Matt Senreich and Zeb Wells are key contributors to the Robot Chicken TV series, which has proven a surprise success with six seasons under its belt. Wells also writes for Marvel Comics, notably various flavors of Spider-Man. They teamed up this weekend to present the annual Robot Chicken Christmas special, running Sunday, December 16 at midnight on Cartoon Network. In an exclusive interview with Mania, they talked about the project, and the joys of playing with action figures for a living.
Question: How did you guys get started on Robot Chicken?
Matt Senreich: Seth Green called me up in 1999 and said “I want to do a stop-motion animated short.” And now we’re in our sixth season. I never even thought it would be a full-time job!
Zeb Wells: I won a video-making contest at Wizard when Matt was working there. He kind of kept me in mind and when he moved to Robot Chicken, he gave me a call. I’ve been writing on the show since 2007 and just started directing this year. Like a lot of things, it’s all in who you know.
Q: How did the idea for a Christmas special first get started?
MS: After our first year, we tossed around the idea of a Christmas special. All those specials on TV when we were kids – The Peanuts and the Rankin-Bass stop-motion stuff – they just felt like a natural fit. So we tried it, and it turned into a tradition for us. One of them won an Emmy, everybody seemed to love it… it worked.
ZW: We prefer controlled chaos in the writer’s room. We like to see what builds up organically. And during one of our writing cycles, we just started focusing on Christmas for about five episodes. There was so much good material that it would be absurd not to do a special.
Q: How about the casting decisions? How have you managed to get such great talent to work with you?
MS: They’re mostly Seth’s friends, people he’s worked with over all these years in the movie business. Once started realizing that we could get genuine celebrities, people started approaching us to do the show. For the special, we got people like Henry Winkler; Seth MacFarlane has been our Santa for many years… we just seem to attract them.
Q: Do you have specific actors in mind when you prepare the sketches?
ZW: We very rarely have people in mind, though we have a wish list of people who might be right for a character. That doesn’t mean that we’re thinking about someone specific. We kind of wing it a lot.
Q: Has there ever been a sketch or an idea that you guys decided was too twisted and dark? Something that crossed a line even for you?
MS: Standards and Practices usually makes that call for us. We had one where Johnny Cage came back from his match on Mortal Combat, and kept hearing a disembodied voiced saying, “finish him!” He came home and kissed his wife, and heard “finish her!” Then the kids ran in and he heard “finish them!” He basically murders his family, then sees a half-eaten pizza on the floor and hears “finish it!” We ended up cutting that. But most of the time, that decision is out of our hands. It helps to take the temperature of the room, and if multiple people have serious reservations, that’s usually a good sign. But that doesn’t happen very much.
Q: Your sketches depend on a lot of well-known action figures and toys. Were there any that particularly called out to you during your tenure?
ZW: G.I. Joe made an aircraft carrier, the kind that only the rich kids could afford. We convinced production to buy one… they shipped it out mint in box. Then we ended up using it for, like, one five second scene. We spent the rest of the season trying to come up with new ways to use it so we wouldn’t look like total assholes.
Q: Were there any toys like that you set aside for the Christmas special?
MS: We have a few that we really latch onto. Our Santa Claus has become a favorite, and Seth MacFarlane always does a great job with him. We had a G.I. Joe bit, like what you get for Snake Eyes when he can’t talk and tell you what he wants. There’s always little things like that. We tend
Q: How much leeway do you give your actors to improvise? MacFarlane must be great at improve.
MS: Shockingly, because Seth is so busy, he usually just reads straight from the page. He’s great at improv, but he really seems to like and trust our writers. It’s the same thing when people on our staff go over to Family Guy. There’s a very friendly and collaborative back and forth on those shows. Family Guy had its ups and downs – it’s been canceled twice – and Seth really just respects our process and our way of doing things, and sticks with it through the ups and the downs.
Q: Zeb, what’s it like juggling duties on Robot Chicken with writing Spider-Man?
ZW: It’s not so much “juggle” as it is “drop every ball and try madly to pick them up while fighting back bitter tears.” It’s not easy at all. I’ve had to walk away from comics for a bit. Now that I’ve got some down time, I’ll be getting back into that world again.