It’s amazing to think that Robot Chicken first premiered nearly a decade ago. This strange dissection of pop culture via stop motion & Claymation action figures has become one of the bedrocks for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Not only that, the show is now a gateway for popular series and companies to poke fun at themselves (for proof, see George Lucas’s participation in the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials). This Sunday night, Robot Chicken’ s 2nd DC Comics Special: Villains in Paradise premieres – and it’s another fascinating example of the show’s ability to ‘eat its cake and have it too.’ The episode, the most plot-heavy Robot Chicken has ever done, focuses on DC Comic’s villains – Lex Luthor, The Joker & Gorilla Grodd among others – as they travel to the beach for a summer vacation. The episode, a knowing homage to the beach pictures of the 80s, is at once both a love-letter to these well-worn characters and a merciless skewing of their ‘brand name’. It’s this juxtaposition between reverence and criticism that makes Robot Chicken as endlessly watchable and timely as it was when it first premiered.
At the recent press day for Robot Chicken, I spoke with most of the creative team behind the show (Creators/Executive Producers Seth Green & Matthew Senreich, DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, Head Writers Douglas Goldstein & Tom Root, and Writer/Co-Producers Kevin Shinick & Zeb Wells) about the process behind the new DC Special and the show in general. For the full Robot Chicken: Villains in Paradise interview, hit the jump.
Of note: the following Q&A has been edited together from various conversations with the talent at the junket. You’ll also see that each of the talent wears multiple different ‘hats’ on the show, be it writing, producing, directing or acting – a topic which comes up later on in the interview(s)…
MATTHEW SENREICH [Co-Creator/Executive Producer/Actor]: You look at the top seven [superheroes] and he’s kind-of the bottom of the barrel.
GEOFF JOHNS [DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer/Co-Writer]: It’s a perception thing. I think the perception is that if he’s not near water, he can’t do anything. It comes from the old Super Friends cartoons to be honest. He got stereotyped early. And he hasn’t been able to dig himself out yet.
SENREICH: Although someone pointed out that [Aquaman’s] a good dater like the fact that he can go on dates and learn all this information ahead of time.
SETH GREEN [Co-Creator/Executive Producer/Actor/Director]: Aquaman is suave as shit. People try to undersell him because he telepathically communicates with aquatic life but…
SENREICH: That’s actually really cool.
GREEN: You don’t wear pants that tight unless you got balls.
How did this second special with DC come about?
SENREICH: It started very casually.
JOHNS: [Matthew, Seth and I] have been friends for a long time. When I got to DC, we talked and agreed we should do a DC/Robot Chicken special.
SENREICH: We all started together in the industry — low men on the totem pole — and we’ve grown to places where we can make decisions now. So we got to a place where we can do a [Robot Chicken/DC] crossover.
JOHNS: Then honestly it was just a thirty-second conversation to make this happen.
And you guys get to write the episode at the DC office…
KEVIN SHINICK [Co-Producer/Writer/Actor]: When we’re writing the DC special — yes. We wrote the first and the second special here. You can see why — when you walk around here, you’re inspired by all kinds of things. Chess sets, posters, action figures… You might even forget anyone else is around.
I assume you have access to all the DC comics…
SHINICK: Yeah — Geoff [Johns] was great about it and said ‘Everything is available to you.’ It’s one of the reasons we wanted to write here because it’s right at your fingertips. So you can say ‘Hey Geoff — how many times did so and so die?’ Or ‘Does Aquaman have a hand anymore?’ And he would say, ‘Yes — of course’ or ‘No.’ usually [off the top of his head].
Do you read any of the comics while you’re here for ‘research’?
SHINICK: A lot of the time the sketches don’t get written until halfway through the day because we’re all reading the bibles and the comics. No joke — we were under a lot pressure. It was like ‘Guys we have nothing [written] but we’re totally caught up on Swamp Thing.’
When you work in as big a sandbox as DC is, how do you go about cherry-picking what to use and satirize?
