Absolutely no one expected a stop-motion sketch comedy series to run for 15 years and more than 200 episodes, let alone the show’s creators. The crude animation, the nerdy pop culture focus and the 15-minute run time were—how shall I put this politely—unconventional at best when the series premiered in 2005.
Yet Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken has defied the odds and surpassed all reasonable expectations as it hopes to captures its seventh Emmy ahead of Sunday’s awards ceremony. What began as a fun one-off for creators Seth Green and Matt Senreich and an excuse to indulge their inner-most childlike comedic whims has improbably morphed into a career.
The satirical series takes aim at celebrities, pop culture and politics in what can be described as the underbelly of a geek’s id. Over the course of its surprisingly extended run, Green and Senreich have learned how to entertain with delirious rapid fire hi-jinx that fit their own comedic voices. Speaking with Observer, Green and Senreich explained how an assist from George Lucas and a love of the lampooned has shaped Robot Chicken‘s improbable run.
Observer: You’ve spoken openly about how you both thought Robot Chicken would be one-and-done. At what point did you first realize this show might have some legs?
Seth Green: At the end of the second season we got picked up for a third season and then I thought, Oh, we can actually probably do this. The concept of rededicating my life 18 months at a time to making a stop-motion sketch-comedy show was not entirely realistic in Season 1. But we had such a clear fan response and what we all agreed was a very unique opportunity to make something that we all though was really fun. Once you get that go-ahead, I realized we’ve got an audience. Then, we had to figure out what we want to say. If we’ve just done this as a fun experiment and now it can turn into something viable as a real opportunity, what do we want to entertain people with?
Matt Senreich: For me, it was when we got a call from Lucasfilm in our second season. They said George [Lucas] had seen the Emperor phone call sketch and liked it, and that he showed it at a board meeting. For me, that was the moment that I realized, Oh, we’re not just this little dinky show. This has longevity. That was the moment I realized this might be something much larger than we had first anticipated.
SG: We initially produced 45 minutes of shorts. We just thought this was a very beginning, middle, end kind of project. When we finished that, it really seemed like there was something so we tried to sell the concept and then outlets caught up to the idea of short-form programming, highly subversive adult animation. All of a sudden, there was a place for us to put this thing. But we still weren’t thinking this was a a job or a real, permanent employment thing. There was no way to imagine what it would grow into. Mike Lazzo, who was running Adult Swim, eventually said in our sixth season that this is our Saturday Night Live. But he also said they have over 100 episodes so they could easily syndicate and, if at any point the budget of the show exceeds its money-making ability, we’re going to just cancel it. (Laughs.)
That must have been cool getting that call from George Lucas. We can say all we want about the prequels, but he is someone who has always invited parody and satire and been very fan-first in that regard, which is something Robot Chicken is built around.
SG: I don’t know that he gets that kind of credit, the credit he deserves as an innovator and as a filmmaker and as a futurist, but also as someone with an incredible sense of humor and a real understanding of how he’s seen and what his creations have brought to the world.
You’ve said that Robot Chicken first comes from ideas that make you both laugh. But what other considerations enter the formula when you’re brainstorming?
SG: The story should come from everywhere. We take it from anywhere. We definitely pay attention to what everybody else is doing, but less in relation to what we’re doing and more just, like, are we crossing the same territory? In the writers room, people pitch stuff all the time that’s heavy and zeitgeist, and we’ll do a quick internet search to see if anyone else has already done this joke or some version of it. It’s shocking how many people have the same comedic idea at the same time.
MS: And for us, with the writers room, we bring in younger writers who, especially nowadays, know the properties that exist. It’s about what their childhood was, what is nostalgic for them, and does it make us all laugh? That’s really all it is; a room of eight people sitting around trying to make each other laugh about some sort of property. We’re playing with toys and that’s our biggest mandate. Does this make sense to be done with action figures, as opposed to can you just do this in live action?
Even though you make fun of genre and the cultures that exist around film, TV, and video games, it always feels like it’s from a place of love rather than mockery. Is that a conscious choice?
SG: Very conscious. We’re not interested in dragging people. This isn’t really about shaming anybody for being a dick. We just think there are some inherent silliness to the most popular of things. If we can highlight that in a way that’s funny without coming from a base or insulting place, that’s the sharpest version of commentary.
MS: I always say, we like to take absurd worlds and make then mundane. There’s a reason that Adult Swim sensibility has all blossomed at the same time. You see what they’re doing on Rick and Morty, it’s about a family, it’s just this crazy world that they’ve built around it.
