Robot Chicken is one of those shows that’s kept quietly plugging away and doing its things for half a decade now, until last year when the show turned its fourth Emmy nomination into an actual win for “Outstanding Short-Form Animation Program.” It’s a great accomplishment for a show with what might perhaps be the best format for comedy on television: absolute freedom to pull off the shortest of one-liners all the way up to full five-minute sketches, along with everything in between. It’s a fast-paced format that’s served creators Matthew Senreich and Seth Green well, and has allowed them to pull off hundreds of stop-motion skits over the years without ever wearing out their welcome.
Along with their Emmy win, the Robot Chicken crew is setting the bar in other places, now with a DVD/Blu-ray of Season 5 that is experimenting with the nature of home video. [You can buy the DVD from CHUD here, or grab it on it Blu-ray from us as well.] When I had the opportunity to speak with Matthew about the show, that’s the first thing our conversation covered…
Renn: First of all, congratulations on the Emmy. That’s pretty spectacular.
Matthew: Thank you! I’m still in awe of that.
Renn: I can only imagine. Did you ever have any expectation that something like that could happen when you started the show?
Matthew: I’ll reverse that and ask, “did YOU ever have any expectation of Robot Chicken doing that when you watched the show?” No way, we’re fucking around with toys, it’s kind of– you don’t expect people to reward you for that.
Renn: Well it’s an amazing world we live in that they occasionally pull their head out of their ass and do something like that.
Matthew: Yeah. Ha, no it was overwhelmingly honarary and I’m still… You know when they thank the Academy? I can say I swear to God and thank the Academy.
Renn: So it’s kind of interesting: you’ve got this new disc that, from what I can tell, has a chunk of the season that hasn’t aired yet.
Matthew: Yep. Right.
Renn: So if people get the Blu-ray right away, they can catch a batch of episodes before they even air. Is that something that happened because of how scheduling and production turned out, or was that a decided release experiment?
Matthew: Yeah, that’s an experiment. I have to say, Adult Swim has always thought a little bit outside of the box and I think this is something they wanted… you know with the DVD market being mediocre these days, I think everyone wanted to take an opportunity and try and do something different. They approached us about doing this with the season and we were just like, “Sounds scary, but it also sounds exciting.” It gives the opportunity to the fans of our show to go out and see the rest of the season before it even airs on television, which I think is an exciting incentive, and we tried to pack the DVD with as much extra stuff as possible as well, which we do with pretty much all of our DVDs. So yeah, we’re really curious. We’re going to be sitting back and watching from the sidelines, wanting to see what happens.
Renn: Gotcha. So I always like to ask content creators what their thoughts are on the current distribution market. With you guys and a show like this of this short-form format that sort of lives on the internet anyway, what are your thoughts on the current landscape of VOD, and your Hulus and Netflixes that are changing how this stuff is consumed.
Matthew: In terms of being able to access it early?
Renn: Not even accessing it early, just how many portals through which one can watch something now, and can consume the content however and whenever they want, which would seemingly affect a show like yours even more directly.
Matthew: I think it goes back to, and this is terrible of me to even say, that you wanted find old bootleg DVDs, or not even DVDs– VHS tapes of like Hong Kong action flicks back in the day and Chinatown in NY City –that’s where I watched all my Jackie Chan back in the day– you were able to find stuff if you were really seeking it out. I think it just makes it more easily accessible to a lot of people. But if you have love for a show, you’re still gonna watch it when it’s on television, or not even on television– just the place where you’re able to access it most conveniently. I think stuff like HBOgo is an amazing thing. As soon as I had that I was downloading and watching that stuff, Game of Thrones the week before and going, “Damn, I have to wait an extra week for the next one now.” It put me one week ahead of everything, which I thought was really exciting, and I think Adult Swim is trying the same kind of process with doing this. You’ll get to see everything and the best part about our show is there is a repeatability factor where people like to watch our show more than once because we are so fast paced. So I think even if you don’t catch it the first time on air, you’re going to see it again and not blink an eye- there’s still the enjoyment factor.
It’s like Family Guy- how often is Family Guy on television?
Renn: Is there not a channel not just dedicated to it?
Matthew: Exactly, it’s one of those things where it’s everywhere. People will always continue to watch it and it will get all the ratings.
Renn: So as for the show itself- I feel like it premiered right at the beginning of YouTube’s intrusion into culture, before the idea of web series and short clips started permeating things so much. So considering your show’s format that runs sketches anywhere from 5 seconds to 5 minutes long, was that a conversation at the beginning to sort of try and ride the cutting edge, or is that always what you guys envisioned doing?