GREEN: We leave it to the writers and let them dig wherever they want to. Then we put it all together and whittle it down into what the actual show is. But we don’t restrict that initial creativity.
SENREICH: We have a general idea of what we want the overarching story to be so we know we’re going to connect the dots in a certain way but everyone’s coming up with those original sketches.
GREEN: So really early on — Matt was the first person to say this even before we started to make a second DC special. He said ‘If we do a second one, we should focus on the villains.’ So that became the mandate. We’re going to focus on the villains and I think within the first day or two of doing research and the actual writing, I found out that Lex Luthor on Earth 2 has a daughter and I asked Geoff [Johns] whether or not she could be a teenager and he said ‘Sure.’ Then it was off to the races. We knew what this was.
How long is the writing process for the DC special?
SHINICK: I think we took about two and a half weeks or maybe three to write the whole thing. It’s about twice as long [as a normal episode] of Robot Chicken.
How does the writing process differ when you’re working on something thematically tied to the DC universe versus a normal episode of Robot Chicken?
DOUGLAS GOLDSTEIN [Head Writer/Co-Executive Producer]: It doesn’t really feel that different. It just limits what you pitch.
ZEB WELLS [Writer/Actor]: We actually have some focus. You can flip through the DC guidebook and pick things to write about… Then as the story grew, there were a couple of times where we actually said this scene has to do this and that’s all the writer got. Maybe we found a few beats that we thought would be funny in there but then each writer would have to go through and actually craft what that scene was, try to work those jokes in there. We don’t usually work like that so it was interesting.
TOM ROOT [Head Writer/Co-Executive Producer]: In the process, there’s a lot of panic and flop sweat going on because we’re in such unfamiliar territory and we have to feel our way through it. The long form stuff is a challenge we don’t have to meet very often.
In the writer’s room, is there a spectrum of how familiar all the writers are with DC comics and how does that affect the process?
ROOT: Oh yeah. We have everyone from a current writer of DC comics [Geoff Johns] to Kevin Shinick — also a comic writer… but then there’s Hugh Davidson who has much less…
WELLS: Yeah – [Hugh] could not care less about the mythology. He’s actively annoyed that he has to write these characters… but then he’s able to see an image of the Green Lantern carrying Batman around in that green bubble and instantly look at that and say ‘How does Batman feel being driven around in this green safety bubble? I mean that has to be emasculating.’ So he’ll end up writing a whole sketch on that coming straight from left field. Not one of us would write something like that and it ends up being one of the funniest sketches in the show.
These episodes tend to have a through-line as opposed to the regular series, which has a more scattered and segmented approach. What dictated the through-line approach for these specials?
GREEN: It just started along the way. The only one we knew ahead of time was the one that Matt [Senreich] did – the third Star Wars special.
SENREICH: For the third Star Wars, I wanted to do a Wicked-esque type of story line because I had seen Wicked and really liked it. With the second DC special, I think the reason we did [more of a through-line] was because it just popped so well in the first special.
WELLS: I think it’s fun to make the thing special in a way, to set it aside from our usual stuff. That’s the balance we’re always having because our show succeeds on being able to cut from joke to joke very quickly but then we also want to stretch and add more story.
GOLDSTEIN: I think this DC special is the furthest we’ve ever gone with having a story. The majority of the sketches are part of the story. There are relatively few that are tangential. Time will tell if it worked out. It’s not something we’ve done on the show regularly. We’ve never had an episode where we’ve decided to make it about just one thing.
How did the 80s summer movie plot line come about for this special?
ROOT: I’ll take credit there. I love those types of movies. One of my favorite memories being a young moviegoer was Revenge of the Nerds 2 because it had that theme song by .38 Special and the nerds were driving a tank into a swimming pool. There’s just so many great 80s beach movies and it just seemed very funny to put these evil collection of villains on a beach. Just let them deal with everything from how much sun block to put on to the Weather Wizard making jokes how beautiful the day is.
