‘Robot Chicken’ takes aim at supervillainsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Consider the life of the supervillain. These are not individuals who believe in taking any half-measures. More often than not, their goal is nothing less than world domination. They hatch grandiose schemes designed to accomplish diabolical ends on a daily basis. For pete’s sake, the word “villain” is right there in their job title. These are people who go big or go home.
How tragic it is that they inevitably end up getting the snot beaten out of them by their superheroic opponents.
“You’re talking about guys that always lose,” said Matthew Senreich, co-creator of “Robot Chicken,” in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “These guys never win. What’s that do to your ego and self-esteem after years of abuse?”
“And those guys have to go to work together,” added actor and fellow “Chicken” co-creator Seth Green. “Every f***ing day… and look at each other, and know they’re going to lose again,” Senreich added.
It must be disheartening, to consistently fail at what is the sole goal of your entire existence. And at the end of the day, all supervillains have to fall back on is one another. God help them.
“They suffer through each other’s failings, and all these grand personalities,” Green said.
“People who believe they’re the star of their own show,” Senreich added.
Villains in paradise
Well, for once, the bad guys will actually be the stars. On April 6 at 11:30 pm, “Robot Chicken” will air its second DC Comics special, subtitled “Villains in Paradise.” While Superman, Batman and their ilk are still well-represented in the episode, the focus is mainly on Lex Luthor, the Joker, Gorilla Grodd and other inept baddies as they end up taking an unplanned (though richly deserved) trip to the beach.
Taking the outskirts of pop culture and examining the underlying realities of it — to hilarious effect — is a big part of “Robot Chicken’s” modus operandi. About to enter its seventh season, the stop-motion-animation series was created by Green — already famous for his work on “Family Guy,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and more — and Senreich in 2005. It’s consistently been the highest-rated original series on Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim lineup.
“Chicken,” a sketch comedy show using animated action figures, prides itself on a rapid-fire, absurdist form of comedy in which anything and everything can happen. It’s a realm in which DC’s rogues gallery feels right at home.
“I think it’s because villains rarely get the spotlight, and to dive into why these people do what they do, what their normal days are like,” Senreich said. “I always say it’s taking the absurd and making it mundane, in a way. It’s just putting that into the real world, I think, just shines that light and makes it funny. A scene like, Lex Luthor going to a supermarket, just in concept, is funny.”
Where the DC specials differ from the traditional “Robot Chicken” episodes is their construction. While the usual “Chicken” runs for less than 15 minutes and features anywhere from 10-20 quick, unrelated sketches, the DC shows — like previous “Star Wars” specials on “Robot Chicken” — have some semblance of story structure and narrative underneath the madness.
“We write the specials the way that we write the show, which is to get a group of writers together whose voices we like and focus them in a single direction,” Green said. “Everybody generates dozens and dozens of sketches and then we go through as a group and vote on what makes the most sense.
“And we tried to outline what we thought was going to be a through line — we had a strong sense before we started of what we thought the through line was going to be. So that helped. And then, it’s just about picking the funniest stuff.”
“It’s pretty much identical,” Matthew Senreich said of the creative process behind a “Robot Chicken” special. “I think we have just a hair more time. And I think the difference is, we’re more laser-focused. We have one topic that we’re talking about, as opposed to saying, you have the world to make fun of.
“And I think it actually streamlines the thought process and helps you create funnier content.”
Green — who along with Senreich has been with the show since its launch in 2005, even as his own career as an actor continued to flourish — agreed that the specials’ specific focus actually makes them easier to construct than your average episode of “Chicken.”
“Because when we’re doing episodes of ‘Robot,’ you can mix and match the content. We’ll move sketches across four episodes and piece them all together. But on DC, or when we were doing ‘Star Wars,’ you have to be focused on a single story. And that makes it easier to edit.
“There’s rarely things that we’ll include just for storytelling that aren’t funny,” Green continued. “And you know, the whittling-down process is months long. We whittle down the writing every day until at the end of our writing, which is usually … what did we, write for five weeks on this?”
“Three,” Senreich replied.
“After the three-week writing process, we whittle the whole thing down into a document that we felt would be shootable, and then we recorded that document. Once we got all the recordings, and put them against the storyboards, we got a rough estimate of the timing, and still we had to cut nearly 13 minutes of recorded dialogue and storyboards,” Green said.
“So that just becomes judicious. You just say, ‘What’s in the show and what isn’t?’ And then you just start cutting until you have your time.
Despite their love for the material and getting to put their spin on it, the creative process is clearly not a complete piece of cake for Green, Senreich and their writers. In addition to the pressures they feel about meeting fan’s expectations, they also worked hand-in-hand with DC Comics representatives themselves throughout the making of the episode. Considering how DC was preparing to give bad guys the spotlight in the pages of their actual comic books — they recently wrapped an event called “Forever Evil” which gave each villain his or her own issue — the focus of this satirical special fit well with their plans.
“One of the things we actually knew going in was that we were spotlighting villains across the whole company, so this became a part of that in a very different way,” said Geoff Johns, DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer. “It was a very conscious effort to do that.”
“Geoff is very organized,” Senreich added.
“You should see his vision board, it’s beautiful,” Green joked.
The dedication that DC has toward everything that bears its name — even an animated show poking fun at it — is plain to see. Johns noted that this wasn’t a matter of simply giving the “Chicken” staff their blessing and then ignoring them. “The whole writing staff is at DC when we do these specials, and I’m in there, so we’re pretty — that’s as hands-on as you can get,” he said.
“In addition to running a company, Geoff is also in the writers’ room every day,” Senreich added.