Matthew: Oh yeah, well, we started in digital content. So we started for Sony Screenblast back in 2000, we did shorts and digital content that we created for Sony’s website. It was all dial-up back then, so nobody could see it, but we were doing short form. Then when we actually got the television show, the first conversation we had with Adult Swim was about maintaining the quick, fast-paced ADD mentality that you needed to maintain as if you were watching something online. So that’s been a mission statement from the get-go. In fact, that’s one of the first things the Adult Swim head said to us was, “make the longer sketches shorter and the shorter sketches just a little bit longer, because you want to keep it flowing.” So yeah, we’ve always played to that thought process.
Renn: So I’ve always been curious, and this may have kind of a wide answer, but with a show that has a history so densely packed with cameos and guest voices, how do those typically come about? Do you have a booker, the way a late-night show would, or is it all just favors?
Matthew: It’s a combination of a bunch of things… We started out just using Seth [Green]’s rolodex and seeing what people that Seth’s known that we could bring in to help play, and then it’s kind of grown to where some celebrities will seek us out to do voices on the show. There’s also the reverse of us watching something like Community, being a big fan and saying “hey, let’s try and bring in as many of these guys as we can.” We just did that this season with Breaking Bad, we got in Bryan Cranston in the second half of Season 5 and I think he did like two or three episodes for us. And Aaron Paul is on my list for next season, I would love to bring him in. [Perhaps for a parody of the Korn music video he was a part of?] Again, you see people you there that make you think, “I like that guy,” and we just go out to them and hope for the best. There are people who reject us and then there are all the people who you see on the show. We have no shame in asking.
Renn: That must be how you’ve accumulated such a huge list… some amazing people that have been on the show, Cranston being a big one.
Matthew: I’m waiting for the Entertainment Weekly article where they can interview all the people that have been on the show and they can talk about how bad it was, and all the terrible stories of working with us.
Renn: I can’t imagine it’s too bad- pajama work for a lot of them.
Matthew: Haha, yeah, a little bit. We harass the people in a good way, but they harass us as well. Nathan Fillion is probably the best in that case. He knows when we’ll be doing some voice recording and he’ll come in, and he’s pulled full-scale Nerf attacks on us with his brother. It’s very entertaining.
Renn: I can completely buy that coming from him.
Matthew: I think we actually recorded one of them, I think it’s an extra on maybe our last season’s DVD.
Renn: So I think this is one of the first Adult Swim shows that I’ve personally watched on a Blu-ray. It made me curious… the show’s always been cool to look at, but with doing a show in stop-motion on a budget and really quickly, at what point did that become a consideration, and did that ever give you pause, contemplating HD and home viewing?
Matthew: Yeah, I mean we realized we had to get with the times and do everything in HD because that’s the way the world is working these days. The one thing for me it does is make you more self-conscious of the dust on like a set that you can maybe see move around occasionally. The one thing I always point out –which I don’t think anyone notices and by saying this I’m probably blowing up my spot– but the Emperor’s Phone Call sketch… the only thing I see in that after seeing it the millions of times I have, is the dust on the Emperor’s desk jumping and moving around. In HD that only gets magnified, so it just makes us more self-conscious about every aspect of production when we’re actually putting it together.
Renn: Well, you know with the ole ’33 King Kong and stuff like that it was the artist’s shifting fingerprints that gave everything a life and vibrance, so maybe there are hidden benefits…
Matthew: Agreed when it’s on the character. When you look at the desk you’ll understand why it nitpicks at me, hahaha.
Renn: I’ll have to go back and take a look to blow up your secret.
Matthew: I think I’m the only person who notices it.
Renn: Well done, you just ruined one of your most beloved sketches for millions of people!
Matthew: ..for the rest of the world, exactly.
Renn: So what do you have banging around in your brain for the next season?
Matthew: Gosh, well once you get into that writer’s room that’s when everything kicks into high gear, so everything is fair game, we’re just going to dive in and yeah, we’re really excited to get started on the sixth season. Before it we’re going to do a DC Comics special, so that’s going to kick us off for the sixth season which we’re really excited about.
Renn: Oh nice! Tell me about the genesis of that special.
Matthew: With the DC thing… you know we did it with Star Wars and Geoff Johns, who is the Chief Creative Officer over there at DC, is a good friend of ours, always likes to play with us and came to us with the idea of doing it. We were not going to say no in any way, and I’ve worked with Geoff for many years- he wrote on our third Star Wars special, he worked on a couple episodes of season five, I sold my first pilot with him back in the early 2000s. I tip my hat to him, and it’s his fault if it’s good or bad.
Renn: Ha, that’s a good way of covering your ass.
Matthew: Yeah exactly, I figure Seth and him will get the blame if it’s either good or bad, so I’ll just kind of hide in the background. Actually, let me rephrase that: If it’s good, Geoff will get all the praise, if it’s bad, Seth will get all the shit, and if it’s mediocre, I won’t even be mentioned. Haha, we’re going to be fine.