Who says growing up means you have to give up cartoons? Definitely not Seth Green. Green is one of the driving forces behind Robot Chicken, the Emmy-winning stop-motion animated series he and Matt Senreich created for Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. He not only writes, directs, and produces each episode, but also provides anywhere from 35-60 voices a week for it. Hysterical, twisted, dark, and fresh, Robot Chicken is nothing like your Saturday morning faves from the good ’ol days. It’s better – with parodies on classic cultural icons, pop culture staples, and legendary franchises like Star Wars. It’s a fanboy favorite, so who better to run it all than a fanboy himself? Green spoke to Fancast about his work on the Robot Chicken, Family Guy and geeking out over Star Wars.
UPDATE: ROBOT CHICKEN: STAR WARS EPISODE II also won for Writing in and Animated Television Production or Short Form at the Annie Awards on January 30th.
Your character voices on Robot Chicken are so varied; how do you come up with them and keep them unique when there are so many?
I don’t know; it’s really situation specific and then just trying to come up with a voice that’s sounds appropriate for whatever the joke is we’re making.
Is this something you’ve always done? When did you realize manipulating your voice for characters was something you liked to do?
Oh yeah, that’s from childhood. I’ve always been kind of a mimic and would watch TV and try and replicate it or do my own thing.
Robot Chicken isn’t exactly your typical Saturday Morning fare yet it pulls on characters people know and love with a very dark twist. What influences these character and storyline choices?
It’s just putting together a bunch of ideas, to tell you the truth. We get together for a long writing period and we brainstorm everything that’s on our minds. And after a couple years of doing it you know what really works and what doesn’t, and we still make mistakes and green-light stuff that’s not funny in execution. We just try and make each other laugh. It’s a bunch of friends making a show for ourselves and we’re kind of stunned that anyone else is watching it.
Check out our exclusive Robot Chicken clip below, from the latest episode:
Are a lot based on favorite cartoons growing up? I saw your sketch on Babar and that was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
I never watched Babar. The thing about having a large group of people writing the show is you get a lot of different influences. And we’ve got an episode coming up right now where there’s a Mario Brothers Sketch and a Beatles Yellow Submarine sketch and Matt and I are just on opposite sides of the fence. I love the Beatles sketch and I just don’t get the Mario Kart one. He loves the Mario Kart one and just doesn’t get the Beatles thing. And this is why the show has something for everybody because we all fight valiantly for what we believe is important and then it all gets in the show.
Do you ever get any reactions from the real life people you parody?
Nothing negative so far!
What is the process like of working with claymation and stop motion?
They’re actual, tangible, elements that are moved incrementally and then photographed frame by frame to create a sequence of perceived movement. So we really just use whatever is most applicable for the shot. For example, we’ll use hard plastics, silicone, foam, or wire core puppets and then use elements of clay to manipulate their eyebrows or give them blinks and things like that. I love the look and feel of stop motion for this concept; it’s the best version. This show wouldn’t work in CGI; it’s not the same thing.
It’s also something that’s really so technical to a lot of people. How did you get involved in using stop motion?
It was a means to an end. I’ve always loved stop motion as a medium and when we set out to make this show it was what it was going to be so we just learned.
Who are your favorite characters to voice?
I like voicing our “Nerd” character who makes appearances every once in a while. He’s just a real, innocent, endlessly enthusiastic, and joyful interpretation of a lot of kids I grew up with and people I run into who have similar interests. He’s sort of the incarnation of all of our purist nerd.
It also seems like a lot of the characters are drawn upon childhood images. Are there favorites you just knew you wanted to do something on?
We’ve had those conversations; we’ll talk about things like, ‘do you remember the WWF superstar?’ Or ‘did you watch the great space coaster?’ And we’ll talk about influences and a lot of it comes out because we write for 20 weeks. And in that time write 20 episodes so we have to generate several hours of material and that’s what we try and do; keep it funny and original to us.
Is it hard to keep it fresh, now in its fourth season?
Our writing room is absolutely brutal. The whole fourth season we didn’t have any writers that had not already been on the show which was a first for us. We’ve tried to introduce other people to the process but it’s just a hard show to write for and it’s a very, very hard room. We’re mean as hell to each other. And we’re all striving for excellence so we never want it to suck.
What was it like to take on a phenomenon like Star Wars? Were you scared?
