‘Robot Chicken’ creators get grilled on their ‘DC Comics Special II’

(CBR) At six seasons and counting, “Robot Chicken” has become a cultural force almost as strong as the iconic characters and properties that it makes fun of on a weekly basis. In fact, the Adult Swim series has become a sort of singular destination for roasts of beloved movies, TV shows, comic books and pop culture mythologies, producing spinoffs like its massively-popular “Star Wars” parodies and, most recently, the second installment of their foray into one particular comic book universe with the “Robot Chicken DC Comics Special II: Villains in Paradise.”

The special premiered over the weekend, and will undoubtedly play again on the show's home channel, Cartoon Network. Creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, along with series executive producer and DC's Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns recently spoke with CBR News recently about the process of mounting an episode dedicated to one particular nerd universe. In addition to discussing the fun of creating a story that combines the mundane and the super heroic, the trio talked about distinguishing “Robot Chicken's” interpretation of the characters from those in other forms of media, and hinted at the possibility of future stories focused exclusively on the oddball ensemble of DC characters they deconstruct here.

CBR News: How much of a difference is there in the production of one of these specials than a regular episode of “Robot Chicken?”

Seth Green: it's in the prep of it. We don't write a single episode of “Robot” at a time; we'll write four or five at a time, and so that's just a very different process than this.

Matthew Senreich: In a sense, this is a little more streamlined, because it focuses the writers on one specific type of content, whereas you're all over the map when you're doing the regular season of “Robot Chicken.” Green: Anybody can go anywhere.

Senreich: Yeah, and I think it actually helps the writers. And we actually write it here in [the DC] office, which looking around there's stuff everywhere to draw upon.

Green: There's tons of inspiration.

Senreich: If you hit a roadblock, you just walk around and you're going to see something that triggers an idea. Green: Plus, around noon those food trucks come out.

How do you start the creative process with one of these specials?

Green: No. In the first one, it evolved into being Aquaman's story.

Geoff Johns: It wasn't for the first two weeks, but we finally said “enough Aqua in sketches,” because everyone kept writing them. And then it was like, let's embrace it.

Senreich: And then for the second one, we saw how well the villains played in our first special, especially Alfred Molina as Lex Luthor. That character just elevated upon seeing it, so we liked the idea of focusing on them for the second special — what would that be like? So we went in with a mandate of, hey, let's do some kind of villain storyline. We don't know what it is, but it was in the writer's consciousness. And then we found out Lex Luthor had a daughter, and we came up with that kind of star-crossed lover storyline. Green: As soon as Geoff said she could be a teenager, we were off to the races.

Geoff, as the resident expert on the DC Universe, are there parts of its mythology that you especially do or don't want them to explore or include?

Johns: No, I just think it's open to whatever makes the best content for “Robot Chicken.” It's not like we have to live in the New 52 or the new whatever; Superboy's from the mid-1990s, and he's better for that. He looks cool — it's like, what's the funniest look for Superboy?

Senreich: And again, to Geoff's credit, he's building the “Robot Chicken DC Universe.”

Johns: Let it be whatever it's going to be for the best story.

Senreich: It's creating a new version of DC, which I think works great for us.

Johns: Every medium has to be its own thing. “Arrow” has to be its own thing, and the movies have to be their own thing, and comics are their own thing.

How tough is it to marry the mundane and the super heroic for these stories?

Green: That's kind of our wheelhouse. That's our favorite thing to do, take the absolutely extraordinary and find the basic humanity in it. At the end of the day, we think we're so evolved, but we're just a fucking monkey that has culture and a job. We want basic niceties.

Senreich: We were just saying it's so funny that Bizarro has a house, and eats Girl Scout cookies.

Green: And we spent a lot of time talking about what his house was going to look like, and what his pay grade was, and where he probably set up shop. Because he can fly, so his commute's not as hard as, say, Scarecrow's — but they've all got to commute to work. This is a little bit more of a workplace comedy.

Do you start with a narrative and build those gags into it, or find a story to wrap around your riffs and sketches?

