Matt Senreich and Zeb Wells Bring Holiday Cheer to Robot Chicken
Each week, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken brings a skewed and ridiculous look at childhood icons and popular culture, but with the holidays coming up, the show’s producers are set to debut their annual Christmas special. Airing Sunday at midnight ET/PT, the episode has Robot Chicken‘s special brand of Santa humor, a new Christmas song from Justin Bieber (played by Lucas Grabeel) and a cameo from G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama.
To pull back the curtain on the episode, Spinoff Online spoke with Robot Chicken co-creator Matt Senreich and series writer/director Zeb Wells to discover what viewers can expect from the special and from the back half of the season, the status of Senreich and Seth Green’s Star Wars: Detours series and what it was like for Wells to get into the director’s chair.
Spinoff Online: Matt, Zeb, what wonderful pop-culture properties can viewers expect to see the Robot Chicken twist on for the Christmas special this year?
Zeb Wells: Well, we’re going to find out how difficult it is to deliver a present to Jason Bourne.
Matt Senreich: The man who can’t be found.
Wells: The man who can’t be found.
Senreich: We are going to find out what Snake Eyes wants for Christmas — especially when he can’t speak and say what he wants.
Wells: We’re going to put our Robot Chicken nerd into the Grinch universe, or the Grinch-iverse as I like to call it.
Senreich: [Laughs] Yeah, and a lot of original Santa fun.
Wells: We have a few self-loathing Jews on the writing staff. There’ll be some swipes at Jewish customs as well.
Larry Hama has a guest spot on your show and I heard you actually recorded his part in his living room.
Senreich: [Laughs] Yes! Seth [Green] and I got to go to his apartment in New York City and probably gushed a little too much on how much we’re fanboys of his, and we filmed him in his apartment and put him as live-action into the episode. That was a really fun day.
Wells: He was awesome. His scene is really funny. It was great.
Senreich: Yeah, he interacts with our nerd.
The Christmas special marks the halfway point to the season. We’ve seen a lot of great stuff so far, what kind of stuff do you guys have planned for the latter half?
Senreich: Yeah, we have a lot of stuff! I don’t even know where to begin. We were just watching an episode that we have 50 Cent rapping for us, so that’s kind of awesome. Rizza does an amazing rap for us.
Wells: Oh, yeah, Rizza does a rap about being a pescatarian that turned out great.
Senreich: It all builds up to a wonderful Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon-cameo closer for our finale, which is a little bit down the road.
At NYCC, Seth mentioned the guest spot that Joss Whedon did for your season finale. You guys also recently had Robert Kirkman on as a guest star. Any other guest directors you guys are looking to bring on to play themselves?
Senreich: You know, we tried to get Spielberg, but we had trouble reaching him for some reason.
Wells: For some reason.
Senreich: Yeah, so that one was a little bit of a heartbreak, but we’ll keep trying. There’s no one else I can think of off the top of my head. Does [Seth] McFarlane count? He’s on our show often.
That’s true, and he’s hosting the Oscars this year.
Senreich: Yeah, and all the power to him, he deserves everything he gets. That is a talented, talented man.
Speaking of directors, Matt, you’re pretty close with George Lucas and with the news of Disney purchasing Lucasfilm, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the deal.
Senreich: For me, I’m excited. It’s one of those things where I look at what Disney’s done with Marvel and Pixar and how those remain some of the most amazingly creative environments and have put out some of my favorite products of all time. I can only hope the same thing happens with Lucasfilm.
How might the deal possibly affect the Star Wars: Detours show you and Seth have in production?
Senreich: I think it’s too early to say anything because until that deal finalizes and actually goes through, I think we wait and we see what happens. I love Kathleen Kennedy, I think she’s fantastic. I think she has her eyes on the prize and I’m excited. I get excited working with George Lucas and I’m just as excited to be working with Kathy.
Moving over to the DC Comics special that opened the sseason, it’s pretty common knowledge that you guys had more material than you could use for the actual episode. Any chance fans will get a chance to see some of that material?
Senreich: A lot of them will be on the DVD. The DVD will have a lot of this type of stuff. We don’t know when it comes out, unfortunately.
Zeb, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a comic from you. When can we expect you to get back on the shelves?
Senreich: [Laughs] You’re late! That’s what he’s insinuating! You’re late!
