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Matt Senreich, Zeb Wells and the World of ‘Robot Chicken’

After seven seasons, Adult Swim’s stop-motion comedic mayhem ensemble seems stronger than ever.

If you’ve read my recent pieces about Robot Chicken, you know I’m an unabashed fan. Jealous, actually, like so many animators toiling away on pre-school Pablum that even their Wacom tablets wish they didn’t have to draw. Who wouldn’t want to work on a show like Robot Chicken? A-list actors like Charlize Theron, Bryan Cranston, Ashton Kutcher and Neil Patrick Harris obviously do, having lent their vocal talents to various episodes since the show launched on Adult Swim in 2005.  

Many of my best childhood years were wasted destroying my parents’ back yard with marauding G.I. Joes and Major Matt Masons, several thousand army men and an endless array of precious LEGO space ships I built that were either too bulky to get me into engineering school or too ugly to get me into art school.

I came late to the Robot Chicken party, but I’m not leaving until me and my bendable Lex Luther get tossed out into the alley, bruised and covered in our own filth. It only took me seven seasons to track down the creators and see exactly how this show is put together. I’m nothing if not patient. So it was a treat to talk finally with co-creator Matt Senreich and writer/director Zeb Wells, who shared with me their insights on the show’s success, the challenges of writing and producing 20 episodes of stop-motion madness in a single season and just how fun it is to ask someone over a walkie talkie to bring you another replacement penis.

Image from Season 7. All images courtesy of Adult Swim.

Dan Sarto: Seven seasons. That’s a long network run for any show, let alone a stop-motion animated sketch comedy show. You’ve found and stayed true to a very successful formula. Did you ever think you’d make it to Season Seven?

Matt Senreich: No. We thought we’d get canceled in the first season [laughs]. We laugh because this was a side job for us when we started it. Seth was and still is a full-time actor. I was working at a magazine. We never expected it to be an all the time, primary focus thing. It’s amazing to see we’ve gotten this far just by playing with friends.

DS: How did this all start? Where did the idea for the show originate and how did you get it onto the air? This is not exactly the type side project most actors or comedians get involved with.

MS: It was very much a side project as weird as that sounds. I was working at Wizard Magazine, which produces a magazine called ToyFare Magazine. I was an editor, based in New York. I met Seth through some interviews I’d done. We just became friends because we were both geeks. One day he called me up and said he was going to be doing an interview on Conan O’Brien’s show. Conan had a toy he used on his show occasionally. Seth had just had an action figure come out from Austin Powers and he said to me, “What if our toys went on an adventure together. Do you want to try to write and produce something using those action figures?” It was just a goof.

Sony Digital was trying to develop a streaming content site kind of like YouTube back in 2000 [Screenblast.com]. The problem was it was dial-up. In the process of trying to figure out how to do that Conan short, which neither of us really understood, we got with Sony and they got us to produce 12 animated shorts [in 2001]. They said, “We’ll do the Conan short and we’ll do 11 more.” All of a sudden, we had content we were really proud of. Then we spent four years shopping that around until Adult Swim started up. They said they wanted to do it. It’s really been a lot of “by accidents” that this came to be.

DS: It took four years to find a home for this show?

MS: Oh yah. There was no place for it back then. Remember, Family Guy got canceled. Seth MacFarlane was the one who introduced us to Adult Swim by saying, “Hey, they are re-airing my shows here and I heard they’re looking for original content.”

DS: Network television is not an easy place to find a home especially for adult-oriented animation. Other shows with talented people attached have tried and failed miserably. To what do you attribute your show’s success?

Zeb Wells: For us, we’re a sketch comedy show playing with action figures. It’s a very simple premise. I don’t think anyone had really done that with stop-motion before. It’s a look that was very different. Whenever you think stop-motion you think Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or LAIKA’s films which have a darker feel to them. We did something that was visually different. We also hit in a day and age when nostalgia was really big. At the time we launched our show there was a big 80s nostalgia push which I think really helped us find an audience right out of the gate.

Image from Season 7.

DS: Walk me through your creative process. You have a season worth of episodes, each filled with vignettes of various lengths often linked together with a theme. What does your writing and production process look like?

ZW: Well, we start on Day One with a room full of writers, in a complete panic, trying to figure out what we’re going to write. Then everyone writes little paragraph long pitches for their sketch. At the end of the day we have a packet full of close to 50 sketch ideas that are fairly well fleshed out in paragraph form. Myself, Matt, Seth, Tom [Root] and Doug [Goldstein], who are the head writers, we all vote on those ideas. Maybe 5% get chosen if we’re lucky. We do that for four weeks. By the end of four weeks we have four episodes. Everyone is completely burnt out. Then, the next Monday, we start again, until slowly but surely, we build 20 episodes.

DS: Does this block of writing take place before you start producing actual episodes? Do you start production after the first block of four episodes is complete?

ZW: We start right away. The nature of the production means we have to get episodes done in a short amount of time. As soon as those first four episodes come in, we start breaking them down, they go to legal, we get the actors to record the voices and we start building animatics. As soon as those animatics are done, the puppet department comes in and starts building, the set department comes in and starts building and as soon as they’re done, we start pre-lighting and shooting as soon as humanly possible.

DS: How long does it take to produce one episode from the time you take that packet of final ideas and say, “Go!”

MS: It’s hard to say because we’re shooting so many episodes all at the same time. If we have a cityscape set and it’s being used in eight different episodes, we’ll shoot all of them at once, out of order.

The best example I can give is with the new DC special and 20 episodes. It takes 14 months out of a year to do a season [laughs].

ZW: If we’re really cooking, we can get just about an episode’s worth of footage shot every week. Usually a little less than that. But that 11 minutes of content will be spread out over different episodes.

Image from Season 7.

DS: Going into a new season, what are the main challenges you know you’re going to be facing week in and week out? I’m sure there are plenty of new things that crop of, but what are the main things you know you’ll be duking it out with during the season?

MS: I always say every season there is some sort of hiccup that you don’t expect. Every season is different. One season it was having trouble with puppet scale issues. We solved that one early on. One season, our voice recordings were behind schedule and we had to speed them up. This season, our animators were a little more “sick” than normal so it put us a little bit more behind schedule. We didn’t expect to have a bad flu season. You never know what’s going to be the bump in production. There always is one and it’s just a matter of adapting to whatever is happening.

ZW: You have to learn to get happy sitting in the chaos. You just keep your eyes on the prize and keep moving forward. With production moving this fast, there is always going to be chaos.

DS: The show’s voice talent is always stellar. Do you seek out specific actors? Do you get calls from people asking for a part on an episode? How does someone like Stanley Tucci find his way onto Robot Chicken? How do you get a top actor like Stanley Tucci to voice having an orgasm for your show?

MS: [Laughs] It’s a mix. The first season, when no one knew about our show, we called in a lot of favors. Seth called in favors from everyone he knew in the business to come on the show and have fun with us. Our roster really started with people like Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, whom he’d just done Without a Paddle with. We called in the whole Scooby-Doo cast, from Sarah Michelle Gellar to Freddie Prinze Jr. Ryan Seacrest came in because Seth did an interview with him and asked if he’d be on the show. It was calling and begging people to do the show.

Once people saw it that changed. People wanted to participate. Seth was at a concert and CeeLo saw him and said, “Hey, when can I be on Robot Chicken?” 50 Cent called up and asked us, “When can I do Robot Chicken?” You don’t expect these things to happen.

There are some actors whom we want. We always have our wish list. Then we have the list of actors who’ve asked us to be on the show.

Image from Season 6.

DS: Are you casting them based on a specific sketch, or is it just, “We’d really like to plug this actor into something on the show?”

MS: Both. We rotate. We only have the budget to cast six or seven actors per episode. Because we’ve done so many seasons, I know if Skeletor shows up, Dan Milano comes in and does his voice. He’s awesome and I have to cast him. Because of SAG rules, he’s going to do three voices. It’s a very specific formula. We’ve gotten to the point where we have recurring characters and use the same actors in those roles. Once I have the set of people I know are coming in, I’ll know how many open spots left for actors we want to bring in.

DS: You mentioned that after you’ve finished the initial writing, material has to go to legal. After seven seasons, do you have a good feeling regarding what Standards and Practices will allow you to produce? Do you do a lot of self-censoring or do you try to push the boundaries with legal until they push back? How do you judge what can and can’t get on the air?

MS: We just write. We’ve been doing this long enough that we just know. We know what is and isn’t parody. We know Superman just can’t have sex with Strawberry Shortcake. There’s no parody involved. We don’t self-censor. We just know what the law is [laughs].

DS: Does the studio look at your materials before you go into production? Where are they involved?

MS: Everything has to get cleared by Mike Lazzo and Keith Crawford, who look at everything. We have a great relationship with the Adult Swim folks.

Image from Season 6.

DS: Do you cut one version of a sketch that airs on TV and one that goes on the DVD or streams uncensored online?

MS: We don’t have the budget for that. We are one take wonders. We shoot stuff. What you get is what you get. We try to use as much of it as possible.

ZW: For the DVDs, we’re basically just taking the bleeps off the dialogue and un-blurring things that we’re allowed to un-blur.

MS: What usually shows up on the DVDs are animatics that we cut where we see them in storyboard phase, with voices, which is when you find out something doesn’t work.

DS: This may sound silly but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask. Is it as fun to make this show as it seems? It goes without saying the work it tremendously difficult. But is it really as fun as it looks?

For example, on the Season Six DVD, you had a featurette with interviews of various production staff talking about their jobs. People’s eyes were looking down. They weren’t looking at the camera, like they were embarrassed. I remember one young staff member who explained her job along the lines of, “I’m the bodily fluid replacement coordinator.” It was hilarious.

MS: Starting with the writers’ room, it’s just a bunch of friends playing with toys. Everyone is just hanging out. It’s such a fun group of people. We start our season with a Vegas trip. Everyone gets along great so even when the room gets tense, it’s still filled with people that choose to hang out together on weekends.

Everyone is working hard, but it is a blast. Everyone realizes it’s special to work on a show where you get to play with these awesome toys for 10 hours a day.

ZW: [Laughs] Yah. It’s hard work. But that’s the thing I love about this industry. You’re always around people that want to be there. You work hard and you’re tired by the end of the day. When you stop and look around at all the creativity that goes on here, where you have someone on staff who specializes in making vomit for our puppets, or someone who has to shuttle the naked puppets from one set to the next, or when you hear some of our walkie talkie calls that are absolutely ridiculous. People asking for a penis replacement on Stage 12 [laughs].

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.