionally sometimes you get someone and the voice doesn’t work when they’re cutting the animatic – then I just have to do it because it’s less important that the voice is right and more important that the rhythm is right for the show.
We have a pretty deep pool of talent amongst our regulars, and it’s a lot of fun to get some of these guys who are great actors to do other stuff for us. And I don’t do it that much because we’re producing in NY and a lot of them are in LA so I’ll just fly out there once a month to do a recording session.
Also, we got some new cast members – mutual friends who do sketch comedy in LA – just really great utility guys who are a lot of fun, and that feels better now that I feel like I have a little ensemble and now I don’t have to do all the little characters who only have two lines, I can get them to do something fun – and if it’s fun enough we’ll end up writing more for that character

So it’s quite an organic process? You don’t have the whole season and all the characters mapped out from the beginning?

Errr…. not so much! Not always. Broad strokes of where we’re headed towards, but we kind of feed off of each other – I’ll write a script, Doc will see what I wrote and work on it

So it’s a script driven show rather than a storyboard driven one?

Yes absolutely – it’s a tightly scripted show and I’m fairly tyrannical about them sticking to it! Certain actors you encourage to improvise, or again if you have a character who you know is not that well fleshed out you can see if the voice actor can add anything to it

How involved are you with each stage of production? Do you have a favourite part of the process?

I’m deeply involved with the whole thing – I direct every frame of it, sadly, which is destroying me! My background is storyboard, so that’s probably my deepest interest, but it’s also the most frustrating – it’s the most work. But that’s when the directing really happens. Editing is fun – it’s all fun until you’re on deadline or you are doing it too long; my favourite thing is that I get to do everything because I certainly never get bored and I get to learn about sound and music and find out about all these things that I was not an expert in. I learn more and I become more of a control freak – these poor people who teach me things are just arming me!

And it’s now the longest running show on Adult Swim, so congratulations! I assume no one imagines that level of success when they start, but did you have a few seasons arc in place? Did you know roughly what you wanted to do?

No.

Oh. Do you now?

Still no. My current philosophy is that we shouldn’t have a specific end point. In used to have ideas for a final episode, and a final scene – I had it all written out in my head. We’ve sort of moved past that point in the larger story, but I’ve also changed my philosophy – I think that when it comes time to end the show that we shouldn’t end on some grand final feeling gesture, we should end on a feeling of ‘well, we’re all going to stop watching the Venture Brothers now but they’re going to keep living and having their adventures – maybe that’s the back door to ever do it again. If we ever quit I’d never stop loving the characters or this thing, so it’d be nice to know that we could go back, but also it;d be nice to leave it with the fans and say ‘the further adventures are yours – we haven’t killed everyone’

Do you think it’ll be your decision when to stop?

It’ll be a mutual decision between us and the network, but you know – we have been doing it a long time!

And it’s a great show, thank you for your time today to talk about it!

Adult Swim now has a dedicated UK home for FREE on Spotify mobile.
Catch seasons 1-4 of The Venture Bros. for FREE now on Spotify mobile, with all-new episodes from season 5 currently rolling out every Friday.

 

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