Q&A: Doc Hammer
One half of Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros. talks ink, art, and perhaps a new character for Season 6.
Doc Hammer is a true artist. He paints, he plays in a shoe-gazing band called Weep, and along with Jackson Publick, he produces/writes/voices/everythings the most thoughtful cartoon on the air, The Venture Bros. In a Golden Age of television, Hammer and Publick create animated literature with comic relief. While sketching out Season 6, which is still a ways away from airing on Adult Swim, he invited INKED into his New York City apartment to chat about art and tattoos. Covering Hammer’s body are designs from both bands he’s been in and signatures of his heroes, mostly artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gustave Moreau, Rembrandt, and Whistler. The work has been done by house scratchers and greats like Alex Sherker and Michelle Myles, whom he asked to make his tattoos look like they were done in people’s mother’s kitchens. Hammer loves the look, as he explains, “A child does a drawing, you put it on the refrigerator, and when he comes back from college does he fucking fix it? You look at the drawing and say, ‘Remember when you did this?’ It’s a reminder of that moment.”
INKED: What, to you, is The Venture Bros. about?
DOC HAMMER: The show is about failure. And I’ve had to really think about that, as we are in the internet age and it is powerful to say something so short that people can absorb and regurgitate it.
Who do you write for? If you write from a place of truth, it has universal resonance. What we write is much closer to old Broadway than it is to TV. There is a Neil Simon aspect to what we do, that is deep in character, and then when we have these [pop and not-so-pop culture] references on top you can sell them to people. It’s hard to sell a show where you are supposed to give a shit about a guy in a butterfly costume and his relationship with a woman who has a man’s voice.
Especially with Dr. Girlfriend (the woman with a man’s voice), there is an absence of femininity. Our show is a strange, feral world of men. Any time a woman shows up she says, Oh my god, grow the fuck up! I don’t think that we do it intentionally, I think we just hate ourselves. Dr. Orpheus is cool. And I say it like this is an assertion that you cannot change. Dr. Orpheus is cool because…language is fun…what I like about Dr. Orpheus is that he is the most-grounded person on the show. This magic guy is kind of the “good father” to Dr. Venture’s “bad father.” I don’t think is a bad father but a selfish man who was raised terribly. I think he loves his sons, and he is doing his best, but his best is not that great. But his father was an arrogant monster which creates these broken men and that’s the a long arc in the show, the reveals of what Venture Sr. is, and when you tear apart what the Venture men are they are shallow, terrible monsters.
Speaking of Broadway, you have incorporated music in the form of Hank Venture’s band, Shallow Gravy. People ask if we ever had more songs and I think they are out of their minds—there is no way that anybody likes singing in cartoons. To this day there is an 8-year-old boy in me that says, “Fuck, singing’s going to happen,” and I’m grabbing the remote. It ruined every musical that I’ve watched. Did you watch that fucking movie Les Miserables? They never fucking talk! You want to claw your eyes out. I made it through a solid 45 minutes and for that I thought my TV would issue prizes—maybe if I made it an hour I would have gotten a switchblade comb. If The Venture Bros. ever revved up the motorcycle to jump that shark, Shallow Gravy is in the pool.
The visual of Hank Venture dressed up like Fonzie diving into a pool of shallow gravy is epic. Now that I said the shark-jumping thing, it is canon and people are going to say, “You jumped the shark.” Damn, I’ve fucked myself by saying that.
Are you ever worried that some of the references and jokes in the show will go over the heads of the viewers? The network always worries about that kind of stuff. There is such a foul quality to what we do that I don’t think we worry about that kind of stuff. As a matter-of-fact when we make the not conscious effort to put in any kind of joke that we thought was funny we got a response immediately. When we mentioned Lydia Lunch and Stiv Bators in Danceteria I knew that joke was for five people yet 10 of them laughed—I’m doubling my numbers! It was a joke from my childhood but I thought, you know, I’m not that singular. If you write from what you legitimately think is funny, and the references aren’t tossed out only to go, “look what I know.” They are tossed out because, one they are funny, two they evoke immediate nostalgia. If you can create nostalgia from a place that nobody is tickling like Lydia Lunch, that is not a place that a lot of teams are willing to tickle, fuck. I tell ya, Gilmore Girls where they reference Echo and the Bunnymen, there is immediately a place where they stop and say, “See what we just did? We just referenced Echo and the Bunnymen.” Who fucking cares?
