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To quote the marketing campaign for Toy Story 2: "The toys are back in town."
In this case, we're talking about the action figures and dolls of Adult Swim's Robot Chicken, which kicked off the second half of its tenth season this past Sunday. It's a major cause for celebration because, in a few weeks' time, the stop-motion sketch comedy series created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich will ring in its 200th episode.
It's pretty crazy to think that the show has been consistently airing new content for the past 15 years, especially in a midnight time slot. Against all odds, it's grown into a genuine phenomenon (a sort of KaBlam! for grown-ups) that's attracted A-list voice talent, taken home Annie and Emmy Awards, and paved the way for projects like SuperMansion and Crossing Swords.
We'd compare it to the little engine that could, but "Thomas the Tank Engine gets hijacked" is a more apt locomotive analogy, as the show takes things we all know and repurposes them in strange new ways. As long as there are films, TV programs, and current events to lampoon, Robot Chicken will be there — not only to parody pop culture, but to remind us of obscure properties from back in the day.
Ahead of Episode 200's premiere later this month, SYFY WIRE hopped on a phone call with Seth Green to discuss the incredible stop-motion milestone and Robot Chicken's ever-topical legacy.
What most excites you about Episode 200 and what can fans look forward to seeing?
I think it’s insane that we’ve gotten to this place. Making 200 itself feels pretty crazy and it’s very exciting to consider. When we set out to write this specific episode, we wanted to do something that was unique. Typically, we’ll end our episodes with something a little outrageous. From the very first season, we started playing around with the idea of being canceled.
We had made a habit of ending a season with getting canceled and then starting the next season with some miraculous renewal. And we thought that was funny because we were never sure if we were gonna get renewed each season. But also because it was very funny to play with that idea of, "Oh no, we’re canceled," and [we] have to figure out some dramatic way for us to be renewed.
We wanted to do something different [for Episode 200]. When we did our hundredth episode, we broke that format and told a story about our chicken character to deepen his mythology and to play with an idea of an ongoing battle between the scientist and the chicken. They were never intended to be characters, they were just details in our opening sequence. For the hundredth episode, [we did] that big retrospective, where the chicken has to battle every original character that we’ve ever created in an effort to free his girlfriend from the clutches of the scientist and some insane revenge story.
So, for our 200th episode, we tried something very new that I think audiences are going to like, and to go into much more detail would be pretty dramatic [in terms of] spoilers. I’d rather not do that, but I can tell you that we have both Sam Elliot and David Lynch guest starring in that episode, as well as some other surprises.
I'm glad you brought up the topic of guest stars because it's always fun to scour the show's end credits for these big celebrities, even if they're just voicing characters in a sketch or two. How do you go about locking down the vocal cameos?
It’s a couple different ways. It’s people asking us and us asking people. For every one person that says yes, there’s probably a dozen that have said no. It’s a lot of that.
It’s finding people that we like or that we wanna play with; people we’re impressed by; people who have a unique voice. [It's] finding someone who has played a character that we’re featuring or [asking someone] to do an impersonation of that character. Or it’s people approaching us and saying that they like the show and wanna be a part of it.
It’s been crazy and the fact that people have continued to say yes from the beginning, I think that’s what helps anyone in the future to say yes. They can look back at all the people that have done the show [and see] that there hasn’t been any negative effect on their careers. In fact, in a couple cases, people have been nominated for awards for their work on the show. So, all of that creates an incentive for anyone to give it a shot.
The show’s been running for 15 years now. Did you ever once think it would become as big or long-running as it did?
No, of course not. As evidenced by the fact that we prepared our audience for the reality that we could be canceled literally every season. The show wasn’t planned to be a show. It wasn’t conceived to ever be successful and especially not to be a long-running employment opportunity for anybody. We made sketches as webisodes in 2000 at the very beginning of the internet for a platform that’s become defunct.
And when Adult Swim was in its early stages of making original content, us getting to put a program on that network — mind you, at midnight on Sundays — you don’t think of that as the most accessible time slot, let alone the content that we were making could ever reach a mass audience. That just didn’t seem realistic and it wasn’t our intention from the get-go.
We just pivoted at every opportunity to keep it on the air and keep evolving it or make it accessible to a larger audience. We never planned any of this, this wasn’t to be intentional. We just try to do the best we can with the opportunity we’ve got season to season.
Going off that, what's been your strategy for keeping things fresh and exciting in terms of writing sketches?
The big thing that we do is recognize that not all of these individual voices will be enough and so from the second season on, we got writing talent from several different sources. And since the show itself was conceived as an expression as some of my personal passions or my co-creators’ pop culture musings in private, we always try to find writers that have a similar knowledge base of pop culture or parody-able current events.
