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'Robot Chicken' is an absurdist play toy

'Robot Chicken,' created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, is a key part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The bawdy show has been renewed for a seventh season.

February 16, 2013|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • Stoopid Buddy Stoodios co-owners, John Harvatine IV, left, Eric Towner, Seth Green and Matt Senreich.
Stoopid Buddy Stoodios co-owners, John Harvatine IV, left, Eric Towner,… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Seth Green slumps on a bench seat in a 1970s Winnebago that's parked inside of Stoopid Buddy Stoodios in Burbank. A nasty case of strep throat has him feeling low.

But the fact that "Robot Chicken," the off-color stop-motion animated series Green created with Matthew Senreich was renewed for a seventh season, perks him up a bit.

"We thought it was the same generation as us who grew up watching the same TV shows and eating the same cereal," says Green of the show's fan base, which has helped make "Robot Chicken" a cult hit among mostly younger men. "But we have 9-year-olds who come up to us singing our theme song."

He pauses, and adds, "I think that's just bad parenting."

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"Robot Chicken" which airs its sixth-season finale midnight Sunday on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, is a key part of the channel's late-night programming block known for its absurdist, bawdy humor rife with sexual and violent imagery. The short episodes play like a super-salty animated version of "Saturday Night Live" in which popular actors give voice to animated toys in the service of crudely mocking pop culture.

"Adult Swim has an audience profile that a lot of cable networks would be envious of," says Brad Adgate, a vice president of research at Horizon Media. He says the show might capture the largest audience of 18-to-34-year-old males in its late-night time slot. "And I think that 'Robot Chicken, along with 'Family Guy' are the shows that are driving that."

"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane suggested that Green and Senreich pitch their show to Adult Swim in 2003. The show idea had been kicking around in various incarnations since 1999 when Green made a stop-animated short featuring a psychotic Britney Spears for an appearance on Conan O'Brien's talk show.

The show first aired in February 2005 and flew largely under the mainstream radar until it was nominated for an Emmy for animated program in 2007. It's been nominated every year since and won in 2010.

By subverting the childish joy of toys, "Robot Chicken" manages to tap into a rich vein of humor in a post-ironic world. In one episode viewers might hear an inventor rap about bestowing "Star Trek's" robot Data with a sexual organ or a college-age Andy from "Toy Story" in a threesome with his girlfriend and Buzz Lightyear.

It's not all sexual humor though, and it's much-lauded "Star Wars" spoofs are a prime example. They portray the interstellar franchise characters engaged in mundane activities — the Emperor ordering a turkey club sandwich with coleslaw, for example. Titled "The Emperor's Phone Call," that clip has racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube.

The show ranks No. 1 in its time slot with its audience this season averaging just below 2 million viewers per episode.

Those kind of respectable late-night ratings have helped the program attract top-name voice talent such as Bryan Cranston, Snoop Dogg, Ashton Kutcher, Scarlett Johansson and many more. (Green says the show has had more actual guest stars than "Saturday Night Live.")

"Most actors like to play around and be silly, and they like to play parts that they would never physically get to play," says Green.

For the last year the show has been produced, filmed and edited at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, which could be considered the madhouse that "Robot Chicken" built. The year-old, 35,000-square-foot facility spans two buildings and includes a Tiki-themed fabrication department, a candy shop-themed costume department and a Winnebago, which enhances the main studio's woodsy campground vibe.

There is also a break room filled with old-school video games and a banister that Green transformed into a toy racetrack.

"It was his vision for the stairwell," says John Harvatine, who is a partner in the studio, along with Eric Towner.

A maze of small, black-curtained rooms is where the animation magic happens. The staffing required to produce an episode from start to finish can be startling to those unfamiliar with the medium. It takes a nearly 10-hour day to create about 10 seconds of film.

There are 20 episodes per season, and each episode contains about 60 miniature, hand-built sets. It takes nearly 11 months to film a season, and at the height of production the number of staff inflates from a handful to more than 90.

At the studio, shelves are lined with Lego-sized toilets, school chairs, hospital gurneys and boxes of toys all used to liven up the show.

"These boxes show you what we go to a lot in our humor," says Senreich, pointing at the carefully handwritten labels, which include a "Box of Nazis," "Men in Casual Clothes," "Strippers and Naked People," and "Homeless, Hippies, Pirates and Cavemen."

The show's popularity has attracted a wealth of industry attention to Stoopid Buddy, which is working on the development of five pilots across three networks: Disney, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim.

Other studio projects include "Spys for MAD" on Cartoon Network and the "Dinosaur Office" Web series. The latter is up for a Streamy Award, which has been likened to an Oscar for Internet shows.

"We may work 12-hour days, but we're playing with toys," says Senreich. "If your biggest problem is figuring out which version of G.I. Joe action figure to use, how bad can it be?"

'Robot Chicken'

Where: Toon

When: Midnight Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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