It seems like you are very aware of internet comments. The internet age has altered all of our behavior. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. A lot of people use the internet poorly. They get on it and they think that because they are in their pajamas and the room is dark that nobody is paying attention. They go through these asinine tirades and then they have to deal with the regret. You learn responsibility by just seeing that happens around you, or once in your youth when you were a jackass.
Do you have one of those stories from your youth? I got my girlfriend’s parents kicked off of AOL back in the day. I went into a chat room saying that I was nine, but I was older, and I threatened a kid that I was going to “Slice him anus to mouth, gut him, and wear him like a pair of house slippers.” Which I thought was funny. When I say it now it is horrific, and even then it didn’t work because the kid said, “Fuck you.” Then I said, “I am going to shove my hand up your ass and work you like a Charlie McCarthy doll.” It was the Charlie McCarthy reference that gave away that I wasn’t nine. This was still a long time ago, I am a learned man, I know my puppetry history, but I said I was nine.
Did you have to face the music from her parents? When the parents came home I had to tell them that I got them kicked off AOL. What I should have told them is that it’s not going to matter anymore, it’s like getting kicked off of Prodigy, who cares? It mattered then. I got yelled at by her dad. Getting yelled at by your own dad sucks, getting yelled at by somebody else’s dad is worse. You say words like “Sir,” even though you don’t mean them. Of all the terrible things I’m doing to your daughter I’m sorry about the AOL.
Do you read internet comments on The Venture Bros.? I used to read that crap and I’d get angry because people didn’t get it. There’s never a part of my life when I’m pleased. No matter what you say to me you can never say it in the right way. Which is fine, that little bit of fire gives my gears a purpose to turn. You read that stuff and even when they were correct they weren’t correct enough. The worst is when they make predictions. If we catch them and it’s something that we are planning—well, we got to throw that out now. I think Jackson reads them though — he is on top of the early returns like it’s an election. When the show will air, Jackson sneaks into his favorite board and sees how it went.
What do you think of the concept of fan message boards in general?
I’m a fan of things. I have seen every episode of many shows and can quote them but I have never gone onto a message board and told people where they shanked it. It’s a goddamn TV show. We have a lot of fans, we have fans that know the episode numbers and then the fans who watch the TV show and they are real fans. Reading the boards gives you a false impression; you are reading the opinion of someone who wants to share it and that is a small part of our demographic. And our fans are smart, when you read our comments they are not like “duurrr.” They are astute. That’s the problem with having smart fans, when they don’t like something, they don’t like it with accuracy. That hurts.
Where do your ideas come from? We are not reinventing the wheel—we have driven the car to stupid places, but the wheel is there. The characters come from exactly the place that you think they would come from. Some of them come from the dumbest fucking name that you would think they would come from. Some of the things Jackson and I come up with just sound hilarious to us and then they become part of the world. Like Spider Skull Island was just something I said and we made it real. The idiocy of a Spider Skull, which made two grown men giggle, becomes canon. We’re piling up bad ideas and puns and making them live.
Can you tell us a bit about how the medium of television allows you to do things with The Venture Bros. that you couldn’t do in another medium? You can say things and use language that you could never use in movies. You can use Balzac-sized casts that you could never use in movies because you have the A plot and the surrounding Bs and Cs but now you can have everybody have a plot and sometimes they intertwine and sometimes they don’t and you can follow the ones that you like. It is fascinating. In the beginning we always wanted that but obviously nobody is going to accept that from cartoons so we had to keep some sort of modularity and as we’ve shown what we can do and having people enjoy this form of long-form storytelling we have indulged ourselves. In Season 5 we were indulgent. And Season 6 is going to be more indulgent to that idea. In the beginning we discussed an arc in the past two seasons and we have been writing it out. We say this is what the season is, and then we’ll start placing episodes. Now we have arcs and character development that extend well past that.
How do you feel about people considering television to be a lesser medium when compared to other arts? I think right now we are in a Golden Age of Television. Television is arguably better than movies, some of it gets up to the realm of literature, and I know that I’m supposed to hate TV. I know that I am supposed to tell you that I don’t own a TV because I am fucking cool but my TV is pretty goddamn good. If you use your TV responsibly or even irresponsibly you are going to get something out of your TV if you have the ability to glean. Now you have Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, all these shows are taking a story, a novelization of TV, and it makes for a different viewing experience.