The show is a series of quick sketches. Do you ever think it would be easier to include more longer-form storylines, which you’ve done with the Star Wars specials, as opposed to being forced to come up with 10-plus ideas for every episode?
SG: It’s so funny the way you think of it versus the way we think of it. When we sit down to do a full-length episode whether it’s “Bitch Pudding” or the finale this year, we don’t think about it as the extra work of coming up with all the different sketches. We really think about the opportunity to tell a long-form story. So it’s not a negative as much as it’s just a decision about how we’re going to tell it.
MS: Also, when you refer to the Star Wars specials, we partner up with those companies because we’re excited to do a full episode with that. We make sure to pick properties that can support those. DC has a ginormous universe over the last 90 years, or The Walking Dead, at its height, was huge. We make a point to go after those things. It’s about those relationships and how funny it would be to get those companies to approve our ideas.
I always joke that it’s like a business prom, and at the end of the year, the whole class gets to get together, everybody gets dressed up, you take your pictures, some people get superlatives, but you at least get a free meal.
Is there any subject matter that is off-limits or comedic ground you aren’t willing to cover?
MS: I think anything like that just gets cut. There’s a reason you don’t see; it’s just that simple. The stuff that gets in is the comedy we do.
SG: But you’re asking about a specific comedic line that we won’t cross, and there’s stuff that feels like it’s our voice and stuff that feels like it’s someone else’s voice. There’s obviously an incredibly political climate right now, a lot of hot-button stuff that people want to talk about and there’s some things that are valuable coming from us and some things that are better said through a Colbert or Daily Show or Dave Chappelle. There are things that are not really ours to say, and it also doesn’t make the same sense with us saying it. We really choose our best opportunities to make any kind of statement but we also like to consider our show a refuge from that kind of energy. We would rather—when people come to watch our show—them be entertained and feel like that they are allowed to laugh at all of the silliness that has come from pop culture rather than be steeped again in all of the news or chaotic political climate of our planet right now. Nobody is coming to watch Robot Chicken to see that shit.
I’ve always loved a show like South Park such, which has such an astute and boiled-down social commentary, and they never take a position as much as they clearly represent the ludicrousness of either argument. They’re so impressive and we’re not that kind of show but we aspire to the same kind of commentary.
Robot Chicken has already claimed six Emmy awards. Are awards shows just old news at this point or still validating and exciting?
SG: Look you can pooh-pooh the whole concept or talk about the perceived corruptibility of any of those award shows, but it is as simple as this. We are making this kind of stuff to be considered amongst our peers annually as excellent, that feels great and it is really validating. And even if we don’t win, it does mean something to continue to be invited to this thing. I always joke that it’s like a business prom, and at the end of the year, the whole class gets to get together, everybody gets dressed up, you take your pictures, some people get superlatives, but you at least get a free meal and it’s being invited to your prom every year. There’s something about that, you get to gather with all the people in your industry and your shared field. You get to look at each other and say “Holy shit, that was a year, right, high five.” And whether anybody wins or if you win, it is meaningful to get to maintain our presence in our community.
MS: That sounded better. It really is, I always say it’s very shocking.
SG: You have to sort of compartmentalize the concept of being accoladed for any work that you do. I don’t know that anybody’s entirely comfortable with that or it’s like, I deserve this. Whenever anyone is like “I deserve this award” I’m like, “Hey pal, put more time into your work and a little less into the public speaking.”
What is one thing Robot Chicken fans would be surprised to learn about the show?
SG: I think it’s just how long it takes, how much work goes into it. I think people really imagine me in my basement like posing toys, and it’s like 200 people and 15 months to make a season of the show. When anybody comes and sees it in person, whenever anybody comes to the shop and sees every aspect of the show being created on site, it’s overwhelming, the enormity of it.
MS: Good answer.
SG: But that’s also our best trick, that’s our best magic trick, is taking all this work and making it look like something that’s effortless, making it look like something that’s handmade.
MS: I mean, if it’s just about what people wouldn’t know about the show, that we actually modify all the toys probably is what it is. As many times as you’ll see the actual action figures on there, we learned very easily the first season that the real toys will start to flop and won’t hold their poses, so we’ll deconstruct the toys and put in some sort of wire armature into them and re-build them around it so that way—
SG: We got way better at concealing it, in the early seasons, it’s very visible.
MS: You’ll see heads that are popping off. But yeah that’s always the one thing that people don’t know as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.