TR Interview: The Robot Chicken Writers

By Luke Y. Thompson in Cartoons, Comics, TV, Toys
Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm

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DC Comics' new headquarters in Burbank is filled with things to look at, from the movie costumes in the lobby to the giant superhero drawings on every sliding office door. In-house toys adorn most desks, and the vault room that contains as many early issues as the company has been able to gather has glass walls, so you can look, even if you'd never remotely have the security clearance to touch.

But I'm not here merely to geek out. Robot Chicken has a new DC Comics Special airing Sunday, and I'm here to meet the writers, whom I talked to in two groups of three.



Eric Towner, Kevin Shinick and John Harvatine

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Luke Y. Thompson: Is it your choice, or is it a constraint that you tend to focus mostly on the Silver Age? Is there any rule, like you can't touch the New 52?

Kevin Shinick:
No, not at all. In fact, it wasn't even that. I know Seth [Green] really wanted to focus, in the first special, on the Super Friends cartoon, even, so we could utilize the Hall of Justice and the Legion of Doom. So I think that was our starting point. But then, anything was game. Everything was open season at that point. We could go to any realm we wanted to. It may have just been haphazard. Good for noting, though.

LYT: Was the Silver Age the comics you grew up with?

KS:
For me it was. Yeah, yeah.

John Harvatine: I don't even know what the Silver Age was, I'm serious!

Eric Towner: [laughs]

JH: Can you tell me what that is really quick?

KS: What's the actual years? There was the Golden Age and the Silver Age.

LYT: I don't know. I just know that there was a point where I stopped reading comics and then I came back, and suddenly Superman and Batman weren't friends any more.

KS:
You can come any different week and find that out! To answer your question, no, we didn't focus on that. But I think we're all in the same - around the same age, so I think we all grew up reading the same time period of comics.

LYT: Do you ever come up with gags that involve a toy that you can't get, like say the Mego Batman with removable cowl? You want to write something for him, but it just breaks the budget to try to find?

KS: You know, we have a really good staff of people who search and search for these things. This is not the DC Comics special, but I remember in the regular season, we were doing a Six Million Dollar Man sketch. And they didn't make one - he had to have both eyes, and he only had one eye, because you could see through it, and then it dawned on me: What about Maskatron? Which was a villain of his in the TV show, they made a doll of, where he had different masks, and one was Steve Austin.

ET: That's impressive!

KS: See? I whipped that out!

ET: Kevin, two for two!

KS: [laughs] We found that. So it's kind of fun to try. At this point, in season six going to season seven, a lot of times we've learned that it's easier sometimes to start from scratch and make a malleable puppet. But a lot of times, if there's something out there that we can use, we will do that first.

LYT: I was wondering that, because you have Chemo, who was obviously the build-a-figure, in this one...

KS: If things exist, we try first to get that. Unless of course it's going to be restrictive of the action, the movement we want it to do for the comedy.

LYT: Do you build them from scratch when they're super-poseable, or do you take an actual one and customize it, give it new arms?

ET:
It's about half and half. We'll either take existing toys and just modify them to be animated. And then a lot of the times it'll be a scratch build, made to look like a certain toy, because we need it to do a certain action that the toy could just never do. But there is something kind of charming and funny about Robot Chicken when it is just - you're using these little dumb toys, and you can tell that they're the actual toys, with all of their glorious limitations.



JH: I think an example - did you see one of those characters, that green guy - is that Chemo?

KS: Chemo, yeah.

JH: So that was just a toy. He really doesn't do much. He's just kind of like that, which is more funny than if we were to build something up, spend a lot of time and money on it, make it do all these things. It's funny watching him do that, you know?

LYT: Did you all get any ideas watching The Lego Movie of how the simple movements can go a long way?

KS:
I think they found their inspiration from close to home. [chuckles] Weren't you guys involved in the end credits?

ET: Yeah, we did...

JH: Yeah, our studio was.

KS: Nice plug!

ET: Yeah, our studio - Stoopid Buddy Studios - we did the, we collaborated on the titles and end credits of the movies of The Lego Movie. One of the co-directors of The Lego Movie, Chris McKay, got his start on Robot Chicken.

KS: Right. He's directing the next Lego Movie.

LYT: Yeah.

ET:
There's a lot of our blood there.