Since the focus is the stuff that stuck with you since childhood or the weird, inherent ironies of pop culture, we always try to find people that have a bit [of] expertise in one of those categories.
It’s about finding new, young writers who are as steeped in pop culture, but share a sense of humor with us, so that we’re not just content with making the same joke about The Smurfs. We want someone who grew up in the '90s, or even in the 2000s, to steep in our style, but in their own voice about the pop culture that has influenced them.
I'm sure this will be like choosing a favorite child, but what have been some of your top moments, segments, or characters from making the show over the years?
It’s funny, my partner Matt and I are doing all of these virtual cons right now and especially because of the milestone [episode], people keep asking us, "What’s your favorite sketch?"
At this point, it’s even difficult to remember all of the things that we’ve done. In fact, we have this weird thing happen quite often in the writer’s room, where someone will pitch something and we all agree it’s a very funny idea, but if it sounds familiar, we go to YouTube and look up Robot Chicken plus whatever the qualifier is, and we’ll see that we’ve already produced a sketch that’s exactly the same, or it’s enough in the same vein.
It is a strange reality to have made 200 episodes and for each episode to contain 10 to 20 individual sketches and then to try to remember every one of them. It’s been a challenge. But I love some little things that we’ve done. I can highlight that. I think it was the end of the second season, we had a telethon where Matt and I had a phone bank with some of our characters who were all answering calls and trying to raise money. And Matt became fixated on the concept of violence screwing [with] ratings and it turns into a whole [zombie/"Thriller" parody]. I thought that was a very silly, but effective comment about culture’s insatiable bloodlust in entertainment.
I’ve always enjoyed our nerd character in the way he interacts with pop culture. One of my favorite bits was him dreaming about Knight Rider, but winding up not in the original Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff, but the reboot that had Val Kilmer in place of William Daniels. He’s really unhappy about it, but insists that he could fall asleep within his own dream because he learned it from Inception. And so, he starts inverting into a deeper dream and it's just very silly. That always makes me laugh.
Where did the voice for the nerd character come from?
Back when we were first starting this show, Comic-Con had not become a popular thing. It really wasn’t until 2007 that people who had not spent their entire life steeped in these kinds of pop icons started coming to Comic-Con. Prior to that, the notion of being an expert about any of this potentially juvenile pop culture was sidelined to a particular archetype.
The joke about the actual id of the super-fan and this prototypical character with a lisp, with glasses, who was physically frail, but incredibly heartfelt and emotional about stuff that potentially means nothing to the rest of society — that’s really where the voice came from. The most hardcore, unapologetic super-fan is really where that came from.
You had been working on Family Guy as the voice of Chris before Robot Chicken started up. Is there anything specific you learned from working with Seth MacFarlane that you were able to apply to your own show?
I don’t know how to quite answer that. I’ve spent my entire life and career doing voiceover and performing in animation. I didn’t really solicit direct advice on how production works. I kinda learned a bit of that just from stumbling around. There was a point where, early on, I consulted with Family Guy producer Kara Vallow about... schedules or assets or something like that. She gave me some advice about accomplishing post-production or where to go, but MacFarlane and I have not had any sidebars about how you do it.
What have you learned from working in the animation space?
I’ve learned how complicated and extensive the process is and how many dozens, if not hundreds, of people are involved in making any given thing.
But that was also a lesson I’d learned throughout my entire career, working on productions. Physical cinema or television production is not much different than the production of animation. It’s just the way in which certain aspects of a process are rendered that changes. But how you go about producing something or how you go about getting something financed, it’s all the same, regardless of what you’re making.
What comes after Episode 200? Have you guys been renewed for Season 11 yet?
I don’t know if there’s been any announcement made about that, but our plans for the show are to make it for as long as people wanna watch it. We’ll continue to evolve it.
In our third season, my partner likened the show to Saturday Night Live and the fact that SNL can, throughout the years, evolve, bring on new talent, and express their own voice in the same vein, but for a modern audience. Our thought is that pop culture is under no threat of ending and so, we could essentially make this show in perpetuity as long as we keep evolving it and as long as it stays funny.
Anything to add?
I’m excited that it’s coming out now at a time when I feel people need a little bit of a break, day-to-day. And I hope people find it as funny as we do. That’s it. I can’t believe we’ve come this far. It’s exciting that people care enough to even watch it.
Robot Chicken's 200th episode airs on Adult Swim Sunday, July 26 at 12:00 a.m. ET.