There’s also a satirical bent in this episode with the cutting to the different covers and the susceptibility of fans to buy any merchandise…
ROOT: That was very late in the game. We were doing our final polish on the script and Seth [Green] was in the room with us. Seth is frequently in the room when we’re making big decisions but he’s not there pounding out jokes. So it was this rare thing where the whole gang was together trying to figure out the final draft of the script and for whatever reason we started riffing on those cutaways to comics.
WELLS: We don’t usually have a commercial break so we never have to throw to commercial or come back from a commercial. [But for the special] when we got to the end, we realized we hadn’t done anything to throw to commercial. That’s where we came up with the Swamp Thing cover.
ROOT: I bet it started as ‘We should freeze frame on Swamp Thing being surrounded by fire’ to get to commercial. Then it turned into a ‘Swamp Thing cover’. And then wouldn’t it be funny if this were the ‘final’ Swamp Thing comic ever made. And [since] all comics are notorious for killing off characters but immediately bringing them back, when we come back from commercial we’ll do an all new ‘#1’ Swamp Thing cover.
GOLDSTEIN: We all know what’s going on here in the comic book industry. The funny thing is with Geoff Johns himself being in the room, laughing along with it, saying we can do that, that then puts into everyone’s mind that you can and then they start pitching other iterations of that. It helps having DC in on this because they show us more avenues we can explore.
You guys wear so many hats on the show – writing, producing, directing – is that a necessity of creating something as eccentric as Robot Chicken?
GREEN: I don’t know. I’m a fucking control freak. There’s nothing else to say but that. I’m a control freak except that I’m a good team player. So I obsess about the details of things but I also trust the team… Surround yourself with superior talent and then delegate responsibly. At the end of the day all of us are aimed at the same result. We all want to make the best show possible and none of us have too big an ego to get in the way of the final product being excellent. So all of us are collaborative in getting to that direction. All of us wear these different hats so that we make sure we’re making something that’s great.
What is the perfect balance for an episode of Robot Chicken between the absurdist, satirical and more puerile humor?
WELLS: For the special, we’ve over-written so much by the end of it that we naturally have to pare it down. We just naturally create a balance between the juvenile and the more high concept stuff. In the first DC special, we had two sketches about a hero or villain using the bathroom so we pared that down to one.
GOLDSTEIN: Sometimes the show gets to animatic and we’ll storyboard more than we can use. Then you realize three of these sketches are too similar. They kind of ruin the flow so we cut one. If it looks like in the end, we do a good job of keeping it mixed then it was planned. If it looks like we did a bad job, then it just got away from us.
SHINICK: I think this a show that can go on and on because it looks at pop culture and pop culture is always changing. So while you started out with the 80s and 70s, I think getting new writers and a fresher audience dictates that we’ll just focus on a different time and period.
Every season of Robot Chicken ends with the joke of cancellation…
GREEN: We’re just hedging our bets.
SENREICH: One of those times, it’s going to be true.
GREEN: It also forces us into a hilarious ‘How the fuck do we get back onto the air at the beginning of the season?’ And this season is especially ridiculous. The season opener is an Eyes Wide Shut parody.
It’s interesting because when Robot Chicken started — I look at is as the forbearer of these sort of sketch based shows. Now that you’re in a market place that’s saturated in these types of programs, how does Robot Chicken separate itself from them?
GREEN: We don’t really focus on what anyone else is doing. We consume all kinds of pop, all kinds of media. We’re deep into the consumption. But as far as what we make: we just try to make the stuff that we like, that we think is funny.
SENREICH: It’s just a sketch comedy with toys. It’s just that simple. We’re just doing that and we’re just trying to have as much fun as we can doing it.
GREEN: We’re not territorial about it. We really aren’t. We just want to make a great show.
The Robot Chicken DC Comics Special II: Villains in Paradise premieres Sunday, April 6th at 11:30 P.M. on Adult Swim. Robot Chicken Season 7 premieres Sunday, April 13th at 11:30 P.M. also on Adult Swim.
Clips from the upcoming special can be seen below: