Robot Chicken sprung to life like a mad scientist’s creation that couldn’t be contained.
In 1999, Seth Green rang his acquaintance Matt Senreich, then working at the Wizard-owned toy magazine ToyFare, about creating a stop-motion animated sketch he could show on Late Night with Conan O’Brien during his press tour for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Green and Senreich knew there was something to the shaggy short. So they recruited more animators, honed the idea, and funneled their weirdest idea into the extracurricular oddity. Twenty years and six Emmy awards later, Robot Chicken is alive and preparing for the debut of season 10 on Adult Swim.
In the two-decade-long stretch, Green has continued acting for film and television, but his continued work on the accidental series transformed his career. As he and his crew toiled away on episodes, he became a stalwart of the animation voice-over world, converted his stop-motion laboratory into Stoopid Buddy Stoodio, a full-fledged production studio, and spun together Changeland, his feature directorial debut. All the while, Robot Chicken persists; season 10 opens with the show’s mascot nerd self-reflecting on the milestone, before Shredder shows up to suck the blood out of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In advance of Robot Chicken season 10’s 12:01 a.m. premiere this Sunday, Polygon picked Green’s brain about the time he accidentally created a full-time job, and how his team pulled off key moments in the show’s run.
Did you realize the premise had seemingly endless possibilities when you first had the idea for Robot Chicken?
Seth Green: I didn’t even think that we were making a show when we first started. We started this as a webisodes for a very early internet, pre-broadband [Sony site]. There wasn’t even any thought to it being something more than that. I wanted to make something, so we found an outlet and a buyer for it. It wasn’t until we were actually making, or even when we were finished the webisodes, that we thought, oh, maybe we should try and sell it somewhere else.
You’ve been acting since the ’80s, but you weren’t necessarily a “comedy” person in the beginning.
I’ve always loved comedy and I feel like it’s an organic skill that I have. But as a performer, I had been doing all kinds of stuff beyond just exclusively comedy. It’s interesting, over the years as a matter of fact, but just by making Robot Chicken or being on Family Guy that it’s almost put me into a category of being more comedic when I’ve always assumed I was a pretty versatile actor!
What shaped that image of you?
The same year that Austin Powers blew up on DVD I was made a series regular on Buffy and then Can’t Hardly Wait came out. People started to identify me specifically as opposed to just, “Oh yeah, I know that guy from that thing.”
Then Family Guy made you part of a comedy troupe.
But Family Guy didn’t regain any kind of popularity until 2004. We made that show originally in ‘98, and then it got canceled, didn’t get the early network support,, got preempted a bunch of times and then was taken off the air. And then it was Mike Lazzo at the Adult Swim who was licensing a bunch of second-run programming for their network, he bought those old episodes and that’s what created a real audience for Family Guy, and a resurgence in its popularity and motivated Fox to put out the seasons on DVD, which sold over a million copies in the first week. And that’s what motivated them to put, put the show back on the air three years after it had been canceled.
How did Robot Chicken springboard off Seth MacFarlane’s relationship with Lazzo?
Yeah, Seth had done voices for us on our original webisodes and he knew that we were trying to sell it places and he asked if we’d ever taken it to Cartoon Network because he was making a deal with this late night broadcasting section of the network called “the Adult Swim” that was interested in original programming. And he told me that they might be receptive to this idea, which they were.
How did you wind up meeting Seth in the first place? Did you audition for Family Guy or did he court you for the show?
No, I met him for the first time at the audition. I loved that script. I just was so into it. It felt like all of these things I had been thinking or wanted to say, and then just the execution of it was like brilliant. I just wanted so badly to be a part of it. And so when I got cast on that show, it was really clear we had a ton of common interests and loved the same kind of humor. He’s a next level brilliant kind of talent. But we’ve been friends that whole time. There was a point we lived on the same block for a couple of years and so I saw them a lot more frequently, when neither of us had a bunch of stuff going on.
You’re quite well known for doing animation voice over now, and I’m sure the skill helped in the creation of Robot Chicken, but that wasn’t something you’d really done before Family Guy. How did you fall into this?
From a very young age, I always did a lot of voices and considered myself a mimic and spent a lot of my private time practicing different characters, different sounds, things like that. And when I was younger, I got to do a ton of radio commercials, a ton of voiceover stuff. But then when my voice changed, I didn’t get as many of those jobs. So when I moved out to California when I was 16, I stopped auditioning for those kinds of things. I got to do Batman: The Animated Series.
Which is legit!
I remember doing the animated series very well. It was the first time I got to meet Andrea Romano, who is a prolific animation director and really one of the best directors I’ve ever gotten to work with. I really credit her style with being a huge influence to me and the way that I direct performers in the booth. She just had a real easy way about her and economy of instruction. She loves actors and really aims to get a unique and emotional performance regardless of the medium.
Robot Chicken began as a series of homemade shorts, so how much of an undertaking was season 1? You hadn’t really produced anything up until that time in the early 2000s, and now you were overseeing a stop-motion animated sketch comedy series.
It was, uh, a challenge. You know, the, the upside of doing movies is you typically get large gaps in between [jobs]. It’s a steady marathon for a period of months while you’re actually making it, but then you don’t have any commitments to it beyond ADR or promotion, and sometimes that’s as much as a year later. So I had a good amount of downtime and was really interested in just making stuff.
I never anticipated that that Robot Chicken could become an all-year-long, full-time job. To that end, over the years, I have found ways to do other work in-between our seasons or relinquish a degree of control to other people who are exceedingly creative or can elevate the show regardless of how much I’m involved in it. I still am a little bit of a control freak, but I really do appreciate the value of bringing the right people on so that they can put their own spin on it and make it better than we’ve ever imagined.
The story goes that you were working on a movie during at least part of the first season’s shoot. How’d that go?
When we first started making this show, we had five days to produce each episode, and even though we were bundle producing, we were sort of doing a single episode at a time because we hadn’t worked out a better process. The very first time we made this, nobody even understood exactly what we were making. The idea of us stop-motion sketch comedy show starring action figures was ... fairly unique in the marketplace. So we had to figure out a lot of it on the job, and that was an incredibly difficult all-day, all-night requirement. Things were happening in real time and we were having to solve all kinds of problems. And so it just required a ton of attention. We had a much smaller crew at the time. We were making the show for a lot less than, and also just figuring it out as we went.
And so in the middle of that production, when we were up to about episode 7, I left for London and shot two weeks there on this movie [The Best Man], and then we flew to Hungary and I shot for another three weeks there. It’s me and Amy Smart and Stuart Townsend [...] It was absolutely bananas to try and shoot a co-lead in a movie at the same time that I’m producing on the daily. And thank god my partners were as motivated as they were or it just wouldn’t have happened. I was pulling crazy days where because of the time difference between England and the States because of the time difference between Hungary and the U.S. I was able to work a 24-hour cycle.
That was the first time that I made videos for animators. I give animators a hyper-detailed physical performance just to get at the timing of what these sketches were because some of it was rooted in a very particular type of comedy and animators, especially stop-motion animators at that time, their instinct is to create a volume of movement for any individual character just so that they seem alive. And I was advocating a very specific type of nearly human physicality in the shape of these sketches because it just made it funnier. It made it funnier if you saw an action figure, you know, shrugging their shoulders as opposed to wildly [gesticulating] with their hands the whole time. And so I started making videos and sending them to the animators to have on their station in lieu of me being able to be there and direct them personally.
What comedy were you watching that found its way into Robot Chicken through those performance videos?
I watched a ton of stuff growing up, to something as old as Laugh-in to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I also watched all the sitcoms of the ’80s. As an actor, my responsibility is to always make something as true or as funny, to really just be in the medium and adjust my performance for whatever the, the tone of the pieces. If you look at something like Austin Powers, all of that comedy is not large. It’s not slapstick. As ridiculous as the premise is or as ridiculous as the scenarios are, the actual performances are pretty rooted in a kind of reality. Like what would happen if any of these characters were a real person? There might be some enhancement or some enlarging of a quality for comedy sake, but for the most part, the tone of it, the pace of it, the body language, it’s all very sincere. And so that’s really where I was coming from.
“What would happen if any of these characters were a real person?” really is the core of every Robot Chicken sketch. Which is why so many characters end up with limbs ripped of and the Smurfs come off even more bizarre.