Green: Yeah, [starting with sketches] is the way we write. So we get all of our writers together, we go, hey, this is about the villains, and so everybody starts writing sketches, and then we cull through those sketches for the first week or two, and that starts to give it a shape.

Senreich: And then we kind of put a timeline on the board and see where these things can fall, to try to figure out some sort of bigger story arc.

Green: And as soon as we knew that Lex Luthor had a daughter, it became about Bring Your Daughter To Work Day. It became about trying to repair this relationship with a single parent — if you can. It became about a daughter who wants nothing to do with her incredibly accomplished, successful businessman father. And it's not about Lex Luthor, it's suddenly just about basic humanity. That's where we think it's the funniest.

Have you reached a point where any of the humor is too specific to register with viewers?

Green: Well, we only make like hyper-genre jokes if they're in short form. Like, we give a lot of Easter eggs for our people, the nerds of the world who will recognize that stuff. But we're not so obnoxious as to make a nine-minute sketch that's only for the people that read, like, issue #67. That's not fun. We want it to be accessible to, like, Matt's wife and my grandma.

How tough is it to figure out the voices for characters who might already be iconic — or totally unknown?

Senreich: It starts with a wish list. Like I know when we were doing the first special, we were talking about the Riddler character. You always end up coming back to that one because you want someone who has that like over the top funny voice, and we started talking about Paul Reubens.

Green: There was a point when he was in the running to play The Riddler — I think it was when Jim Carrey did it. There was a point where Paul got discussed as The Riddler then, and so we just made good on that. Same thing as, like, Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern — we just kept that going.

Senreich: And then for Lex Luthor, it was one of those things where we liked Alfred Molina — but we didn't know.

Green: Linda [Cardellini] suggested it and then we thought…

Senreich: We didn't know until we had that in front of us, and then we were like, that sounds awesome. And then he comes in and the person performs even better than you expect. Green: You think, Alfred Molina's never going to fucking say yes to doing our stupid cartoon — but then he did!

Johns: Let alone singing.

Senreich: You never know what a person's sense of humor is until they're there with you, interacting with you. And yeah, to sing “Sex Luthor”–

Green: With respect to casting, there are some voices that we've already established in the regular season of “Robot” and we maintain those, and then knowing what those characters had to do, we tried to cast based on that. There were people that we established in the first one that we brought back. And then in the second one, we added people like Clancy Brown to play Gorilla Grodd, because Grodd had more of an arc than he had in the previous special, and we wanted someone to specialize it — and Clancy was our first choice.

Senreich: And I say we undersell Breckin Meyer, who plays Superman. It's just a defining voice — it's that cocky, arrogant [attitude]. He knows he's the most powerful guy in the universe, that kind of voice. And it just makes me smile.

Green: You really do almost take Breckin for granted, but he's our ace in the hole.

How much has the mythology of the Robot Chicken DC Universe permeated your subsequent projects as a point of reference?

Green: I believe that we're always aware of those things. There's never a point where we say something and we like forget for a second. But the weirdest thing that I've had about that in pop culture is in “Star Wars,” because I've had parents come up to us and say that they've introduced their kids to “Star Wars” through “Robot Chicken” — which I think is foolish and handicapping for your child. Because you're introducing these icons in an ironic interpretation, which completely undercuts their ability to take them seriously when they actually see the source material. But it's not like that in DC. There's so many different versions of these characters, and each one of them is so true to themselves, whether it's the animated, the movie, the kids' version.

Senreich: Look at “Teen Titans Go.” My son is watching that.

Johns: And if he grows up loving Raven and Cyborg and Starfire, that's cool.

Green: Geoff said one of my favorite things earlier today — he said “DC knows you can't break these characters.” So they're really bold with letting us make comedy.

Are there ideas or jokes you've come up with that you want to explore further in your own universe?

Green: You're asking if there was ever a point when we might spinoff a new show based on something that was in the DC special?

Or even the idea that now that you have your own DC universe to explore.

Green: That is a continuing conversation. I'll just say that's a continuing conversation.

Senreich: We're constantly aware of the universe we're creating in the DC–verse.

Johns: We've been working together for ten years. We won't stop now.