Tell us about how you were able to get J.G. Thirlwell involved with the show. He is just great and he said Yes. Jackson was really into Manorexia and I was a huge fan of the earlier stuff and this was a coup. Jackson is more of a proactive professional whereas I am an idiot. I was thinking that he is a grown-up and he wouldn’t want to work with us. The idea that we are going to pay him TV money to make a show, something that he would like to do with his adult life now, it didn’t even occur to me. I was thinking he is a genius and makes supercool music, he is not going to want to make “cartoon fun-time.” But he did. What he has added to the show, I can’t think of our show without his music. The music is that inherent, that correct. It is the temperature of the room.
Since the fans have such strong connections to the characters how hard is it to decide to kill a character? Sometimes Jackson and I have arguments. Killing is a big thing. Sometimes we’ll go “Do you want to kill this so and so” and he’ll say, “Oh my god, like four seasons ago.” And then I’ll have the ones where I’ll say who I want to kill and he’ll say that’s the dumbest fucking thing. And then sometimes you’ll have to give him something else, like you’ll say well then you can do that thing. It is like any partnership. It is just us. I don’t know if that has ever happened before on TV, to have two people write for the fucking nine years that that show has been on, we are the only writers. One time we had Ben (Edlund) write one, Ben is our brother from The Tick. To have him come in and write one was to repay that collective mind-pool, there is consistency in thought between Ben’s work and Jackson and my work.
You and Jackson also tend to do the bulk of the voices on the show. We got into doing the voices because we are cheap and I am funny. My voices are awful; they all sound the same to me except the two-headed guy. I either deepen my voice or make my voice higher. They are all the same except for the drunk Obi Wan voice I do for the Red Mantle. I do quiz boy’s mom and Gary’s mom, “Gary! What are you doing in there!” Quiz boy’s mom is just a bad Carol Channing impression. I see it in the realm of the Muppets; Jackson is amazing, but I have two voices Yoda and Grover and they are the same fucking guy. I like that we keep the writers as the ones doing the performance so it is nice to have the delivery of our lines. Our scripts look like transcripts, very tight, no deviation, except for when you get an H. John Benjamin then you want him to deviate. Why fucking hire him if he is not going to go off? That’s the gift, that he can read your lines and do it his way.
Any new characters we can look forward to? I have been trying to come up with a guy called G. Gordon Lightfoot. Which is G. Gordon Liddy and Gordon Lightfoot. I got the G. Gordon Liddy part—kills a man with his thumb—as we all have vague memories of G. Gordon Liddy. But Gordon Lightfoot, all I know is that I think he is Canadian. He doesn’t have a famous haircut or anything. One day I will find a way to make G. Gordon Lightfoot work, because that is a great name.
And you have characters with tattoos. Brock’s got a naked guy on him. And 21 has a tramp stamp of a butterfly from the same tattoo parlor. 21 also has a belly rocker that says Hench 4 Life. That’s funny, it’s hard-core.
Do you have any early recollections of tattoos? When I was a kid I saw a guy get into a fight. He looked like a regular guy dressed up, but when he took his shirt off he was covered in just an unbelievable amount of prison tattoos. I almost crapped myself. I found it to be the most beautiful, the most arcane, the most martial thing I have ever seen. It looked like he had come to fucking play. That second skin, that idea that he said, “I am this.” Tattoos are like taking off your suit and you are wearing a Superman costume. I have turned myself into a monster, do you want to fight this? It is an image that I have been stuck with. Now when I take off my shirt I am a different person.
When did you start working on your second skin? I was in my teens—I got my first band tattooed on my shoulder. I wanted that kind of dirty connection with the band, and it was done when tattoos were still illegal in New York. I was in Brooklyn in somebody’s fucking apartment and the first thing you did when you walked in back then is look for an autoclave. You didn’t go in with this blind trust; you needed to know what was going on the whole time. You would hear his mom scream, “What are you doing up there?” When you get your first tattoo as a kid it is fucking awesome because there is a moment where the pain is nothing but there’s the pain of permanency. Your body loses the ability to take in air properly, your heart rises, your head gets heavy, and your face gets sweaty—and then you have this guy who goes, “Oh, I can make a bat out of this.” No! One, he is fucking it up and to save it he wants to make a bat out of your logo. All the panic you have right then is about calming him down and focusing on driving him through it all because he wanted to make your tattoo into the shape of a bat.
