Senreich & Wells vs Santa: ROBOT CHICKEN Christmas Special

It's hard to imagine there's a single reader of this website that hasn't seen Robot Chicken. The brainchild of Matt Senreich and Seth Green, the Adult Swim staple is currently on its sixth season of stop-motion hilarity, and being that time of year, ready for its newest Christmas Special.

This year's Christmas Special brings out the Nerd in all of us, a couple of major fight scenes you won't expect, a Santa rampage, and even special guest Larry Hama's floating head in a rare moment of live action crossing into the stop-motion animated world. We talked with Senreich and writer/director (and Marvel Comics veteran) Zeb Wells about the special, the process, and even some big teases on what's to come in 2013. 

And make sure to tune into Adult Swim on Cartoon Network Sunday, December 16 at Midnight (ET/PT) to catch the special yourself!

Newsarama: So Zeb, I've spent time with Matt and these guys. I know what they're like. How the hell do you wrangle them when you're trying to direct an episode? 

 

Zeb Wells: Oh, well we have people for that! There's no way a single person can do that, we have an entire team of people wrangling them. Then I just constantly grab them, you have to physically grab them when you need them.

Matt Senreich: I want to say, I'm probably the most efficient f***ing person in the building! (laughs)

Wells: Yeah, Matt will kinda hound you, you don't have to hound him most of the time.

Nrama: When you guys are thinking about a Christmas episode, how much does that change the planning process? Do you immediately throw certain figures or properties off the board, or do you just try to think of how anything can be spun towards Christmas?

Senreich: You know, this is the first Christmas special we've done in our new Stoopid Buddy Stoodios building but we're just as idiotic as ever (laughs). No, it's one of the things where we think Christmas, but we go across the board.

Wells: We're right in the middle of a normal cycle, obviously, so we're working on 4-5 episodes at the same time. It's just a matter of asking the writers to concentrate on doing Christmas stuff.

Then you have that moment where you're a couple of weeks into the writing cycle and we don't have enough or we think we have too much, or we're missing some Santa Clause stuff or there's not enough tentpole Christmas ideas to make the episode, then we try to focus on it a little more. But we try to let it grow organically so there's not a big impedance on doing a certain gag or a certain character. We try to get things to just come together organically, like a cancer.

Senreich: I think if anything it helps focus the writers. When you have a million properties where you're trying to come up with stuff, and you're all over the place and you don't know where to start - when you know you have to come up with stuff for Santa, we'll generate more content than we need usually, just because you're hyper-focused on trying to do that.

Nrama: Is there anything that fell on the cutting room floor that you can tell us about then?

Senreich: You know, nothing fell on the cutting room floor, but it got moved to other episodes. Like we had a Frosty sketch that got moved to another (earlier) episode, and I feel like there's one other.

Wells: Well we had, we were gonna do a mashup between The Thing and the North Pole, where Santa, they're in the workshop making all their toys and all of a sudden a Norwegian helicopter lands, and people are trying to shoot a dog, then the Thing from Carpenter's movie attacks the North Pole. That hit the cutting room floor.

Senreich: Yeah, that did hit the cutting room floor. It was a great concept that didn't work in animatic, unfortunately. 

 

Nrama: At what point did Larry Hama get involved in this episode? That's a hilarious guest spot in this one, the floating head and torso of Larry Hama.

Senreich: You know, it was one of those things where we love G.I. Joe! Seth especially loves G.I. Joe, and is a huge Larry fan. When it was written in the room, we talked about just having him do this live action bubble above the Nerd's head. We called him up and he was game! We went to his apartment in New York and shot him literally with a flip cam!

Yeah, just kind of goofed around and hung out with him, and had a great time.

Wells: It is one of those things where Seth definitely wanted to meet Larry Hama (both laugh), and it kind of went from there.

Nrama: Talk a little bit about the process - do you choose a specific property or do you… obviously this episode has a lot of G.I. Joe nods thanks to Larry's appearance…

Senreich: It really did have a lot of G.I. Joe nods in this one.

Wells: Yeah, it did. But when you think about it, when we were kids, that's what Christmas was. it was how many Joes did you have stuffed in that stocking?

But no, that's not anything we planned on, we just had a lot of…

Senreich: It's probably the most popular question we get asked! It literally is whatever is funny, we go with. It's never pre-planned with whatever properties we're going to tackle. The only thing is, we don't want to use Santa in every sketch, but every other would be great.

Especially since Seth McFarlane plays such a great Santa Claus.

Nrama: Yeah, he's a little ruder than I remember at the mall as a kid!

Wells: Yeah. Over the years, I think it has made the Christmas episode more fun to write now. Over the years, Robot Chicken has just as a show imbued a lot of these characters with their own personality, so now the writers just like to play with them. Like Santa Claus has just become such a great character in his dickishness that the writers can't wait to sink their teeth into it. 

 

Nrama: And of course, as you mentioned, we did see the Nerd again. What keeps you coming back to that character, what makes him such a mainstay?