Wells: [Laughs] I was up late last night writing some pages for Joe Mad and Steve Wacker. I kind of got swallowed up by this season of Robot Chicken. This was the first season I directed and it’s a full-time job that there’s not enough hours in the day to get it done. It kind of swallowed up the year, I sort of disappeared in that vortex for a while.
Senreich: I’ll put the seed out there that there are rumors Zeb might be doing a pilot for Adult Swim, but I don’t know much about it.
Wells: I’m trying to get some comics written in the meantime.
One of the projects Robot Chicken did recently was the “PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale” sketch, which was very cool. What was it like to coordinate getting that to fire?
Senreich: It wasn’t planned for that long, but PlayStation actually reached out to us seeing some of the stuff we had done. It just really fit into all the stuff we had been doing, into our production schedule seamlessly. It was one of those things where we thought about it for a couple months and we put it into the pipeline and we had the date that we had to hit. It was a lot of fun. We’re all gaming geeks, so it worked out perfectly.
Wells: I’m just really happy how it turned out. I think on top of that, it all just came together somehow, I think it turned into a really fun commercial.
Senreich: The best part about it is that it doesn’t feel like a commercial.
Wells: Yeah, it feels like a sketch that works. It’s the best kind of commercial. It has comedic value on its own terms.
Senreich: Yeah, that wasn’t in an episode of Robot Chicken, it was meant to be a commercial airing.
Matt, you once mentioned that since you bring on younger writers all the time, there are some sketches that get pitched that have a generation gap. Are there any properties pitched recently that weren’t a big deal for some of the writers, but a huge deal for others?
Senreich: No, if anything it was one of those things where — especially this season — we had a few more younger writers. I think we’re getting pitched sketches of properties that we didn’t necessarily grow up with. I like that. Those are the kinds of things we need more of.
Wells: Yeah, sometimes we need them to appendicize them or explain to us what the concept is. I do think we try to, given that option, listen to them. It is important that we’re not just writing sketches about our own particular childhoods.
Senreich: It’s like SNL. You go through generations. This season’s been a good transition for us. Zeb’s taken the reins in directing and you can feel a shift going back to the core of what we did where we’re using more action figures than puppets this season, which I like. It’s only going to evolve over the course of time some more.
Zeb, talk a bit about directing and what the experience was like for you to shift over from a writer to a director.
Senreich: He still writes, he’s just doing both now. [Laughs]
Wells: What I really liked about it is that often times, writing is such a solitary and self-loathing experience. I feel like I come from 10 years of being locked in an office by myself, pulling my hair out and beating myself up trying to get some writing done. Then, directing is such an active thing, especially here where we’ve got so much going on and we’ve got 17 stages going. It was physically exhausting which, after being cooped up in a room for 10 years, was the greatest thing I could have asked for. It’s just great to see how your storytelling muscles that you’ve developed in comics translates over to other areas. You’re constantly making decisions and asking yourself, “What’s most important for the sketch, what’s the most important part of this sketch, what are the beats that are most important to hit?” It’s been a really great, rewarding year.
What’s the most gruesome, violent and disgusting thing that you have for the back half of the season?
Wells: Well, there’s a LEGO birth —
Senreich: That’s not disgusting.
Wells: It’s disgusting to think about.
Senreich: It is disgusting to think about, but it doesn’t look disgusting on camera.
Wells: Man, we usually have a full quiver of these things.
Senreich: Yeah. There’s a lot of people shooting each other.
Wells: There’s our Fight Club Ken, where Ken joins a Fight Club.
Senreich: Yeah! When Ken gets to his breaking point, that definitely is a gruesome scene. I’ll accept that. It’s hard to think of the sketches when put on the spot, especially since there’s like 15 in every episode.
Wells: Yeah, you can never remember what’s in an episode or what’s aired already.
What do you think fans should be most on the lookout for during the Christmas special?
Senreich: For me, as weird as it sounds, it’s two things. I think the voice talent in this episode is some of the best we’ve had. Liz Banks played our Mrs. Claus, she’s fantastic. Seth McFarlane is always amazing. The shout out that I just remembered is Lucas Grabeel plays our Justin Bieber, and his Christmas song makes me very happy.
Wells: And for the super fans out there, we finally meet the Robot Chicken Nerd’s parents, voiced by Henry Winkler and Michaela Watkins. So that’s something to look out for.