Bats were definitely popular. Yes, and this was well before the age of when TV told you that every tattoo was a death memorial. Back then you could just get badass tattoos. It wasn’t like, “Why do you have an octopus, because your child died of cancer?” No, you like the fucking octopus. Everybody has turned into walking coffins, for Christ’s sake—it is like a graveyard on you. I have no death memorials and it never occurred to me that when something bad happens I want to look at it all the time.
You have a very particular style to your work. People can take all the money that they want and get the best tattoos, but can you go get a bullshit, blown-out, faded, poorly done line? You can’t; you have to wait 20 fucking years and have a memory of a kitchen. I love that; I think it is so beautiful. What people call a bad tattoo I think is an awesome tattoo. It is the idiot college thing that you did—don’t touch it up, don’t put a flower over it, be proud of that thing. There’s a beauty to it. It is this lovely choice that you made. They are beautiful. I get emotional thinking about how beautiful some of the most janked-up tattoos are.
To you, janky tattoos can be art? If you make a good decision you never have to go back on it. We are an amalgamation of our choices, so make good ones. I made a good decision when I was younger to get a tattoo that looks, dare I say, Russian prison style, and what I consider tribal tattoos. Now what tribal has come to mean in the nomenclature are those weird lines that guys get that is some very specific kind of surfboard aesthetic. What fucking tribe is that? My designs look tribal because I am connected to something.
Do you see a lot of The Venture Bros. tattoos? I have seen tattoos of me on people and that is freaky. But to see the Venture stuff, when I was designing them I did them under the aesthetic that these were going to be eternal designs, so they make good tattoos.
Will you ever get a Venture tattoo? I always considered it but I’ll see somebody with one and say I can’t do it. In the old days I wanted to do the Guild’s dragon—the one that was for the protectors of the Orb—which was like a circle with a big sword through it with a dragon.
But the window for that passed? I think about all the tattoos that I would have gotten at a certain age. As a kid it would have been all Star Trek logos. Then there’s that realm of the stupid Black Flag logo, the Misfits skull, the Bad Brains, some bullshit, a Dag Nasty logo on your back. I could totally have hardcore bands on me if it were not for the grace of tattooers not tattooing a 10-year-old.
What are most of your tattoos? My tattoos are all artist signatures or bands. I am a big proponent of standing on the backs of giants. Painting means the world to me; it is kind of how I understand the world. There is painting in every aspect of writing, there is painting in every aspect of music—it is the understanding and decoding of something. And these are important people to me. There is a reason why Rembrandt is the last tattoo on my right hand—the last sentiment that I want to make is that his perfection can guide my hand. And he’s my favorite band—my best favorite band. You know how you have the favorite band that you loved as a kid and then you have a favorite band that you keep listening to but don’t like that much? Maybe it was Captain Beefheart or Zappa and then there is this kind of band that was a bit challenging and then when you get it, the heavens open up and that’s all you want in your life, it’s sublime. Rembrandt is my adult love. He is my song, he is my jam!
You write, you play music, and you create art. What do you see yourself as? When I close my eyes and go, What am I? It’s a painter. It is tough being me, man, I’m going to give you a lamentation that involves some brutal self-awareness and sounds egocentric but it really is not: The idea of being somebody who does multiple disciplines doesn’t go over well. People go, “Oh, Fred Gwynne paints? Oh, Herman Munster paints pictures of houses.” The idea that you can take something deadly serious and do it across the board isn’t well received.
Do you think you’ll be remembered as a painter? I have been painting far longer and it is strong—it is as strong as the The Venture Bros. but it is not The Venture Bros. It doesn’t even appeal to the same people. Same thing with the band—I want people to find the band and then as a footnote learn about me. But selling Weep to Venture fans is like owning a tobacco and chocolate store. If someone comes in for some chocolate you tell them, “And you are going to want a cigarette.” They are two fine things—and yes, I am saying that a cigarette is a fine thing—but they are not for the same thing. I do art in three different ways. In my heart of hearts, in my most egocentric moments, I think hopefully people will sort this out and say, “He’s just a fucking artist.”