Senreich: He's us! He's all of us, he's the little guy inside that is making us do all this dumb shit we do!

Wells: Plus, he's an original character, so we don't have to worry about Parody and Commentary, we can have him do absolutely anything.

Senreich: He's the underdog you love to root for.

Nrama: This season we've seen the DC Special, this Christmas Special, are these things that are born out of just shooting ideas around the writers room or do you say "let's do a special on this theme" and go from there?

Senreich: The Christmas one just kind of became a theme that we're sticking with, we did one right after our first season and it just seems to work. The DC one literally started because Geoff Johns said "we should play together" and we said "okay." He said "wanna do a DC special?" we said "okay." It was literally that fast of a conversation.

So it's all over the place, it's just what feels natural. If people are interested, they'll come to us and talk to us about it. We don't necessarily seed them out.

Nrama: Right. Zeb, you've obviously written for comics as well, is there anything you bring across the two media that helps you in any way?

Wells: You know…

Senreich: Yes, he's late in both! (laughs) Joking!

Wells: (laughs) Yeah, I wish he was joking!

Just the background, being hyper aware of the intricacies of those characters, and being tied into the pop culture. I don't know though.

Senreich: For me, the humor he brings to Robot Chicken, he speaks that voice of Spider-Man so well which is that humorous voice sometimes and it's a very specific type of writer that needs to write that book, and Zeb does it great.

Wells: Yeah, I actually think my comics work has gotten better from the Robot Chicken stuff, because, in the Robot Chicken writers room, you really have to buy every line of dialogue that you have. Nothing can be there unless it's buying its way in because of comedy. It's vicious in there, the things that get cut and get cut down. You have to be so efficient and everything has to be funny. I know that when I went back and was writing Avenging Spider-Man, I started doing a pass after I was done writing a script and just making sure that every line had some sort of either narrative value of comedic value! I basically did a Robot Chicken punch on the scripts, which I think actually ended up helping my comic book writing.

Nrama: Did you guys have a favorite moment in this episode? There are a couple fun running jokes in this one that got me… 

 

Senreich: I really liked the opener a lot! The whole Santa throwing the presents down makes me laugh every time. I really liked the Jason Bourne fight sequence.

Any of those fight sequences always make me laugh. The whole Storm Shadow fight sequence really makes me laugh.

Wells: Yeah, that was the one that we were really having trouble with, and Seth got in there and cut that around and made it super frantic, it turned out really funny.

My favorite was definitely Bourne vs Santa Claus I think, I just love how it's stylized and there's no music, it's very un-Robot Chicken-y in that way.

Nrama: It was very Bourne-esque though!

Wells: Yeah, yeah!

Nrama: Can you guys tease anything beyond the Christmas Special? You know comic book fans, we're always looking three months into the future instead of enjoying what's right in front of us.

Senreich: (Both laugh) Hmm what should we tease. We have 50 Cent doing a rap for us!

Wells: Yeah, we have 50 Cent and Parappa teaming up.

Nrama: Amazing.

Wells: We have an Avengers Musical in 6.18.

Senreich: Which is pretty wonderful! 6.18 of course means nothing to anyone reading this. (laughs)

Yeah, I'm trying to think of some of the other fun people we have. We have Christopher Lloyd coming in…

I was actually kind of surprised, the last episode we aired we had Tom Hiddleston in playing a character, and I have to give a shout-out, his fan base is probably the most vocal and passionate fan base I've ever encountered. We probably got more press from that without any help in the world, from just him being on that show via twitter. I was in awe. I still am in awe. And we didn't even have him play Loki! They just love him.

Wells: Yeah. Later on, we tried to recreate that long tracking shot from Children of Men using LEGOs, which I think turned out pretty good.

Senreich: I think that turned out pretty fun!

Wells: Yeah, so that's exciting.

Nrama: Are these long moments or tricky, complicated shoots like the fight scenes - are those, do they still get frustrating or are you guys having so damn much fun that doing crazy things with stop-motion is more fun than a pain?

Wells: There's definitely pain involved, and there's a lot of planning, like the Bourne thing, there was a lot of planning, the animators have to think those shots out, but I don't think it's ever gotten so painful that you forget that you're playing with Toys all day. Your job is basically having a studio full of artists coming up and showing you a bunch of awesome things all day every day. You never lose sight of how much fun you're having, even when it gets hard.

Senreich: Yeah, I champion and try to vocalize. We have our Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, and it's literally a place where we get to play with friends and do what you want to do. If you're not having fun it's not worth doing. So we'll keep making stuff as long as we keep enjoying it!

Nrama: Okay guys, thanks a lot. Now just because I have to ask, any chances of a Marvel Special?

Senreich: Umm… how do I phrase this? Umm… We like working with Marvel! I don't know if it'll be what you expect.

Nrama: Okay! So it's an All New Warriors special?

Senreich: (both laugh) Oooo! I'm sure Zeb would love that!

Wells: From your mouth to God's ears!

Senreich: I mean, yeah! If you talk to that Jeph Loeb guy, you can tell him to call me anytime.

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