Staying power is a fascinating thing in a world where so much seems to burst and fade. Is it the product of good luck? Surely that’s a factor, but probably not as much as talent, drive, and above all else, flexibility. People will, I am sure, deny or defer the credit for the decisions made to attain it. Humbleness (false or otherwise) is the default, but achieving staying power is a for-sure engineered thing.
Incredibly, it has been 15 years and 199 episodes since Robot Chicken crawled out of Seth Green, Matthew Senreich, Douglas Goldstein, Mike Fasolo, and Tom Root’s heads (a continuation of a concept born as a 1999 Late Night with Conan O’Brien sketch that Green and company made to avoid doing a regular interview). I say “incredibly” for its longevity, but also for all that has gone on in and around pop culture since then and the show’s ability to stay at the top of its game.
Again, it’s something engineered. But how? We sought to find out by talking with Green ahead of Robot Chicken‘s 200th episode (which airs Sunday on Adult Swim at midnight) about opening things up to other people’s ideas, a trail of broken toys, and how the show handles casting. And because Robot Chicken is all about specific retro tastes, we also delve a little into the cult classic rollerblade epic, Airborne.
How do you make this feel special while recognizing the 200 episodes and the achievement that that is?
I wanted to do something that still felt new and original and still felt like Robot Chicken. We used the regular episode format, but we did some very different things, and then packed it with some guest stars and ran a little bit of a narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I’m excited for people to see it.
I know going into season 10 there was a bit of a narrative as well, is it exciting to try to loop that into the show more?
The show is primarily a sketch show, so we really focus on that, but when there are opportunities to tell a longer sketch or a longer-form narrative, if a joke can sustain itself over several sequences, then we’ll play with that. The best thing about Robot Chicken, I think, is that it’s a little bit of a loose format, and so that gives us a lot of creative freedom.
How has the show changed and grown in terms of technical capabilities? Is it easier, is it quicker, are you able to do more?
It is a little bit easier. The thing is, you just get used to a process. When we first started the show, we were using a lot of toys straight out of the packages, and that required a lot of modifying to be able to animate them over hours, if not days. Just over time, we’ve refined the process of building the characters, or the technology is advanced with respect to how to capture stop-motion or technological improvements that give us better visual effects. Also, the longer you work at something, the more familiar you become with it, the faster, and hopefully, more high quality you’re able to make it.
Where are those toys, by the way?
All that stuff, unfortunately, breaks down almost entirely over the course of production. There’s very little we’re able to retain, and then you get the decomposition of materials like foam or plastic.
Action-figure cancer. Black spots. We all know it.
It doesn’t last too long. We save what we can. We repurpose anything that we can, but a lot of stuff just either dissolves or gets destroyed in the process.
You’ve been involved in pop culture for the longest time. Is it challenging to stay engaged in these worlds as things have changed and grown? Obviously there are certain elements of fan culture that might make it harder to stay engaged with these things, toxicity and such. Are you still as up for this stuff as you were when you started?
That’s an interesting question. There’s such a volume of content or media or pop that it is a bit impossible to stay as deeply connected as anything I’ve spent my life in study of. With Robot Chicken, we listen to other voices beyond mine. In the first season, it was just the four or five of us. Then in the later seasons, we’ve gotten dozens of other people involved in the writing and the concepting, so it’s not as on me to keep it all straight. But I’m still a fan of pop. I still like to pay attention to what’s happening, and I love discovering new things and becoming passionate about them.
Was it hard to make that decision?
It’s different than a narrative show with ongoing characters who are meant to evolve in a story. It’s a little bit easier, I think, to listen to other voices with respect to the pop culture they were influenced by or the inherent ironies they may have noticed about it. The best thing that I can do is not be such a control freak that I have to govern and dictate every aspect of our show. It makes it a little less fun for anyone else that wants to participate and I think it would ultimately be less fun for me to shoulder the whole weight of that burden. Making Robot Chicken is a 12-to-15-month exercise, and it can be all-consuming if I let it. Just in an interest to continue to evolve creatively and make other things, including continuing to perform, it’s critical for me to delegate responsibility and give other people the opportunity to improve on it.
With everything going on with casting… Mike Henry no longer voicing Cleveland with Family Guy, etc. You do a show where there’s a lot of voice work, and there’s a lot of character work. How does that go into your process going forward with the show and with anybody that you’re casting?
It’s tough with Robot Chicken just because we’re limited by our budget and how many people we can actually hire. If we have a character, let’s say, for example, there’s a Black character, and that character has more than one line or one word, then we will always cast a Black actor in the role. Where it gets tricky is in an episode of Robot Chicken, just based on our budget, we can hire five to seven actors, and each of those actors will do three character voices. So you may get one main character that has seven or eight lines, and then you may get two other characters that only have one or two lines. In an average episode of Robot Chicken, there’s over 60 or 70 characters, and each of those characters may have something as small as a gasp or a reaction or say, “Oh no.” In that instance, we simply can’t afford to tailor every casting to its appropriate counterpart. In any instance, especially in a long-form show like Crossing Swords, we always cast appropriately, but we also don’t make shows where the race is the detail, where the portrayal of the character is what the thing is about. All in all, I absolutely support inclusion and accurate representation and believe that there is room for all of the performers that want to make stuff, that want to perform.
I know you don’t have control over it, obviously, and you’ve been really respectful about the process — but Detours with Star Wars. A lot of content that’s been in a vault has seen the light of day. Do you think that’s something that’s a possibility? I’m not necessarily looking for the insider answer, but just in your gut, do you think, “Huh, there’s a want right now for something that people can unite behind,” and Is this a good time for that?
Well, I’ll only say that I stand behind what we made, and I appreciate the place from which it was conceived. I also understand that the entire mandate of Lucasfilm as a company and Star Wars as a brand evolved when George [Lucas] sold the company to Disney, and the decisions were made to make new movies and expand the brand. It’s just a different time. The real answer is: I don’t know. That doesn’t seem to be the current direction. The content exists, so you can never say never, but I also really respect the plans of the company to pursue the current direction.
This last one goes way back — how intense was it to film the race scene at the end of Airborne? I re-watched that scene last night, and it seems really intense for what it was in 1993. How much choreography and planning was involved in that?
That movie was produced by the same people that made The Passion Of The Christ and Immortal Beloved. They were not joking with respect to production. Rob Bowman, who’s gone on to be an incredible director and showrunner, directed that movie, and stylistically was swinging for the fences. That end sequence took over two weeks to do and covered dozens of individual hills, it was not an actual single hill. Between the team and the second unit camera team and then all of the rollerbladers doing all the stunts, everybody was just trying to make it sensational. In most cases, I had a stunt double doing any of the more dangerous things. I didn’t have to learn much more choreography than being able to stand up on skates without falling down. Also, my character was supposed to be terrible at skating, so anytime I fell or looked stupid, it only worked for the character. I love that movie, though. We had so much fun making it.
It’s just a fun, light, nice ’90s movie. It’s a fun watch.
It’s about a kid on rollerblades. People bring it up all the time, I’m glad you did. It’s such a fun one. Especially when we made it, it was the hope that anybody would ever see it but not the assumption. Especially because it came out, I think a back-to-school week and the poster art didn’t really show people what the movie was about. It’s always surprising that people saw it or liked it.
‘Robot Chicken‘s 200th episode airs on Sunday at midnight EST.