Last fall, the twisted minds behind the stop-motion animated series Robot Chicken put their signature spin on the heroes and villains of DC Comics in the Robot Chicken: DC Comics Special. The guys are at it again for a follow-up special expected to air this fall. Collider was invited to a special behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of scripting the show, in which the writers are subjected to a grueling daily extraction of creativity and humor fueled by long-expired Hostess cupcakes in which only the absolute cream of the comedy crop makes the cut. Egos are bruised, personal ailments are dragged into the spotlight for laughs and beloved superheroes are defiled in all new ways. And it all works.
Luckily, DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns is also on hand to make his own contributions and Robot Chicken co-creator-writer-actor Seth Green knows just how far they can push the censors to get away with stop-motion murder. Hit the jump for a recap of my behind-the-scenes visit to DC Comics headquarters and the writers room for the Robot Chicken DC Comics Special.
First of all, for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to check out the interior of DC Comics’ headquarters in Burbank, I have one word for you: magical. It’s not just an impressive space to show off to visitors and celebrity guests, but it feels like such an inspiring and creatively energetic place to work. Just outside the elevator lobby there are racks of new DC comics, followed by a reception area with a treasure trove of DC memorabilia. Bold primary colors attract the eye from all angles, whether it be the power batteries from the various Lantern Corps, the iconic Superman costume or the star-spangled spanx of Wonder Woman. It’s the type of place where one might just happen to hold a special soiree for acclaimed writer Grant Morrison, or where Geoff Johns and Seth Green might introduce themselves to a visiting journo as simply “Geoff” or “Seth,” or where actress Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie) might pop by the writers room to profess her interest in voicing a character. You know, the usual. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bob Kane himself walked through the lobby!
After that little digression, it’s on to the writers room! As I mentioned before, DC HQ appears to be an incredibly inspiring place. Not only are there action figures, collectibles, posters, six-foot-tall statues of Batman (or maybe one actually was Batman … waiting) everywhere to be seen, but there’s also key-card access to a creative vault of archive material. Good thing, too, because the writers will spend each day of the next few weeks cranking out all manner of scenes, jokes, setups, punchlines, channel flips (the brief sequences between sketches) and themes in order to get close to something resembling a script after the Memorial Day holiday.
The room itself is your everyday conference room … if your everyday conference room has a giant three-dimensional Green Lantern symbol standee at one end, encyclopedias of DC characters strewn across the table, a floor-to-ceiling white board and posters of DC’s collection of Super Pets. (Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about those year-old cupcakes, but don’t worry, I don’t think I was roofied.)
After a round of introductions that included the rest of the writing team – Matthew Ireland Beans, Mike Fasolo, Douglas Goldstein, Tom Root, Matthew Senreich, Kevin Shinick, Zeb Wells and Hugh Davidson – we got down to business … namely, reading. The guys had spent all day producing the best they had and it was all condensed down into a 28-page document for the team (including myself) to read. Think of it as a gladiatorial group pitch session in which the voting members of the team act as judge and jury; a thumbs up gets the scene approved for further work in the future while a thumbs down sends it to the lions’ den. Out of 28 pages, maybe a total of five sketches and five short channel flips made the initial cut.
After reading through the packet, the team went through the sketches and shorts one by one. This was the really interesting part to me, the chance to get to see a group of seasoned writers going through and critiquing each other’s work without fear of stepping on toes or pandering to a shot-caller. If a pitch was weak, it was unanimously scrubbed out – and quickly. If a section had a good setup but a flat punchline or vice versa, it was tabled for further review after a quick discussion. Some ideas needed an impromptu performance read in order to get the tone or the timing down; let’s just say that some writers are more accustomed to this than others.
It’s possible that some or all of the pitches I heard today will be cut from the final script of the Robot Chicken DC Comics Special. The guys are still a long way from having a completed script since they won’t start working on that until they’ve cobbled together their collective sessions’ results into a rough timeline for their special’s 21-minute-and-43-seconds runtime. It’s also possible that the themes they’re playing with now will be completely absent in the final product; that’s just the nature of the work. Green said that, on the previous special, they cut out two-thirds of the submitted sketches, followed by 60 pages from the animatics – ie animated storyboards – that amounted to around 29 minutes. With so little time to work the jokes in, they can only afford the best of the best.
- The whiteboard featured a list of names of heroes and villains. Ones listed that didn’t appear – at least I don’t think – in the first special include Zod, Deadshot and Captain Boomerang.
- There was a great discussion over the pronunciation of the name of the villain Chemo, in relation to a cancer joke that may or may not end up in the final version.
- The leading theme for the sequel, at least for the time being, appears to center on the Legion of Doom taking a beach vacation and renting a bungalow. The Justice League may or may not just happen to rent the cabin next to theirs. A possible title is RCDC 2: Back to the Beach.
- Lex Luthor’s daughter Lena will likely be worked into the special somehow.
- The team does what’s known as a “Channel Flip Challenge” in which each writer has a limited amount of time to come up with as many Channel Flips as they can. There is no anonymity to hide behind in the writers room so thick skins are required.
- On a writing note, since much of what is submitted is inevitably cut out from the final script, scenes deemed “too talky” are easy targets for removal. The more you know!
- Of the material that was cut from the animatics on the previous special, the Justice Society and Teen Titans scenes made it onto the Blu-ray extras.
- The obvious winner of today’s session involved an army of seahorses led by their charismatic – and Scottish? – general who rallied the troops into battle at Aquaman’s beckon call. Davidson’s Braveheart-esque performance of this monologue was spot on. I hope it makes the final cut in some fashion.
- It was Green’s decision to use the visual style of the Justice League as seen in the Super Friends cartoon series for the specials, as their bold primary colors made for great stop-motion animation and storytelling without stooping to irreverence.
- Other possible sketches include: an emergency landing in Wonder Woman’s invisible jet that goes awry, the Legion of Doom gets new keycards, Beppo the Super-Monkey shows you don’t need infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, renting the Hall of Justice, and much, much more that’s just unfit for printing here.
Thanks to the folks at DC Comics and the incredibly funny and friendly writers of Robot Chicken for the invite! Be sure to check out last year’s Robot Chicken DC Comics Special if you haven’t, as it’s available to pre-order on Blu-ray now.