It was a difference in the type of physical comedy that was in animation. You know, the, the longest running show prior to ours I think was Gumby. There was a show that Eddie Murphy did on Fox called The PJs, and it was a very traditional stop motion kind of animation, so even though the aesthetic style is wholly unique, there’s a lot of movement and characters are always moving. There are certain things like putting your hand on your head or the character turning their head or rolling their eyes in a particular way, all these things that became a staple of stop-motion animation. And we were just trying to use a far more subtle and current, almost improvisation style of comedy performance, for all of these characters.
Robot Chicken sprung out of a interest you had in ToyFare magazine, but were you using actual toys in the beginning? Do you still?
When we first made our webisodes, we did not make puppet characters from scratch. Everything that we had on the original webisodes was just factory-made toys that we modified to withstand the rigors of stop-motion animation. And then especially in the first several seasons, I worked really hard to make sure that what we were using were toys and that it looked like toys, that it felt like toys, because I thought that was part of the trick, the same way when you watch something like Toy Story and the actual toy is the thing that you’re watching. It does something to your brain.
Is there a sketch that comes to mind that started with a toy you discovered rather than a pop culture premise?
There is a sketch coming up on the new season about toys that got pulled from the market. It’s always something that was just misguided, and you think, how did the marketing team not realize at the onset that this was, um, an overtly sexual product? Do you remember when Episode I came out and there was a lollipop that rotated on the handle. The rotating Jar Jar tongue. How does nobody see what that is? Or, you know, a sippy cup that has a character on top of it proudly with their hands on their hips and the straw looks like their penis jutting out of the lower part of armor. You just sort of wonder how these things happen. So there’s, there’s something to seeing the actual product talking about itself that is better than any other way to relate that comedic idea.
Has a sketch ever gone too far in using someone else’s IP that you or the network got phone calls?
There really hasn’t been. The only time there’s even a question is if we’re making a joke about a particular advertiser that’s a sponsor of Adult Swim. But in every one of those instances, everybody’s got a good sense of humor. Or we’ve got a really a really strong defense.
George Lucas voiced himself on an episode of Robot Chicken. That felt like a coup. How did it happen?
I got to meet him a couple of times over the years, but all of those were unsubstantial meetings. And thank god he wouldn’t remember any of them because I was probably terribly embarrassing. Then when Episode III came out, MTV hosted an event at Skywalker Ranch, and they asked me to interview George walking around the archives. That was the very first time that I took it upon myself to make a better impression on him. We had a really good time doing that piece and it let him know that I was a safe place. I was someone who didn’t really want anything from him, but also thought he was awesome and that he could play with. If we were in a crowded room and he didn’t know anybody else, that he could always come stand next to me and we’d be fine.
He didn’t know anything about Robot Chicken. That happened on a separate coincidence. The woman who was running publicity for Lucasfilm, Tracy Cannobbio, had seen our Emperor’s phone call sketch and called us and let us know that it was something that Lucasfilm had seen. Not only were they not upset about it, but they wanted to meet with us. And so Matt and I got to the Presidio facility and get a tour of ILM and meet all the people at Lucasfilm. And Matt pitched them the idea of us doing a half hour of Star Wars-dedicated Robot Chicken, and that wound up being something that they said yes to. So we started writing all kinds of crazy things, and one of the things that came up was a sketch where our nerd character runs into George Lucas in an elevator at a convention. We just thought this was such a funny sketch and was not insulting or, or anything other than celebrating of George and of Star Wars. And he agreed to do that voice. That was a thrilling experience getting to go direct him and, the same way we do with other actors, let him have and keep him safe.
You created an animated Star Wars comedy series for Lucasfilm that, after the Disney acquisition, was put on the shelf. Will we ever see the completed episodes of Star Wars Detours?
It’s hard to say. I really loved the, the thing that we made, but I completely understand that it was conceived at a time before several massive realities about the brand and its future. And so I honestly, I don’t know.
Weird Al, a fellow parodist who has teamed up with you guys over the years, has said that the internet made his job a little harder. Traditional albums may not make sense when people can upload songs straight to YouTube. Has the era of instant-comedy affected you guys?
I don’t know that the internet has made our job harder, but there’s definitely a consideration for what parody already exists when we’re writing something. We always want original ideas and jokes that haven’t been made somewhere else. Many people have similar ideas at the same time, so we often aim for areas that aren’t obvious.
Robot Chicken season 10 premieres at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 29. on Adult Swim.