The Release of Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series Has Genndy Tartakovsky Looking Back at Where He Started

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The Release of Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series Has Genndy Tartakovsky Looking Back at Where He Started

In the mercurial world of animation, change happens on a dime. Major studios, networks, and companies that were synonymous with the animation industry just aren’t around anymore. Luckily, iconic and celebrated artists still remain and continue to create, like industry legend Genndy Tartakovsky. 

28 years ago, Tartakovsky’s series Dexter’s Laboratory helped launch Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Cartoon originals, and the animated series about a science-enthusiastic boy genius is now considered a modern classic. And Tartakovsky has continued to stay with the network, creating Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Sym-Bionic Titan, and his most recent for Adult Swim, Primal and Unicorn: Warriors Eternal.

Long overdue, Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series has finally been collected with all 78 episodes and the movie Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip. Paste reconnected with Tartakovsky to discuss the legacy of the series and how it continues to influence his comedic instincts and animation goals to this day. 

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Paste Magazine: It’s been 28 years since Dexter’s Laboratory’s debut, and it remains a beloved modern classic. I think the biggest initial question, and one you’ve probably gotten quite a bit, is: why has it taken so long for the series to be compiled like this? 

Genndy Tartakovsky: You know, I don’t have an answer. (Laughs) Sometimes, they’ll make DVDs of things that are revered, but is anybody interested in it? But I definitely know… nostalgia is so big nowadays and it has been for a while now. Anywhere I go to speak or [where] I do drawings, people have asked me to draw Dexter stuff. Or they’ll have Dexter stories about how they watched it with their parents, and they’re showing their kids now and everything. And so maybe it’s just kind of bubbled up to whomever the decision makers are because it’s not like I pushed anybody to do this. I’m trying to push all these other things. [Laughs] And so when something comes out of the past like this, that’s great. I’m obviously super supportive of it, but it still feels like Dexter is… I don’t know if relevant is the right word? But it’s still alive.

Paste: When a collection comes up like this, does it spur you to take a minute and revisit the show and maybe immerse yourself back in the headspace of where you were back then?

Tartakovsky: A little bit, but in a different way because [Adult Swim] had that show Checkered Past. One day, I was just channel surfing and it popped on. It was Dexter, Dexter, Samurai Jack, Samurai Jack. I was like, “Wow! A whole Genndy marathon.”  [Laughs] I put on Dexter and the biggest revelation that I had was that I saw all the beginnings of everything that I wanted to do because that was kind of like my first playground. And here’s all the things I’ve wanted to do: I want to do drama, I want to do comedy, I want to do cartoony things, and I want to do melodrama. And there it was, just kind of raw in places. But then I look at it and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m doing the same thing, just better now. Or, slightly different.” 

The biggest thing that always resonates is that we made those characters alive. And that’s a really hard thing. Sometimes, when you watch a cartoon, it’s a cartoon. You don’t see the characters think. And that’s a big, weird thing. Then when I was watching [Dexter]—and being so removed from watching it for such a long time—I got to appreciate it on a different level that I never really have. It was great. I mean, it looks rickety like crazy because it’s still on film and shaky and stuff compared to everything that’s digital now, which is perfect.

Paste: Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip, which is included in this collection, was your first film. With your current work on Primal Season 3 and the upcoming Sony Animation adult comedy, Fixed, can you see a creative thread connecting what you did with your first film through to what you’re doing today?

Tartakovsky: Yeah. One, you’re trying to not repeat yourself, right? And then two, there’s ideas that I keep doing until I do them right. Sometimes it’s the way I execute, maybe an action sequence. Or a lot of times, the hardest thing to do is humor and to tell a joke. It’s incredibly difficult to really make somebody laugh with different types of senses of humor. So I’m constantly trying to figure out how to do that properly. I think Dexter was probably the least amount of thought because we were so young. We were just, “Here’s a joke, and then I’m telling it. And here’s a joke, and I’m telling it.” [Laughs] But in actuality, it needs so much more crafting. And sometimes, I got lucky. Obviously, it was successful. But if I knew everything that I know now, like 50% more jokes would have been funnier. And so we’re constantly learning with every new project. You get your experience that you can take on to the next project, and get smarter about it. But looking back at it, it has all the beginnings of everything I’m doing, even now. We were doing episodes with no dialogue back then and I’m still doing it. 

Paste: You’ve continued to make comedies primarily for films in the Hotel Transylvania franchise and Fixed. Have you figured out found your sweet spot with what makes you laugh?

Tartakovsky: It’s character. Hotel had a lot more little schticky-type stuff. But with anything that I do, for the most part, it’s based on character. It’s not about the line that they say, it’s about the character and how funny I can make them. And that’s a really hard thing. Like, Mr. Bean is a perfect example. That’s the level that I tried to get to, and it’s super difficult because you’ve got to make a character that’s alive, a character that you can feel, and [have] do these things so uniquely, that they make you laugh. I think that’s the one through-line between types of humor. Like, Fixed is adult and we push the envelope. But at the end of the day, we’re still kind of doing a similar thing. And Dexter and Didi were brother and sister, so it’s that relationship that we were doing. And I didn’t even know we were doing that. I mean, obviously, I knew we were doing a brother and sister [dynamic]. But I wasn’t smart enough back then to really realize, “Oh, I gotta lean into all these accessible sibling feelings.” We did it by accident, honestly. 

Paste: Does Dexter feel a bit like a time capsule seeing what you drew from your relationship with your brother?

Tartakovsky: Yeah, there’s a little bit. But being a parent of three kids that are older now, there’s so much. I could go back and do 52 more episodes, easy, with just all the stuff that I knew from my kid’s relationships and my parental relationships. There’s so much to mine. None of us were parents [on Dexter]. And so we were leaning on things, but then we were leaning on their character, more so. Experience counts for a lot, for sure. 

Paste: After the death of Christine Cavanaugh (who voiced Dexter) in 2014, you said you wouldn’t want to revisit Dexter’s Laboratory without her. It’s been a decade, and now that this collection finally exists, is this truly the button on the series?

Tartakovsky: It feels like it’s done? And half jokingly, I always say, “I’m saving the Dexter revival for when the industry has thrown me out.” Threw me up, threw me out, and then I go, “Well, how about a Dexter revival?” [Laughs] 

It’s my first baby. It’s very special. Even when there was another season done after she passed away and I wasn’t involved, I even kind of regret that a little bit. There was some good stuff there. They had some great ideas. I wish I could have been more involved because Dexter was so personal. The voices of the characters and the kinds of stories we told and the way we told them, it was all the beginning of the style that I was developing. It’s just very personal. 

Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series is available now for digital purchase or on DVD.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, NBC Insider, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios, Avatar: The Way of Water and the upcoming The Art of Ryan Meinerding. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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