The power of The Force
The fact that a late night comedy show featuring animated action figures can get the chance to play with pop culture icons as big as Superman and his brethren is already pretty remarkable (though the fact that Warner Bros. owns both Cartoon Network and DC Comics probably helps matters). It might have seemed especially unthinkable before 2007, when Lucasfilm gave the “Chicken” crew its blessing to lampoon “Star Wars” in their first double-length special devoted to a specific subject.
“It’s hard to say,” Green said. “I think that the fact that a company as large as Lucasfilm and a creator as renowned as George Lucas trusting us with a brand as big as ‘Star Wars’ definitely makes us look competent to anybody else that would want to engage us in the same way.
“But Geoff and Matt have been friends for a long time, and we were kinda spitballing the idea of doing a special — or finding some way to collaborate — even before the ‘Star Wars’ specials.”
So what’s next for Green, Senreich and the rest of the “Chicken” universe? Well, the aforementioned seventh season gets started the week after the second DC special airs. They may not be done with DC, either — there were three “Star Wars” specials, after all, so why would their take on the DC Universe be any different?
But no matter what they take aim at, surely the twisted minds at “Robot Chicken” will tackle it with the same delightful abandon they bring to every subject they lampoon.
“The process is pretty quick and ruthless,” Green said. “It’s all based on gut. And if it’s funny, it’s usually in, and if it’s not, it’s usually cut.”
EXCLUSIVELY ONLINE: TFP Pop Culture Editor Jeff McGinnis takes a character-by-character look at how “Robot Chicken” sees the DC Universe.
How “Robot Chicken” interprets the DC Universe
Written by Jeff McGinnis
Their names are the same, they look like the characters you know and love (or loathe, as the case may be), but in the world of Adult Swim’s animated phenomenon “Robot Chicken,” the heroes and villains of DC Comics may not act exactly as you’d expect them to. Here are a few examples of what separates DC characters from “RC”’s depiction of them.
Played by: Alfred Molina (“Spider-Man 2,” “Chocolat”)
First Appearance: “Action Comics #23,” 1940
Biography: Superman’s arch villain, because it makes total sense that the greatest nemesis of history’s most powerful hero would be a bald businessman with no discernible superpowers. His wealth and power are exceeded only by his ability to act surprised when Superman ONCE AGAIN foils his evil schemes. He somehow assumed control of the Legion of Doom despite the fact that many of his “minions” could break him in half at will.
The Robot Chicken Spin: Lex is a fiercely overprotective parent whose daughter’s infatuation sets the plot in motion. He also has a secret past in glam rock that he’d rather not talk about. For now.
Played by: Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family,” “Vampire Academy”)
First Appearance: “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #23,” 1961
Biography: Lex’s younger sister, Lena grew up not knowing of her villainous family connections, which probably made for some really awkward Thanksgivings once she did find out. She had psychic powers, as well, though she clearly couldn’t have been that GOOD a psychic if it took her so long to figure out who her brother was.
The Robot Chicken Spin: Lena is now Lex’s young daughter, who yearns to be out from under her father’s wing, not to mention his swamp-based evil fortress.
Played by: Zac Efron (“High School Musical,” “That Awkward Moment”)
First Appearance: “Superboy #1,” 1949 (though that version was just Superman as a kid and the modern one is a clone of…oh, you don’t really care, do you?)
Biography: Created in the aftermath of Superman’s death (remember when a hero dying was a big deal?), the modern Superboy was a clone with all of Superman’s powers and, sadly, none of his fashion sense. He stuck around for years under the guise of being Clark’s cousin Connor and even represented DC in the “Marvel vs.” event, though he got his butt handed to him by Spider-Man (who coincidentally was also a clone at that point, just to confuse you more).
The Robot Chicken Spin: Superboy has a real Romeo-and-Juliet crush on Lena, which could certainly complicate matters since her dad and his…uh…clone source?…are bitter enemies. There are also some not-so-broad hints that the whole “clone” thing could just be a not-so-elaborate cover story.
Played by: Alex Borstein (“Family Guy,” “Getting On”)
First Appearance: “All Star Comics #8,” 1941
Biography: One of the three most recognizable heroes in the DC Universe, Diana Prince is an Amazonian demigod who by all rights should be able to eat most any villain for breakfast and have time to save the world three times over by brunch. She hasn’t gotten her own movie yet because supposedly her backstory would be “too confusing” for modern audiences. Meanwhile, Marvel’s putting out movies with Rocket Raccoon and Ant Man. Go fig.
The Robot Chicken Spin: There MAY be more between her and Superman than even a crack reporter like Lois Lane suspects. And what happens if someone else has to fly the invisible jet in an emergency?
Batman and Green Lantern
Played by: Seth Green (co-creator of “Robot Chicken”) and Nathan Fillion (“Firefly,” “Castle”), respectively
First Appearance: “Batman: Detective Comics #37,” 1939; “Green Lantern: All American Comics #16,” 1940
Biography: If you don’t know who Batman is, you need to get out more often. As for Green Lantern, Hal Jordan is a test pilot who ended up being chosen to be part of an intergalactic fighting corps with nearly limitless power, except in the continuities where they made his weakness the color yellow. Seriously. Yellow. This guy could be threatened by a Post-It note.
The Robot Chicken Spin: Since Batman has (cough cough) no superpowers, it’s usually up to Lantern to carry him along into battle, and Bats is getting a little resentful of the humiliation. Will these two powerful forces learn to work together? Do we dare point out what color Batman’s belt is?
Tags: Alex Borstein, Alfred Molina, Ant Man, Batman, DC Comics, Family Guy, Geoff Johns, Gorilla Grodd, Green Lantern, Lex Luther, Lucasfilm, Matt Senreich, Nathan Fillion, Robot Chicken, Rocket Racoon, Sarah Hyland, Seth Green, Spiderman, Star Wars, Superboy, supervillain, The Joker, Wonder Woman, Zac Effron, ” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”