The Poetically Parodic Tales of The Venture Bros.
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Springing forth from the same dark satirical paradigm as similar Hanna-Barbera spoofs Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law# and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast#, The Venture Bros. is – or at least started out as – a parody of the 1964 sci-fi adventure cartoon Jonny Quest:
On its sixth season and past its fourth TV special, the Venture Bros. series wonders what Jonny Quest might’ve grown up to be like after having lived through a childhood filled with bizarre, life-threatening events, completely isolated from anyone his age. As a result, its protagonist – Rusty Venture – battles pill addictions, nervous breakdowns, and a wicked case of PTSD.
Having spent his formative years constantly terrified by monsters, non-stop violence, and nefarious super-science, Rusty has spiraled into arrested adolescence. He’s a professional failure – merely spinning all his father’s old inventions into weapons for the military – and a parental failure as well, ignoring his own two boys to the point where he has a huge stock of their clones just in case the worst happens #.
He is the result of the non-idealized version of the ‘boy adventurer’ lifestyle that spawned a hit cartoon series…
However, Venture Bros. series co-creators, co-writers, and voice actors Christopher “Jackson Publick” McCulloch and Eric A. “Doc” Hammer don’t simply parody for parody’s sake.
They obviously love the eras and material they mock very deeply, with an encyclopedic knowledge and the kind of easy characterization that comes with casual affinity. Though Hammer and Publick will do most anything for a joke when it comes to interweaving the pop culture they grew up with, it never feels like they’re consumed by this past they so obviously adore.
Rather, they use it to create and critique, thereby evolving the concept of nostalgia to something all their own.
There’s no way I could get into everything The Venture Bros. references, nor each character whose very existence serves as some form of therapeutic release for its creators. They riff on everything from Henry Kissinger and Mary Poppins to a literally shapeshifting David Bowie. An entire episode starts with a subplot concerning the lyrics of “Space Oddity,” with an actual Major Tom calling ground control. But even then, recognizability is just the first step of good satire.
What makes The Venture Bros. parodic comedy so rich is its keen cultural hindsight, manifested in its astute satirical juxtapositions.
When scathing imitations of the Fantastic Four and Scooby Gang appear, they work as both parody and commentary. How fucked up can superheroes get? What about a Johnny Storm equivalent who can’t control his powers (and thus painfully bursts into flames upon exposure to oxygen)# used as an imprisoned Human Generator to provide infinite clean-burning energy? And what about those mystery-solving teens driving around in that gaudy van?
They’re obviously sociopaths, right?
Taken to their logical conclusions, these childhood fantasies all possess dangerous irrationalities that the series delights in exploring.
If you’re Dr. Jonas Venture – philandering super-scientist with the unbuttoned shirt and polymathmatic arrogance of Doc Savage# – beating up your son’s kidnappers may seem like standard fare, but when it happens with a literally cartoonish frequency, you have to wonder what kind of neglect led to the kidnapping in the first place – and this show dares to do so.
From childhood trauma to teenage anxiety, consequences spread, injecting reality back into the cartoon#. Even with his boy adventuring days behind him, Rusty is never able to escape his father’s painful influence, not when his stereotypically-macho father’s pranks have normalized trauma through an intergenerational metaphor of sexual politics…
Hold on, here, I’ll let Rusty tell you the story…
Making the tropes of the past work to new ends, Hammer and Publick will take a character like Colonel Horace Gentleman# – a Sean Connery impression with a penchant for foppish fedoras and the chauvinistic racism of pure British pop imperialism – and temper him with the complexity of logical fallout.
Gentleman will rattle of a list of “Hollywood Actresses That Need a Smack in the Mouth” or refer to an Asian team member as possessing a “racial handicap” with the smooth, confident discrimination of a Bond. But he’s also written as ravenously omnisexual, pushing Bond’s hallmark aggressive sexuality onto both sexes…
…including a young boyservant named Kiki:
The sophisticated old man, consumed by lust and his own prejudices, is the epitome of a masculine nostalgia for a time when “men were men” that, in hindsight and with historical context, crumbles into hilarity under Hammer and Publick’s closer examination.
Even the show’s main villain#, The Monarch, is humorously neutered by the well-grounded weight of legitimacy.
A pathetically evil Batman goof who is obsessed with Monarch butterflies, which he claims raised him as a child after he survived the plane wreck that made him an extremely wealthy orphan (even though, in fact, he only spent a few months unsuccessfully imitating them before returning to claim his inheritance, and still seems to have almost no understanding of their biology or behavior), The Monarch and his theatrical flamboyance – including a hideout in the shape of a giant cocoon – highlight him as the epitome of old-school superdom.
Nevertheless, he is as much a victim of red-tape bureaucracy and a hyper-competent wife (Dr. Mrs. The Monarch) as he is any protagonist’s heroic actions.
Still, despite trapping its characters with cogent obsessions and personal failings, The Venture Bros. doesn’t operate without pity. The series is full of warnings, omens, and just plain good advice for its habitually immotile cast – e.g. this since-retired Dr Z.’s wistful regret over his youth# – and sometimes, eventually, they manage to get through.
In the face of a pathetic death grip on the past, a stubborn refusal to move on, and a desperate clinging to the super-science narrative of his life, Rusty Venture ultimately matures over the course of the series, escaping the cycle of paternal neglect by becoming an actual father (if not father figure) to his sons. When circumstances beget the boys to actually grow up (i.e. the destruction of his clone stockpile), Doc must mature alongside them – the show’s central character acting as an empath for the nostalgically-obsessed superfans of today’s pop culture who are all forced to, one day or another, reckon the idealized comfort of their nostalgia with the cold logic and hard truths of their present.
As he tells Dean when recounting some of his past abuses# at the hand of Action Man:
I took it because I was Rusty Venture, boy adventurer.
I didn’t ask for this life, Dean. But it’s mine.
It may not be perfect, it may not be idealized, but it’s as real a fake life as there could ever be.
And isn’t that what good comedy, and good poetry, is all about?
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