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One Fantastic Fowl: Robot Chicken's Matthew Senreich

By Adam Korenman

For the creators of Robot Chicken, hitting episode 200 after more than 15 years on air is a dream come true

In early days of the new millennium, a unique and strange new show appeared on Sony's Screenblast site. Combining stop motion animation with pop culture references and a delightfully twisted sense of humor, Sweet J Presents became something of an underground hit. Years later, with the help of a few heavy hitters in the animation industry, the show found a new home on Adult Swim as Robot Chicken.
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Matthew Senreich, co-producer and manic mind behind the legendary show, has always seemingly seen the future of pop culture. His early career working as the editorial director of Wizard Entertainment basically predicted the Age of the Geek that we all know and love today. It was there that Matthew met a fan that would become his close friend and partner in crime: Seth Green. Together, they started collaborating on a series of web-shorts.
Sweet J Presents caught the attention of a small audience, but the journey to Adult Swim allowed Matthew and Seth the freedom to realize the true potential of Robot Chicken. With a wholly unique style and humor, the show connected with a growing audience by smashing together pop culture brands that could never—or should never—live in the same universe.
A mash up of Venom and Hamilton...was this written just for me?
As the show approaches episode 200, a milestone few others can manage, we had a chance to sit down with Matthew to discuss his career, his passion for geek culture, and his evolution as a producer.
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So order up some takeout, cram some pods into your ears, and enjoy this deep dive into debauchery with Matthew Senreich!

