Cockpits! Booby Traps! Genius! Christopher McCulloch's Hanna-Barbera spoof is brilliant nerd humor.
(Editor's note: This week The Simon begins a new column, Diamond in the Rough. A celebration of all those terrific entertainment possibilities being ignored by the major media, Diamond in the Rough will be a collection of such undiscovered gems. Enjoy.)
The Venture Brothers is the finest creation yet from the warped minds at Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Created by Christopher McCulloch, a writing alumnus of the terrific but doomed live-action Tick series, The Venture Brother sells itself as a spoof of the Hanna-Barbera classic Johnny Quest (or any of their "action/mystery" shows, really), but is far more satisfying than any simple parody.
On each episode, two kids, Hank and Dean, trot the globe with their super-scientist father, Dr. Venture, while under the watchful eye of their dutiful/homicidal bodyguard, Brock Samson. "Team Venture,"as the brothers gleefully refer to their family, is never more than a step away from adventure and mystery.
But that is where the resemblance to the cartoons of our youth ends. Dr. Venture is a middle-aged pill popper who can't get out of the shadow of his more successful super-scientist father. The good doctor hates his two annoyingly chipper sons, who use words like "golly" and "gee-whiz" and are always looking for a good time... at least, that's what they tell the hooker they meet in the first episode. Brock Samson, a master spy and the boys' faithful protector (voiced by the hilarious Patrick Warburton) is always seconds away from either brutally killing someone or seducing any woman in sight. As one character describes the gigantically muscled Brock, "My father spoke of you as a god, Mr. Samson, and you do not disappoint." Add to this mix an archenemy in the Monarch, a super-villain who has patterned his persona on the majestic monarch butterfly, despite not knowing a whole lot of specifics about the insect. Plus, there is arich world filled with bad guys and heroes alike who will seem familiar to any cartoon fan... kind of.
Yeah, this is total nerd humor. But, like the earlier, better episodes of The Simpsons, The Venture Brothers doesn't just lean on its cool comic/cartoon/movie references. Instead, this very smart show varies its humor to appeal to just about any crowd. Sure, there's juvenile humor. Guys get kicked in the nuts, and I think there's even a fart joke. But then it has brilliant moments too, such as the Monarch's henchmen seriously discussing who would win in a crazy fantasy fistfight between Anne Frank and Lizzy Borden. At one point, the Monarch spots "that guy from Depeche Mode" with a girl and can't believe his eyes: "He's with a girl?! Come on... He's in Depeche Mode!" In an episode cleverly titled, "Are You There God? It's Me, Dean," young Dean suffers from Acute Testicular Torsion and has to be rushed to famed Master Billy Quiz-Boy, Adult Genius before his testicles wither and die. After inspecting Dean's twisted testes, Billy's albino assistant (who lookslike he could have been in A Flock of Seagulls) sums up what will happen if they don't operate by saying, "You know when you're eating peanuts and you crack one open and the little nut is all dark and crammed into one corner?" This is the kind of humor that Adult Swim was created for.
The Venture Brothers' world is filled with magic and super-science, but also Tijuana hookers, masturbating Ninjas, and stomach tumors that turn out to be an unborn twin plotting your very doom. As a nerd who's up late, I am definitely the target audience for this show. But even if you don't know whom Race Bannon or Reed Richards are, I would recommend finding room on that TiVo for a few episodes.
Diamond in the Rough is a weekly celebration of all those terrific entertainment possibilities being ignored by other media outlets.