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Dexter and Dee Dee Return: A Talk with Genndy Tartakovsky

With the release of ‘Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series’ from Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment, the groundbreaking writer/director/artist discusses all things ‘Dexter,’ girl power, listening to your gut, and the glories of cartoony-ness.

Way back in 1996, Genndy Tartakovsky, who would go on to win multiple Primetime Emmy Awards for such shows as Samurai Jack and Primal, as well as directing the first three movies in the Hotel Transylvania franchise, created a series for Cartoon Network called Dexter’s Laboratory. Chronicling the adventures of boy genius Dexter, who creates amazing inventions in his home laboratory while contending with the provocations of his sister Dee Dee and an ongoing rivalry with classmate Mandark, the series was itself nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards and helped define the style of Cartoon Network.

Now, for the first time on DVD, all 78 episodes from the classic cartoon series, plus the special Dexter's Laboratory: Ego Trip, are brought together in one set by Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment. Dexter’s Laboratory: The Complete Series is available for purchase online and in-store at major retailers for $69.99 SRP (U.S. and Canada), while individual episodes and seasons can be purchased digitally on Prime Video, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu and more.

To celebrate the landmark event, we spoke with creator Tartakovsky about his groundbreaking series, his other groundbreaking series Powerpuff Girls, and the many ways in which, over the years, he has often been ahead of his time.

Dan Sarto: Very few artists are the creators of one great franchise, let alone several. If I’m not mistaken, Dexter's Lab was your breakthrough. What’s it like to look back on that now?

Genndy Tartakovsky: It was absolutely. I wasn't successful before Dexter. Nobody liked my storyboards. People criticized my timing. My design ability wasn't great. I was struggling in the industry. But I knew I had a voice because, in the storyboards that I did for people, I was doing it a very specific way, a way that I thought was entertaining. But people were always changing things.

Then this opportunity came along to do Dexter for Cartoon Network, and I just decided to do it exactly the way I wanted to. That was their deal back in those days. You got to do it and, if it succeeded, it was because of you. If it failed, it was because of you. There were no excuses. You couldn't say, "That executive made me do this."

I decided I was going to put in everything that everybody had been changing and see how it went. Luckily, it worked and it became successful because of it. That was really the birth of everything that I do to this day. I look back at it very fondly. I mean, I would have no career if it weren't for Dexter.

DS: How did you come up with idea originally?

GT: It came from my second-year student film at CalArts, which was basically the story of Dee Dee, the skinny ballerina – like a stick. Then I go, "She's really fun to animate. Very simple. I'm going to do what's opposite of her, a little boy that's a square. She's about art and he's about science," and that was the birth of it. That was it.

Then I just put together this little story. He's got science, so they have this remote control that changes them into different animals, and that's where it started.

That was my reel at the time. The producer, Larry Huber, who was at Hanna Barbera back in the day, asked to keep my film when I went to work at a different studio.

Then they started Cartoon Network. He showed them the film and they go, "Yeah, we want a cartoon of that. The full seven minutes." I was shocked. Then I decided, well, I'm going to make this the best cartoon that I can make. That I would want to see.

DS: And the rest, as they say, is history. What came next?

GT: We did Dexter. Then, once Dexter was finishing, we were able to keep the crew, and we started Powerpuff Girls. Craig McCracken and I switched roles. He was my art director on Dexter, and then, on Powerpuff, I became his co-director, supervising producer, and he became the showrunner with me. We partnered on the duties. Then, about halfway through the four seasons, I started to get an itch to do something else. That's when I created Samurai Jack.

DS: You mention Craig McCracken, but Dexter also launched a number of other careers. What made this show such a talent incubator?

GT: We were all the same age for the most part. We were all growing our abilities, experimenting, and we were all very like-minded. Craig, Paul Rudish, Rob Renzetti – we all thought very similarly. All our weaknesses got covered by somebody else's strengths. I was good at animation and timing. Craig was great at design and art. So the two made it just levels better.

I don't know how it all happened. None of us ever thought we would do our own shows. That just didn't exist back then. You had to be in your 40s to do a show. Then Cartoon Network started and they had this opportunity to do shorts. We made the shorts. The ones that communicated the best got picked to be a series.

DS: What do you think has made The Powerpuff Girls so enduring?

GT: I think it's the idea that cute can kick ass. It's that juxtaposition – it had this unique, on-the-edge type of feeling. I think that resonated and it became more and more mainstream. We were the Adventure Time of our generation in a way. Our shows were certainly different than what came before us. I think we were able to present ideas that were a little bit more artistic or strange in a more mass-consumption type of way that allowed a normal person to understand them.

DS: Back when you were directing the first Hotel Transylvania film, you talked about how your heavy-duty TV background taught you about the need to keep things moving. Do you still draw from the lessons that you learned way back then?

GT: Yeah, I rely on them a lot, even to this day. Primal was pretty much first blush. This is what we thought of, this is what we're doing, this is what I'm executing. In features, you learn that there’s more than one way, which is great because I fight for my stuff to the death, then I'm forced, maybe, to do it a different way. Then I'm like, "Oh, okay. This works really well too."

That's an inner struggle with me constantly. I've trusted my gut since day one of Dexter. You build an instinct and so you really trust that instinct. Features aren’t built that way. It's more like, put it up, let's dissect it, and try again. I hate that because, for me, there's a spontaneity to filmmaking. I've been very fortunate that I've done my own shows, my way. I'm not about the committee. When you're forced into a fishbowl, where there's an idea and everybody gets to make a comment on it, it removes the purity. Even though some of the comments might be correct. It removes the purity of what I'm trying to do. Especially when people are giving you suggestions how to fix it.

DS: I also remember talking to you about how, in Hotel Transylvania, you brought traditional squash and stretch, so to speak, into a very rigid 3DCG pipeline. Now, in all of the top-level 3DCG animated features, they're using all sorts of different visual elements – something you were doing more than a decade ago.

GT: Yeah. Cartoony animation in features back then was taboo. Nobody wanted it. And somehow I convinced them that this was the type of movie that was the perfect vehicle for it. They let me, and then they said – here’s a quote – "We wouldn't let you do this on any other movie." Then it's successful and all of a sudden they change their whole style. That's the crazy part ... I had to have so much conviction in what I was doing. But, look, features cost a lot of money. You get the one weekend to launch the movie and, if it fails, it fails forever. There's a lot of pressure and I get it. At the same time, I'm the horse you're betting on.

DS: Well, you're in that space now where, if someone brings you onto a show, they're doing it because they know what they're going to get.

GT: For TV, for sure. Features are still a work in progress.

DS: You're still young. You've still got time.

GT: Exactly.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.