Talking With “Robot Chicken”‘s Matthew Senreich and Zeb Wells
by Kyle Anderson on December 15, 2012
In 2005, friends Seth Green and Matthew Senreich created a lightning-quick sketch comedy show using stop-motion animated toys. The show was Robot Chicken, and, despite its humble beginnings, it’s grown to become one of Adult Swim’s mainstays, creating over 100 episodes and five specials over the last six seasons. The series has boasted guest stars of wild acclaim and has even gotten to officially use the Star Wars and DC Comics characters for specials. In 2011, the series won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Television Production for the third Star Wars special.
The holiday-themed episode, “Robot Chicken‘s ATM Christmas Special” premieres this Sunday at midnight on Adult Swim, and in advance of the show, we spoke to Senreich and Marvel comic book writer Zeb Wells, who joined the RC writing staff in 2007 and who has gone on to direct every episode of this sixth season. They gave us the scoop on the special, their meteoric rise, and the future of stop-motion comedy.
NERDIST: What can we expect from the “ATM Christmas Special?”
ZEB WELLS: Well, we’re gonna see what kind of stuff Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe asked for in his stocking.
MATT SENREICH: Even though he can’t talk and verbalize it.
ZW: We’re going to see our Robot Chicken Nerd spend a little time in the Grinch’s universe.
MS: Yeah, with his parents that we’re going to introduce, so that’ll be fun. Henry Winkler’s his dad, so that’ll be even better.
ZW: You’re going to see Justin Bieber sing a Christmas song that you might not expect–
MS: A ballad, so that’ll be beautiful.
ZW: And we’ll see Jason Bourne and Santa Claus go toe-to-toe—
MS: Only because Santa has to deliver to Jason, and Jason’s hard to find.
N: [laughs] What made you want to put Jason Bourne against Santa Claus?
ZW: [laughs] One of our writers came up with that and I have no idea [why]. It’s one of those writers’ room things where you’re just looking for an idea and you think, “Oh, there’s snow in the Bourne movies.” Next thing you know, you have Santa Claus.
MS: I think it just came out of how he’s got to deliver those presents, and not being able to find Jason Bourne.
N: That’s genius. [laughs] You have a great guest cast as per usual for this episode. In particular, you got to work with Larry Hama (writer of G.I. Joe comic books and creator of Bucky O’Hare); was that a dream come true for you guys?
MS: Seth is a HUUUUUGE Larry Hama fan. G.I. Joe is bigger on the geek totem pole than Star Wars for Seth. He really went out of his way to find a way to get Larry on the show. He was great; we went to his apartment and shot live action.
ZW: Yeah, it’s a rare live-action segment for Robot Chicken.
MS: I think we’ve had three live-action appearances, and he’s going to be one of them.
N: You’ve gotten to make three Star Wars specials and a DC Comics special; what does it feel like to get to use those characters and those worlds with the blessing of the creators, and to know they respect and get what you’re doing?
MS: I think it’s still surreal for all of us. The fact that George Lucas is like, “Sure, mess around with my characters” is still very bizarre and hard to grasp. DC’s a little bit different because we’ve known Geoff Johns (DC’s Chief Creative Officer) as long as we have. It’s amazing to get to mess around with those characters but it’s more like a couple friends playing, so it’s a different type of thing. I hope we get to do it again because working with Geoff is always a fantastic experience. But, yeah, the fact that we get to play with all these characters is a bizarre experience.
ZW: But it is flattering and feels really good that the people that love these characters the most appreciate what we’re doing. That’s pretty much our audience; it’s a very niche audience.
MS: And they trust us! The fact that they trust us because of our love — the jokes come from our love of the characters, we’re not making fun of the characters. We’re taking the characters and having fun with them, which I think is a very specific way of looking at it.
N: Has there been anybody that you’ve parodied or lampooned on the show that didn’t have a good sense of humor about it?
MS: This is gonna sound weird, but if there are, they haven’t told us about it. We surf the internet pretty well and I’ve never really seen like, “Those fuckers on Robot Chicken…!” I’m sure it’s out there.
MS: But we’ve gotten to the place, you know, where people send us their products and say, “Use this on the show,” and that’s the ultimate form of flattery.
N: Is there anybody you’ve wanted to get on Robot Chicken that you haven’t gotten yet?
MS:I still want Harrison Ford to do the show.
N: Ohh! That’d be amazing!
MS: We were SO close to getting him for the third Star Wars special. Jon Favreau was actually helping us try and get him. They were shooting Cowboys & Aliens and he was trying to make it happen and it was just (that) coordinating the timing just could not work, and I’ve been heartbroken ever since. So, perhaps in the future we’ll find a way.
N: You’ve been doing the show for quite a long time now; have you found any ways to make the stop-motion animation, which is a pretty involved process, a little easier on yourselves?
MS: Sort of. Yes and no. Stop-motion is a very time-consuming process. You know, we have Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, which is a very fun environment, so it doesn’t feel like the normal chaos that stop-motion could be. But it feels very day-to-day grounded and everybody’s laughing and smiling.
ZW: And we do have a wealth of talent that has worked on the show, so when they set up the new Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, we had a lot of expertise. There are some production tricks you use, like shooting many episodes at a time so, like if there are many things happening on a city street, we can just lock-off the puppet and keep going. So, when you have that knowledge base, they’re able to keep everything moving. They’ve learned these little tricks over the last six seasons.
N: Speaking of Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, I understand there’s some new stuff coming up that I’d love to hear about. Anything exciting you can give us the scoop on?
MS: Gosh… What are we allowed to talk about? We’ve got a lot of fun stuff coming up. We’re currently working on an Adult Swim pilot that Seth is heading up, which I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say that. And we’ve got a couple other pilots that we’re doing right now, but it’s one of those things where until certain things are announced by the companies we’re working with, we really can’t say.
MS: And more Robot Chicken! We’ll be having more seasons of Robot.
N: Did you ever think that when you started playing with toys that it’d become something that not only people watching but, like we were saying earlier, the people who created the characters would love?
MS: (Co-writers and co-producers) Tom Root, Doug Goldstein, and I moved out here from New York and we all expected to be cancelled after a few episodes and have to move back to New York. So, the fact that it’s become a full-time job, I don’t think any of us expected it. Especially Seth.
ZW: Yeah, I don’t think Seth though this would be eating up large portions of his year.
MS: Seth is an actor first and foremost, and now he’s gotten to the place where he’s a producer who acts. And he loves it, but I know he loves acting and it’s just finding the time to do it, and then finding ways to cover for him here when he’s not in the building. [laughs]
ZW: I think any other show he’s created or worked on, he might be able to step away, but he’s so passionate about this stuff that he wants to be involved as much as he can be.
N: Do you think at any point you’ll want to venture into doing a Robot Chicken feature film?
MS: We’ve talked a little about it, but if we did, we’d come up with something very different. Our third Star Wars special, I would have loved to do as a feature. But, yeah, I think we’d just have to find what makes it different because of the type of show; how does that sustain an hour and a half? It’d have to have some sort of linear through line.
N: Finally, do you have any teases for what’s coming up in the next calendar year of the show?
MS: Yeah, we have 50 Cent coming in and doing a rap for us.
ZW: We re-created the long tracking shot at the end of Children of Men with LEGO, which took a lot of planning, and I think that turned out really well.
MS: There’s some fun Avengers stuff coming out.
ZW: We have a fun, post-apocalyptic Mad Max-type car chase that closes out one of our later episodes that turned out really well.
MS: We’re across the board.
Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special airs Sunday night on Adult Swim