James Urbaniak on The Venture Bros.’ 20-Year Journey and Happy Ending

Movies,TV
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*Please note: This interview was conducted before SAG-AFTRA’s decision to take strike action. 

So rarely do modern audiences get to experience a “cult classic” film or television show anymore. The internet has seen to that. Even independent films that 20-30 years ago would have to rely on word of mouth or for the local Blockbuster to run out of copies to create any kind of buzz now get thousands of people sharing their thoughts about it within online forums. 

It is with no sense of irony that The Venture Bros. is perhaps one of the last cult classics. The animated series is one of the veterans of Cartoon Network’s original Adult Swim line of shows, and throughout the last two decades has clawed its way to survive seven seasons and stave off cancellation. That’s largely in part to its cult-like following. The show has been a refuge for audiences who have come to love its mockery of classic animated shows, superhero tropes, and the world of pop-culture. 

With the series’ conclusion, so many involved in the creative process wanted to give this brilliant mad-cap family a proper send off, which brings us to the conclusive straight-to-video film, Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart. The voice of the piteous patriarch, Dr. Venture (among other characters) James Urbaniak recently chatted with Den of Geek to reflect on a journey so magical, it could only be cast by Doctor Orpheus himself. 

Den of Geek: Here we are. The conclusion of the Venture Brothers adventure, at least at this point. When it all started 20 years ago, where did you think this was going?

James Urbaniak: I remember maybe 10 years ago, maybe even longer, but [creator] Jackson Publick and I were talking and he told me about a vision he had for the finale, and that was 10 years ago. But then we were renewed year-to-year. Sometimes we were renewed for a couple years, sometimes for only one, but we never really knew when it was going to end. 

It is crazy that it’s been 20 years. The show’s only been seven seasons, because there’s such a long turnaround between seasons sometimes, but, yeah, the pilot aired 20 years ago. It is crazy. 

…And it’s been five years since season seven and the last time we saw the Ventures.

It has. I’ve gotten a lot of people tweeting me over the last couple of years, when word of this film got out, asking “Is it actually happening? Is it still happening?” But I’ve seen it, and I think everyone’s going to be very happy with it.

Does Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart pick up right where season seven left off?

It kind of does. Obviously, I don’t want to spoil anything, but some of the cliffhangers are resolved. Hank is still off on his own adventures, that’s a [crucial] bit of the plot of the movie. I also think it has an ending that basically suggests these characters exist outside of the show. Not that there’s going to be any more Venture Bros., necessarily, but within the Venture Brothers universe, in an abstract sense, they will continue to exist. So I think it’s a very satisfying sort of series finale, if you will.

You would know better than anybody, perhaps, but the title Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart – what is that all about?

Hey, “Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart”. I mean, I think it speaks for itself. (laughs) As you know, Dr. Venture gets into all kinds of wacky, newfangled experimental science projects. You may remember the unfortunate reference in an early episode to something that was powered “by an orphan”. (laughs) So, we’re just pushing the envelope, scientifically. Let’s just put it that way.

I will add that the film was untitled when I first read the script, before we recorded it. And when I heard that title, I thought it was very fitting. I love it. 

Doc Hammer and Christopher McCulloch (pseudonym Jackson Publick), obviously write most of the show, but anybody who follows you on social media knows that when you post there’s some real deep pop-culture cuts that pop up. With all the pop culture references that this show has had over the seven seasons, was there anything that you really wanted to touch on that you had pitched to the writers that they didn’t get an opportunity to use?

I haven’t really ever pitched any aspect of the writing. I have to admit, there was maybe one time, and Jackson may argue with this, but when they were trying to come up with the name for Spider-Skull Island, Jackson was pitching the premise and said, “Well, it’s some island. It’s like Skull Island or Spider Island, something mysterious.” And my memory is, I said, “How about Spider-Skull Island?” So I may or may not have coined that. But, no, I haven’t really pitched things. 

Although once I did ad-lib something, and it was a reference to the 1990s film Quiz Show, which is a great movie about the quiz show scandals in the 50s, directed by Robert Redford. I had Phantom Limb, quote a reference to Dr. Girlfriend as he was asking some questions of her. She answered him, and then in a very condescending way, I just ad-libbed “Quite a bean in that pretty little head”, which is a line that a 1950s sexist host, in Quiz Show says to a female contestant, in that kind of deeply ingrained, 1950s sexism. 

When I said that, Jackson doubled over [in laughter]. He got the reference. …And a reference to the early 90s movie Quiz Show isn’t necessarily super mainstream. So I was very pleased that he thought that was funny, and it made the cut. But that’s one of the only times. More often than not, I’ve had to ask the boys what their references are. I don’t get every deep cut that they make. 

I’m glad you brought up your other characters, because Phantom Limb has always been a personal favorite, but so has your David Bowie. Make my life complete, do we get one last opportunity to see the Thin White Duke?

I haven’t seen the movie in a few weeks, but I don’t recall if Bowie shows up again… I don’t believe he does. I will say this, several peripheral characters turn up. There’s a sense of this movie being “a reunion”. There are some very fleeting side characters that have appeared through the years who show up again, to great effect. For the diehard fans, there are a lot of Easter eggs in there. 

Another thing I always respected about the cast was the impressions of celebrities were always about the “attitude” of the person. It was all about characterization. Was there any time where you had an impression in your pocket that you really wanted to try? 

Well, Jackson and I had a kind of code, where sometimes I’d be doing Dr. Venture and he’d say, “Randall-ize it a little,” meaning get a little Tony Randall in there. Then sometimes he’d say, “throw a little Don Knotts in there” because there’s definitely a little Barney Fife when acts a little cocky, and he’d kind of hitch up his pants. 

So, there are liberal borrowings from some of the great comic actors that informed Dr. Venture. I’ve told this story many times, but Dr. Venture, as you can tell, is basically my voice, just with a different attitude. But the first day I went in, I kind of had a character idea. I was doing a kind of rubbery, wacky scientist, and Jackson just kept saying “less” until it was simply my voice. 

You may recall that when Jonas Jr. is introduced, he’s kind of an ominous, scary character, right? He’s got a Clint Eastwood thing going on, actually. But then the next season, the joke is that he’s very jolly. Almost phony. So that became a character where there’s a little bit of Charlton Heston with that particular enunciation.

When I was a kid, like in the ‘70s, a lot of cartoon characters were just voice actors imitating celebrities, like Top Cat was just a Phil Silvers impression. Phil Silvers was a famous comedian in the ‘50s who was also Sergeant Bilko. It’d be like today if someone just did Will Ferrell for a voice or Jack Black and no one cared, and no one was getting sued.

If this is the last time we ever see any of the Venture Brothers characters, is it at least a happy ending? 

I think so. I think the fans are going to be very pleased. And you never know what’s going to happen, there could be some other [Venture Bros.] content sometime in the future, I don’t know. But for now, this is sort of a finale for the show and it sort of suggests they’re all gonna be okay. They’re gonna keep trudging along in their pathetic lives. 

“Trudging along” is perfect wording for the show as a whole, isn’t it? It has always been “the little show that could” – it just kept pushing for two decades.

That’s right. It has one of the most intense fan bases. I’ve often said that my experience when I meet people and I mentioned this show, people either know it and love it, or they’ve never heard of it. 

It’s very rare that I’ll meet somebody who says, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that a couple times. It’s alright” (laughs). It’s a testament to the show. Once people get into it, they become converts. There’s very little middle ground. People either love it, or they’ve never heard of it… and that’s fine.

For all the Urbaniak-maniacs out there – What have you been up to as well in terms of work since leaving Doctor Venture behind?

I’ve produced a bunch of low budget films, and then I might be in one notable high budget film. Now, here’s the thing: if you get a small part in a big movie, sometimes you don’t make the cut because often they rethink it. So I shot a small role in Oppenheimer, the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, which drops the same day Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart, and Barbie. Those are the big three. Right? (laughs)

I said, on Twitter, Venture Bros. is the one that combined science and comedy. So it’s like Oppenheimer meets Barbie. But I haven’t seen Oppenheimer [yet], so it’s very possible that my small part didn’t make the cut. But no one told me otherwise. I’m just a neurotic actor, what do I know? Every actor worries about this sort of thing. 

So those are all kind of floating out there right now.

So what you’re saying is that this is the summer of James Urbaniak?

If you will, if you will. (laughs) Acting is weird because you shoot these things, and then a year or two goes by and suddenly they come out. As it happens, yes, I have a bunch of things being released at the same time. The Venture Bros., possibly Oppenheimer, he says, with his normal guarded caution. It was the scene with Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, too, so those are big characters in the film. 

Then the janitor [played by me] manages to show up for some reason. “You guys need coffee?” (laughs)

I mean, Einstein was famously a caffeine junkie, so I’m sure that’s probably still in the final cut.

There you go… and James is the Barista.

You have to know, however, that there are thousands of fans out there who are probably the most excited about Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart this summer. More than Barbie. More than Oppenheimer

I think that’s truly great. When I read the script, I loved it. It’s all there. I think the fans are gonna love it. All the classic characters are given their own little storylines, some favorites from the past show up, and I think it’s a very nice [summation] of what we’ve done. So far. Colon. Question mark. 

The Venture Bros: Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart is available to stream via digital purchase on July 21 2023, and via Blu-ray and physical media on July 25 2023. It will eventually stream on Max sometime in the fall. 

The post James Urbaniak on The Venture Bros.’ 20-Year Journey and Happy Ending appeared first on Den of Geek.

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