I’m a 31-year-old white male geek who writes for an entertainment and culture publication, so it should largely go without saying that I’ve watched plenty of Adult Swim over the years. That’s basically a given. And because I’m a geek with an offputtingly deep fondness for film and pop culture minutia, it’s almost as obvious that my two favorite Adult Swim shows of all time are naturally The Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty.
From the beginning, these two shows have shared common themes, and I can only assume that the crossover between their fanbases is substantial—the exception being that The Venture Bros. has never achieved the sort of cross-cultural pop zeitgeist status enjoyed by the raunchier Rick and Morty, and remains more of a cult favorite. Just look at reddit, where the Rick and Morty subreddit has roughly 34 times as many subscribers as the Venture Bros. one. But the two shows are absolutely of a kind, in ways I’ll go into more deeply in a moment.
I never realized quite how similar these shows could be until recently, while going back and rewatching old episodes of The Venture Bros.. In particular, there’s one sequence in the season 4 finale, “Operation P.R.O.M.,” which aired in 2010, that is similar—some would say “pretty much the exact same”—as the premise for an entire Rick and Morty episode, season 1’s “Rick Potion #9,” which aired in 2014. Given that both shows still air on the same network, it seems hard to argue that someone involved in Rick and Morty wouldn’t have been aware of just how similar these two bits are.
“Rick Potion #9,” if you don’t immediately recall, is a very important episode in the Rick and Morty canon, written by series co-creator Justin Roiland. It’s that one where Rick creates a “love potion” for Morty to creepily use on the object of his heart’s desire, Jessica. However, because of an unfortunate reaction with the influenza virus, the potion backfires into a chemically unstable mutator that turns the entire world into a bunch of Morty-desiring mantis monsters, before further morphing them into a race of “Cronenbergs.” It’s the first episode in Rick and Morty to result in a particular reality being rendered completely uninhabitable by Rick and Morty’s actions, and forms an important running layer to Morty’s psychological development in particular. But for now, let’s focus on the mantis people, shall we? Observe:
So yep, pretty damn gross, right? But also, pretty damn familiar, if you’d been watching The Venture Bros. for years. Rick mixes up an antidote with praying mantis DNA in an attempt to “balance out” the “mate for life” DNA of voles in the original potion, creating a cocktail that goes terribly wrong. In “Operation P.R.O.M.,” meanwhile, it’s Dr. Venture (who else?) who creates a super scienced “proprietary blend” of the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly from an actual, mutated fly of some sort, desiring to creepily turn “no way Nancys” into “yes I Candys.”
The result in the episode’s closing moments is a big, unexpected payoff, as the entire female congregation of the prom suddenly transforms into … mantis people! Or perhaps they’re supposed to be fly people, but c’mon—just look at these guys. They look very similar to the Rick and Morty mantis people, do they not? They’re both insect monsters created by a botched aphrodisiac potion, which is close enough for me.
So there you have it. Either one hell of a random coincidence in two different shows, or some very direct inspiration. Personally, I have a hard time watching the two scenes without assuming that “Operation P.R.O.M.” is on some level to thank for the mantis portion of “Rick Potion #9.”
After coming to this realization, though, I began to consider what other similarities the two shows might share, and the more I thought about it, the more shared DNA there seems to be. In fact, the deeper similarities between the soul of each show may ultimately be more interesting than a superficial similarity between two gags. Consider these factors:
— Both The Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty were originally conceived as thinly veiled parodies of a specific pop culture classic. Rick and Morty was obviously spoofing the mold of Back to the Future from the time it was a short called Doc and Mharti, while The Venture Bros. was a parody and subversion of classic child adventurer shows and serials in the mold of Johnny Quest and Doc Savage. Hell, Johnny Quest is even a character who occasionally appears on The Venture Bros.
— Both shows are essentially rooted in “super science” as the primary background of the plot and the main characters. Both use super science as a flashy means to an end to tell stories that are ultimately more character driven than they would appear to be from the surface.
— Both shows are about terrible fathers/grandfathers, and children who struggle with their failure to live up to the brilliance of past generations. On The Venture Bros., each generation is a step down in terms of talent—from the beloved genius Jonas Venture Sr. to the uninspiring Rusty Venture, to the moronic Venture Bros. On Rick and Morty, it’s the same—Rick is a supergenius, followed by Beth, who seems to possess “practical intelligence,” followed by Morty, who everyone treats as a dullard. Each time, it’s three generations of degradation.
— Both shows have ingenue kids (Morty, Hank and Dean) who are repeatedly and unwillingly dragged along on dangerous (and often deadly) adventures by an irresponsible parent or guardian (Rick, Dr. Venture) who is either unaware or unsympathetic to the psychological damage they are doing.
— Adventures on both shows often result in the maiming or death of the children, and BOTH shows repeatedly bring the dead kids back to life, either via cloning (The Venture Bros.) or interdimensional replacement grandsons (Rick and Morty).
Endlessly replaceable boy adventurers!
— Both shows feature some of the sharpest and most intellectual comedy writing of the last 15 years, and rely heavily on obscure, eclectic pop cultural deep dive references, in much the same way as MST3K did.
— And finally, both The Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty are shows largely written and performed by only two people—and as a result, both shows are known for their long, protracted gaps between new episodes. You might even say that well before Rick and Morty, The Venture Bros. was pioneering the entire “take forever between seasons due to an inherently slow creative process” model. In the space of 14 years, The Venture Bros. has produced only six seasons, with gaps between seasons as long as three years. Rick and Morty, meanwhile, had a Venture-style gap of two years between season 2 and 3, and perhaps an even longer one awaits us before season 4.
What does this all mean in the end? Not much of consequence, perhaps, but it’s curious to me that as someone who faithfully has watched The Venture Bros. since its first season, I didn’t see more of the connections with Rick and Morty right away. Putting some time into this comparison has made me curious—what, if any, connection is there between the people who have worked for Adult Swim on The Venture Bros. and those who have had some hand in Rick and Morty? Do Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, the co-creators of Rick and Morty, personally know Venture Bros. creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer just because they front similar shows on the same network? Are they each fans of each other’s shows, as one might presume? Is it possible that they’ve never even watched each other’s shows and are unaware of the extent of the similarities?
If I ever end up in a room with one of them, you can be certain I’ll try to find a way to bring it up. Until then, I’ll just go back to simultaneously praying for new seasons of BOTH The Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty. If we’re lucky, we’ll have at least one of the two in 2018—the last update on Venture Bros. suggested that this might not be entirely wishful thinking.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who considers MST3K comparisons the best compliment he can give to a show. You can follow him on Twitter.