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October 13, 2015

Robot Chicken Takes On the Superheroes

The satiric animated series turns 10 and continues its take on the DC universe.

Sarah Hirsch

Robot Chicken co-creators and executive producers Seth Green and Matt Senreich recently celebrated the 10 year anniversary of their cult-favorite, stop-motion sketch series.

On October 18 the Emmy Award-winning duo, along with their partners Eric Towner and John “Harv” Harvatine IV at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, will kick off their late-night sitcom’s eighth season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim with the third and final installment of their DC comics-satirizing trilogy.

Following the first (Aquaman-centric) DC special in 2012 and the second (subtitled Villains in Paradise) in 2014, the last chapter, Robot Chicken DC Comics Special III: Magical Friendship, follows the Batman and Superman bromance as it takes a competitive turn.

Emmy magazine contributor Sarah Hirsch was on hand to interview Green and Senreich together, followed by an interview with Robot Chicken head writer Tom Root, director Tom Sheppard and 1960’s Batman star himself, Burt Ward, television’s original Robin.

Seth Green & Matt Senreich

You guys recently celebrated 10 years on Robot Chicken and one of your animators just won a Creative Arts Emmy, congratulations.

Senreich: Thank you, yeah, Brad Schaffer.

Green: That’s always the best thing, when people get individual achievements, it’s just so special.

Senreich: We’ve been so lucky. A bunch of the crew, I would say like four or five of our animators, maybe even more now, have gotten individual achievements. It’s amazing to see the talent that comes through our office and gets awarded by the voters.

And clearly you’re doing something right when even the episode title gets a laugh from the crowd [for “Bitch Pudding Special”].

Senreich: When we submitted that I was like, “There’s no way that they’re going to go for this, but that animation is so good.”

Green: The show Emmy that we won [in 2010] is for the Robot Chicken “Full-Assed Christmas Special.” And it says that on all of our plaques! But Andy [Samberg’s plaque] says “Dick in a Box.”

You did a similar trilogy for Star Wars, and I read that you were invited to Skywalker Ranch, so clearly you’re working with people who are okay with you satirizing their content.

Green: I think we go out of our way to make them feel comfortable. We’re not making fun of anything. Every joke we make is coming from our deep love and comprehension of the material. If you try to neuter what is good about the show, because you’re protective of the brand, you eliminate the opportunity to get the collaboration you’re actually looking for.

Senreich: Yeah, we’re holding their hand along the way, we’re not saying, “Hey these characters are terrible and this is why.” We’re saying these characters are awesome and we’re just going to turn them a little on their side.

Green: We’re going to have fun making them a little more human and pointing out the things that are relatable, when they seem so fantastic.

Right, like Batman, who, as it was pointed out in the special, doesn’t actually have any powers.

Green: That’s my favorite thing about that character, that’s why I love Batman, and probably why I love Spiderman in the same way. Because, at the end of the day, they’re just people, and they have to do people stuff.

Batman is rich and people ignore the fact that he is a crazy person. Like, should be on medicine kind of a crazy person. He goes out, fights crime, protects truth and justice, and also sits on a loose association with a bunch of other superheroes that he’s secretly policing.

They don’t even know that if they go out of sorts he’s going to kill them. He’s the best.

Have you had any backlash at all from the superfans who think you’re not respecting the characters?

Green: We are superfans. I think they feel the way we feel.

Senreich: Yeah, they get it too. These are the conversations that geeks and nerds have had all of our lives. The fact that we get to play them out now is amazing. Geoff [Johns] has been a friend of ours forever, that whole first special that we did came from conversations we’ve had over the time we’ve known each other.

There was about a two year gap between the specials, correct?

Senreich: I think they’ve been about a year and a half, it’s just the production of animation.

Green: People don’t really understand how long it takes to produce stop.

Senreich: We started our sixth, seventh, and now our eighth season with the specials.

Green: And you have to imagine that it’s 20 weeks of production, and that leads us into an additional 11 months of production on the regular season, so it’s 11 to 15 months for the total run. We’re all just tired by the end of it. You need to take a minute to remember how to have fun.

One of the things that’s so cool about your show is you have these little segments that sometimes only last for a second or two. Especially for an ongoing special like this one, are you collecting ideas for those moments year round?

Senreich: No, I don’t think so.

Green: If something strikes you funny. You called me early on about the Batman/Superman thing, and you called me about the villains one too. You were like, “The next special is all villains.”

So in the months leading up to it we were like, “What would be funny?” And we were doing little bits of research and stuff, but we mostly leave it to the spontaneity of the group.

Senreich: When the writers in that room have known each other for as long as they have, you want the conversations to evolve naturally and spark the silliness that comes from that.

Green: It’s the personalities.

Senreich: The concept usually starts with Geoff and I going out for dinner and literally just laughing and saying, “Okay, the next one’s going to be about this.” Literally, that’s how it starts. The villains special came out of a sushi dinner and this one came out of a Mexican dinner.