I wasn’t scared as much as it was just so exciting. It’s hard to explain but Robot Chicken doesn’t feel like it’s happening in the real world so it doesn’t feel like there are real world consequences applied to it. And all the neat stuff we’ve gotten to do in association with it is such outrageous fantasy that I don’t have a lot of real world emotion tied up in it because it’s almost like it’s happening in a dream. So when we got to make Star Wars all we could think was ‘man, this better be awesome,’ not, ‘oh no, Star Wars fans of the world will burn us in effigy if we don’t succeed.’ It was more, ‘Oh, neat, I’ve already been playing with Star Wars my whole life and now I get to play with it on television.’
And how has the reception been being part of such a fanboy franchise?
I almost feel like a narc because I am one of these fanboys. And the way we are perceived in the fanboy community is we are fighting for them, we want to do the same stuff they do, we just happen to get the keys to the executive bathroom.
And as a fanboy, did you just totally geek out over doing something in conjunction with George Lucas?
It’s been overwhelming. Over the past couple years we’ve been developing a relationship with George and that’s a bizarre thing to even say out loud. But the last special we produced, before we even finished, Matt [Senreich, Robot Chicken co-creator] and I went to SkyWalker Ranch and showed it to George in one of his screening rooms and he asked us to watch a few episodes of Clone Wars, he’s like, ‘come watch a few episodes of Clone Wars,’ and then, ‘Hey, let’s watch yours.’ And then we sat next to him, like literally next to him, and watched the episode, and I sweated as hard as I’ve ever sweat in my life. And afterwards, he turned to us and was like, ‘good job!’
That’s just surreal!
I know it’s totally surreal! But I don’t have a lot of time to process that because I’m actually doing it and any absorption of the enormity of those moments precludes me from actually existing in that moment and being present as it’s happening which is more important.
On Robot Chicken you do a wide variety of voices, but then there’s Family Guy where you’ve really gotten to know your character Chris. How has playing him evolved?
It’s amazing. It’s been a lot of fun, I really love that show, and I kind of still can’t believe I get to do it. Because when I read that script and auditioned for it, I kind of had a quiet prayer moment where I was just like, please, please, please let me get this awesome show. And then I did which is crazy. But the character, you know, we didn’t know what it was at the beginning and I threw this voice at them that they liked and over the first two seasons it really informed the writers and we started working in tandem. They pushed it further and made him sillier, and a little more internal, and more tortured, and yet he’s got all these secrets and a wide berth of knowledge of all these bizarre things and yet completely socially awkward. He’s very easily satisfied and highly distractible. He’s a simple, strong boy! It’s been a really great time and now we know him really well. But I also have the feeling he’s not easily categorized because if you really were to do a breakdown of all the thoughts that he’s had, or situations he’s been in to, none of them are all that consistent and yet we make them all feel organic.
Between Robot Chicken and Family Guy you’ve made a name for yourself in voiceover work and animation. How have you enjoyed that kind of performing as opposed to regular in front of the camera acting?
I’ve been doing voiceover all my life, I was on a couple of cartoon series growing up, and I did easily over 100 voiceover commercials for products ranging from AT&T to Smucker’s Jelly. That was just how I grew up. So it’s been really nice even enjoying just a marginal acceptance into this community. It’s a medium I’ve always loved, and I’ve always been aware of the legends in it, so it’s amazing to be involved and go to awards shows and shake hands and have all of us talk about our stuff and be included.
Do you have friends saying they want to come on the show or pitching you voices?
We get people pitching us Robot Chicken sketches all the time. And I try to explain to people that we’re not legally allowed to accept unsolicited pitches, but even worse than that, no one that doesn’t work on the show seems to understand how the show works. The sketches we get pitched are like (adopts voice) “Alright, it’s MeatWad from Aqua Teen! He’s having sex with Strawberry Shortcake! It’s so meaty! Like on The Soup!” And I go well, there’s no context for those characters to coexist. You have to either draw a visual or social comparison between the two to justify the parody or else it’s an illegal sketch. And no one gets how much research and effort and clearance goes into just making a simple joke.
How do you decide if you’re going to do the voices or reach out to someone you know?
We don’t have a lot of money so we can hire five people for every episode basically to do three voices a piece and whatever isn’t done by them I have to do. And so, we look at specific parts, and sometimes it’s easily informed; if you’ve got He-Man, you need someone that sounds like He-Man, and then that person will do two other voices too. So typically the people who come in for our show are highly versatile and can do a wide range of things. And over the last four years we’ve gotten to know a strong stable of people and you’ll notice there are very few recurring performers on the show but we do have a nice go-to group that we know can do anything very dependably.
And with doing so many voices is it ever weird to then just speak as yourself?
No, I think my whole career I’ve attempted to deeply immerse myself in whatever character I’m playing, but I’ve never been that kind of person who needs to be called that character off set.