LYT: Do you know if the ones they have at Legoland are the actual end credits that were used in the movie?

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ET: Those are them, yeah. We had them in a studio, then shipped them off to Legoland for kids to enjoy.

KS: Exactly.

LYT: From a writing standpoint, is it more fun to do a special like this, that has more of a through story line? Is that a relief, because you don't have to come up with as many different skit ideas with different characters?

ET: Sometimes more difficult, because we set out to do that. Sometimes the sketches will dictate where we think the story will lead. Other times, it's the other way around. In this case, I think we said, "All right, wouldn't it be funny if this happened, and Lex Luthor had to go find his daughter down at a beach house?" But we're all generating all of these sketches just to be funny. So a lot of times, a week in, we're like, "Guys, we've got a lot of funny sketches, but nothing is supporting the story that we talked about!" [laughter from all]

So we'll try and focus a little bit more. I find it sometimes a little more difficult to write - not difficult to write the linear story, but when you're just coming up with funny, it's always easier to be like, "I'm going to pull this out of left field and do this," and if it also helps the story, then great.

LYT: I also noticed the Bizarro skit early on really sets up something that casual readers may have forgotten, which is that he says the opposite of what he means.

ET: Right, exactly.

LYT: Was that conscious, or was that just, "I want to write a random Bizarro skit"?

ET: You know, I think the sketch came randomly, but then in constructing the episode, like you said - audiences need a little reminder, so we said, "Let's start with this, so that at the end we can..."

JH: Ah, smart!

ET: Mm-hmm! It's called a call back.

LYT: Content-wise, is there anything Adult Swim won't let you do?

ET: Go home early. [all laugh] No, they really - DC too - both companies have been really generous with where we can go and what we've done. I'm sure there may be one or two instances where they wanted to tone something down or something, but for the most part, they've been like, "Free rein - do whatever you want to do."

LYT: I was thinking of the dick with a smooth head line [a double-entendre referring to Lex Luthor].

ET: Yeah, I wrote that. I wrote the Grease parody song, and I wrote that in, and I said I don't hold back when I'm writing. Let's see if we can get it through, and it got through. So that's why I never censor myself to begin with.

LYT: No problem on that one. [laughter] The Fangorn Forest reference [to unshaven pubic hair] - is that something you've heard someone actually say, or did that come out of one of your minds?

ET: I think - I can't remember. I can't remember who wrote that. And if they are plagiarizing, we'll get to the bottom of this, if this is someone else's. But it may have just come up in the room.

LYT: So I heard someone say there are Dino Riders jokes coming up in the next season.

JH: Yeah, we just saw some of the animation from the Dino Riders sketch. It's brilliant.

LYT: Were those hard toys to come by, or did you build them from scratch?

ET: Those were the actual toys, right?

JH: Those were the toys, yeah. I don't know if they're hard to come by. They probably just searched the aisles of eBay, but they're really funny. They're just the straight-up toys, bouncing on the dinosaurs. It's a really funny sketch.

LYT: Is it a different dynamic having DC out here in Burbank versus New York? Does that change anything?

ET: Well, I'm happy they're out here, because we got to write the special here. I've also worked with DC in New York. It's mostly editorial there, or was. I don't think it matters, really. For me as a reader and a writer, it doesn't, but I'm sure it affects a lot of other people's lives!

LYT: When you work this closely with DC, do you try to say, "Hey, can we get a look at the Batfleck costume?"

ET: Constantly! And they constantly say "No!"

JH: It never works.

ET: [laughs] They're very good to us, and there's a big archive room, there's a big merchandise room, and we always get to skip through there possibly once or twice, but they keep their secrets pretty much under wrap. As much as we've begged Geoff to tell us secrets that we'd see in these upcoming movies, he would not crack.

LYT: They give you a pretty free reign content-wise to do whatever you want with the characters, but would they ever say something like, "That character doesn't have that superpower. You're doing it wrong."?

ET: Absolutely, absolutely. I wrote a Deadman sketch that I wrote in the first special, where it was a fine line whether that was actually his power or not, but it was a funny scenario, so we at least animated it, or did the animatic for it, but because Geoff's there, and because a lot of us know these characters, we could be like, "OK, that's funny, but he doesn't do that." It's like if you made Aquaman fly, or did something - it's not as funny, you have to stick to who these people are.


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