Green: With the first one, there were so many pitches about Aquaman, that we realized he was the through line. When the room started putting it together, it built to something. You take a lot of sketches that are funny and then you figure out where the through line is.

So was the original DC pitch to Geoff?

Green: [To Senreich] It was his idea, wasn’t it?

He approached you guys?

Senreich: Geoff and I started together in the TV world. We were writing partners and we wrote our first two pilots together.

Then Seth and I got Robot Chicken and he got his DC job at about the same time. We brought him in to write some stuff for Robot Chicken, and then we were just hanging out one day and he was like, “Now that I’m working at DC we should do something like this.”

And then the next day we were doing it. It was so casual in how it came about.

So you guys have done Star Wars, you’ve done DC. What’s next? Is there another trilogy on the horizon?

Senreich: There is one on the horizon… [trails off]

No comment?

Senreich: [laughs] No comment, but it’s a good one.

Green: It’s been brewing for a minute. We’re hopeful that it will actually come together.

Senreich: It’s similar to a Geoff Johns situation, where it’s someone we’ve known for a while.

Green: Their thing is in a position where we could maybe work… [To Senreich] You’ve already said too much!

Senreich: Let’s let the deal play out.

Green: You have to make sure that there’s a universe that is dense enough to play with, so you’re not telling the story of a single character. That’s why we haven’t done an Indiana Jones thing, because as much as we love Indiana Jones it’s very hard to tell stories all around that universe. So we always look for that.

Tom Root, Tom Sheppard & Burt Ward

How did the collaboration with DC start? Matt was saying that it all began over sushi and Mexican dinners.

Root: I don’t know if I was at that dinner. From the very beginning, our show has included DC comics in our targets, for comedy. So I think it was really easy for DC to visualize what our special would look like because we had been doing jokes about Batman and Superman for a long time. I wish I was at this dinner though, it sounds delicious.

Sheppard: Yeah, I never heard about this dinner.

Were you worried about satirizing such beloved characters?

Root: We feel like characters this iconic are sort of bullet proof. There’s no thread you can pull at Superman and undo him.

Bullet proof. No pun intended.

Root: Exactly. So when we have our fun with them, I don’t ever feel like we have to protect them from us. There’s nothing we’re going to do to harm them.

What was the preparation like between each installment?

Root: The writing has to happen before any of the other stages, because of the way animation works. So the writing gets sprung on us kind of quickly, then we write very quickly, and then it’s over. We don’t have a lot of time to reflect.

We get a lot of time to massage it later as we record voices and do story boards, and when we get to the animation stage. But writing-wise, it feels like it happens very fast.

Sheppard: There’s less than a month.

[To Sheppard] And this was your first time directing a DC special for Robot Chicken, right? What was that like for you?

Sheppard: It was exciting. I tried not to let it get overwhelming. When the idea first came up I was really excited about it, and then I think Seth sensed that I was extremely nervous about directing hundreds of characters bursting through the multiverse into our world.

Root: This is Tom’s first season directing Robot Chicken. And the very first episode he did was this gigantic special. [To Sheppard] And you had never done stop-motion before, had you?

Sheppard: No, no.

Root: So it was this very non-linear thing. We all felt for him, but did not offer any help at all.

Sheppard: Everyone was silently supportive.

What were your favorite moments in this special?

Sheppard: I love the Burt Ward stuff. That’s probably my favorite.

That’s so cool that you guys got him and Adam West. What was that like, working with them?

[Burt Ward joins the interview]

We were just talking about the fact that you and Adam West were involved in this project and how amazing that is.

Root: We were very excited.

Ward: I was excited because these guys are really great. You know, if you have people that are really talented, you want to work with them. It just makes you feel good.

Sheppard: It’s pretty surreal working on this show, getting to work with Adam and Burt. And Alfred Molina plays Lex Luthor, and we had him sing a song at the end of the episode, and he just dives in and is game.

Root: With actors like Alfred it’s like, “I don’t know if he’s going to be able to do this song.” And then of course he’s a super talented actor and you’re like, “Oh, that’s why he works over and over and over again.” He’s awesome, and it’s so fun to work with people of that caliber.

How does the collaboration with Adam and Burt work? I’m assuming you have pretty tight scripts, but is there any improvising that happens?

Root: I think by the time Burt and Adam were recording, the script was pretty much locked down, but [to Ward] you saw an earlier version of the script and had some suggestions for it, which I think were great. The show is for mature audiences and Burt’s concern was that his character remains PG.

Ward: For kids, and for not having to explain myself later, but also for me. This is such a wild and crazy, wonderful, amazing show and they have such a team of artists, it’s fantastic. I just wish it was on earlier in the evening so the whole world could see it.

Did you have a favorite moment, from the special?

Ward: Yes; all of my parts, the stuff with Adam and I. You know, I love working with Adam. He’s such a fun, goofy, crazy, unexpected person. And I thought he did a great job with what he did. I still haven’t had a chance to ask either of the two Toms, how is it that Adam did the voice of another character?

Root: Well, here’s the thing, our show has a very limited budget, and we’re on very late at night…

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