Show Notes

Artists

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Transcript

Ryan Summers:
All right, everybody. We're here today for a little bit of a celebration. We're here with Matthew Senreich from Robot Chicken. And before we even get started, Matthew, I just have to bring up one thing if it's okay. I was doing a little bit of research on you and you share a little bit of my nerd history. Did you work at Wizard Magazine?
Matthew Senreich:
That's where I technically, I guess, began. Yeah, at Wizard Magazine. I worked there for like eight years. It was fantastic.
Ryan Summers:
Holy cow, man. I have to tell you, that time of coming up into comic books when Wizard was kind of at its height, there was nothing better than to walk into a comic book store as like a 12, 13 old kid and see the next cover. I had to go and find out which issue it was. I specifically remember when I was first getting into comic books, there was a cover that was like a Wolverine Batman hybrid. I think it was Wizard number 56. And that cemented me as like comic book nerd for all time. I didn't know what I was looking at.
Matthew Senreich:
I began at Wizard number 60. So as much as I want to wish that I helped you geek out, it was right before my time.
Ryan Summers:
You were right there. We're very close in terms of times. I mean the thing that's amazing about it, and I think this kind of goes into a little bit of just like Robot Chicken and the ethos of the show itself is that, could you ever believe that back then, whatever it was, I don't even want to say how long it was, 15, 20 years ago, that the stuff that was getting talked about in Wizard Magazine, 20 years later, you open up Variety and Hollywood Reporter, and it's basically the casting call section of Wizard is basically the top line articles that we're seeing now in the trades. It's kind of crazy to me.
Matthew Senreich:
I love it. I mean, it's an amazing experience to see all the things we dreamed about growing up, turn into actually the most popular things that are out there right now.
Ryan Summers:
It's kind of mind blowing. Yeah. It's unbelievable to me. It's kind of amazing that Wizard and your work I'm sure, kind of predicted the future.
Matthew Senreich:
My very first internship was at Marvel Comics-
Ryan Summers:
Wow.
Matthew Senreich:
Back in 1991, and every one of my friends called me a geek.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah.
Matthew Senreich:
And they could not believe why I would take an internship like this.
Ryan Summers:
It's not that long ago, if you really think about it. Like what was something you would actually hide in your backpack, that knowledge is coveted in Hollywood. You're someone special if you actually can reference that stuff now.
We're not here to talk about that, but it does play into Robot Chicken. But I just want to talk about the fact that it's been 15 years and I think we're rapidly approaching 200 episodes of Robot Chicken. And that puts you in extremely rare company. I looked it up. Do you know the other three shows that are at exactly 200 episodes in United States television?
Matthew Senreich:
I actually don't. No.
Ryan Summers:
You're in very good territory, very good company. Coach, That 70's Show and they may be coming to race with you as well, because I think they're coming back, but Beavis n' Butthead all closed out at exactly 200 episodes. So you're about to top them all.
Matthew Senreich:
I was going to say, don't say closed down. I want to keep making.
Ryan Summers:
That's what I was going to ask, because I looked it, too. If you go another 20 episodes, the shows that you would catch up to include the great MTVs Road Rules, Everybody Loves Raymond. And if you go another, I think 19 episodes, you'll actually pass up Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is mind blowing to me. That's kind of crazy.
Matthew Senreich:
That's awesome. Yeah. I'm just excited that we get to play with toys every day. It's a real experience.
Ryan Summers:
I'm wanted to talk to you about like how this actually kind of came to be, because we are talking in the pre show that you watch the show even now, and I think anybody watching Robot Chicken, it's almost kind of the starter drug or the lightening bulb above somebody's head for oh man, animation. That's something I could do. And even in 2005, when we didn't have iPhones and cameras that were 8K, even then, I think people could start thinking about it.
But I wanted to ask you, what was it like going out and pitching something like Robot Chicken to the world? It was so different back then, like the technology, pop culture, even just the entertainment industry at large, it was way bigger in some ways. It wasn't as consolidated. Our audience is full of tons of animators and artists that kind of are working on their own. And I think they can look at something like Robot Chicken as a great example of where they could go. What was it like when you guys kind of came up with the idea and went out to the world to try to make this real?
Matthew Senreich:
Yeah, I mean, this was something that was only supposed to be one short. This thing actually started before 2005. We did it in about, I think it was 2000. Seth was going on Conan O'Brien. He had nothing to talk about as he says. He had an action figure just come out from either Austin Powers or Buffy. And he thought wouldn't it be fun if his action figure," and I guess Conan O'Brien had this action figure, if they went on an adventure together. And he reached out to me because he read Toyfare Magazine, which is a Wizard Magazine.
Ryan Summers:
Wow. Right.
Matthew Senreich:
He said, "Wouldn't it be fun to make something like this?" And I said, "That sounds like a blast. How do we do it?" And it was going out into the field to try to figure out how to make an animated short while knowing nothing. I mean, the first place I went to is we went to The Joe Cubert School in New Jersey because I had known Joe, and he had us meet with like third year art students back at the time.
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
We met with them and then we realized how much extra work it was going to be beyond just, hey, this isn't like a one day or a two day kind of process. Stop motion takes a lot of time, and you have to be very focused on doing this. But we started to get to know other animators in the field. And through that, we were getting taught what you need to do in order to make this. Back when we were doing that, that one short turned into 12 shorts because there was a company called Sony Screenblast, which was dot com. It was basically YouTube before YouTube. They hired us to make 12 of these shorts. And it was hard. It was a hard process because it was a second job for both of us. But we were building sets back in New York where we were doing Toyfare Magazine and then shipping them out West which was really stupid. [inaudible 00:06:07] The West Coast where Seth was then overseeing the production for it. And yeah, it was a complete nightmare, but we learned a lot.
Ryan Summers:
I bet, I bet. That's amazing. So, you developed those 12, I'm assuming they're kind of like web shorts, then did you package those together or did you just take the episode out?
Matthew Senreich:
It was all dial up at the time. So no one ever saw them-
Ryan Summers:
Okay.
Matthew Senreich:
Like 15 hours to download one of these like three minute episodes. But we had these things so when we actually went out to pitch it, we would just show the highlights from each of them, use as like our sales tool. And it wasn't until, it was like 2003-ish that we ended up showing it to Adult Swim, which was blossoming at the time. They were all in and they were just like, "We love this. Wouldn't you guys like to do 20 episodes of an 11 minute show?" And we lost our minds. We did not expect that to be a reaction in any way.
Ryan Summers:
Right. So what was the standard length of the content before that? When you're making the shorts, how long were they?
Matthew Senreich:
I would say there were probably between three and five minutes.
Ryan Summers:
Wow. So did that freak you guys out? I mean, even just going from one three minute episode to one 11 minute episode, that's just a lot of story to have to consider.
Matthew Senreich:
I mean, it's the same group of us that started that show. So it was Seth and myself and two other Wizard guys. A guy named Tom Root and Doug Goldstein. We all had to figure out what to do and how does this work and yeah, we ended up having to put this sketch comedy show together. And I think that was always the intention is it was sketch comedy using action figures. It was playing with nostalgia and pop culture but using your toys.
Ryan Summers:
I mean, if you really think back to the other things that were going on then, it was so far ahead of its time, both in terms of just come to your guys' ambition. I mean the animation, it's funny when you watch this show even now, that the show feels like you could watch episodes besides maybe the change and the resolution, or the new kind of content, like the new properties that you guys are playing with, but it still feels like it has the same voice. And just in terms of our audience, the animation, it's deceptively complicated when you actually look at it. I love the trick that you guys came up with in terms of just doing the facial animation by just popping on kind of replacement mouths. But the actual animation itself is really, really loose. It's something that I would challenge our audience to go back and watch for some inspiration.
But how has that changed over time in terms of what you guys want out of the show and your collaborations with the animators? Have you picked up on anything in terms of animation having come from no animation background now that you have like a shared language with the animators? Or is there something that you've learned from working with them in terms of your storytelling now?
Matthew Senreich:
Yeah. I mean, it's evolved over time and technology has evolved over time. When we first started we were using the actual action figures right out of the box-
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
Packaging. And what you learned that first season was after moving the arm around for maybe even like 15 shots, it got loose and it would fall and not hold the position that you wanted an animator to hold. And that animator would hate us for using those action figures.
It wasn't until our second season that we started to realize that we should be doing wire armature and breaking down, say a GI Joe figure and putting our armature through the actual plastic action figures that existed to rebuild. As time progressed, look, we were using these toggle boxes to go back and forth to see the previous shots. And then this program Dragon came out, which anybody can get. And that took us a step above, which made it a little bit easier for people to see what it is they were ended up shooting on, on those stages. Same thing with our puppet department where we were building and having to cast and mold all the different hand sculpt. So it was like a fist, a hand that was opened, a pointed hand. And now we can use a 3-D printer to print out all of those types of hands in one fell swoop. So yeah, as time progressed and technology progressed, it definitely made things a lot easier over time.
Ryan Summers:
That's exciting to hear. I mean, we've even noticed just in our industry in motion design, we get a lot of different types of animation styles coming in or being requested by clients. And I think there's a little bit of just a Renaissance of just people interested in stop motion. And I don't know if it's because like you said, the technology is easier or maybe it's just more accessible or just seeing more examples, like things like Robot Chicken, where it's like I bet that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people that have watched your show and tried to go through the exact same lessons you've gone through where they grabbed their GI Joe figure with a rubber band and they're trying to find a way to make it work. Do you ever hear back from people that may have watched the show early on that now have gotten into animation because of it, or maybe even have worked on the show?
Matthew Senreich:
We've had a handful of people who they've seen the show and they went to school for it and they come out of school either through an internship or applying for jobs in our capacity. It's been an amazing ride to see how that's begun. We also have people working on the show who've been there since day one.
Ryan Summers:
Wow.
Matthew Senreich:
Again, it was wild to see how people have taken to Robot Chicken just at the time, when, like you said, you have the ability to do it at home a lot easier. I'm holding my phone in my hand and I'm thinking to myself, "I can do stop motion right on this phone."
Ryan Summers:
Yeah.
Matthew Senreich:
When we started this, there was no way you could do something like that.
Ryan Summers:
No, no.
Matthew Senreich:
There are programs at schools for second and third graders to do stop motion. It didn't exist like that. It didn't have such easy access to make these types of things. I think Lego does an amazing program for learning. And it's a great way to go about starting your stop motion. I mean, I did it with like a VHS tape and it would roll back-
Ryan Summers:
Oh my God.
Matthew Senreich:
To make the rolling back too far which always hurt. Look, we had one of our animators do a class. This guy, Alex Kamer, did an online class and it's still out there where you can watch it and he teaches the basics. And it's great to watch because it's like a two hour thing. And by the end of it, you really understand what the process is for making your own thing at home.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. I mean, I love animation and there's something magical about when someone, anyone, you could be five or six years old, you could be 40 years old. That moment when you take something inanimate and you bring it to life, the door that opens in your brain and your imagination is insane, that it becomes possible. That all that stuff you see in pop culture that you thought was unreachable, all of a sudden becomes possible. But I think stop motion specifically because it's so tangible and it's right there in front of you. There's something special about stop motion. And I think there's something special about Robot Chicken in that sense that there's, besides the fact that it's your toys, the spirit of the writing and the spirit of the voice acting, it feels like a bunch of kids still playing with that box of toys. And now there's 15 years of new things to play with. And there's old things to go and mix back with those new things.
I wanted to ask you, how do you guys even approach writing a single episode of Robot Chicken? Because like you said, it is a sketch comedy, but it's not like sketch comedy where you can make it up in the moment and then after 30 minutes, it's there and it stands on its own. It's sketch comedy almost in slow motion. How do you approach a show or a single episode? Because the other thing is the ground you guys cover in one episode can get kind of out of control. It can be pretty massive. What's your process like to just dream up one episode?
Matthew Senreich:
You know, it's less about dreaming up an episode than it is just trying to figure out what a sketch is. And I think that's where it begins is we have a handful of writers in that room. Some of we started with and some who were brand new and different generations worth of them, especially right now, where look, I grew up with a GI Joe and Transformers and Thundercats and the like. Whereas some of the writers that we have now are talking to me about Ducktales and [inaudible 00:14:22] nineties. So it's just different generations. And our show is a lot about nostalgia and these toys that you grew up with. And it's also about this stuff that is current events that are relevant in a year. Like something that happens today in actual culture, if it's not going to be around in a year, you can't hyper focus on that specific event. You have to say to yourself, "Okay, how will this thing last for a longer period of time? Is that worth making fun of it and will in five years it be something that's still relevant?"
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
Yeah. But ultimately we just go about, everybody comes up with as many sketches as they can. It's mass chaos. And then you just eventually put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Ryan Summers:
That's amazing. Sometimes I wonder in the back of my head, it's the same thing I wonder about things like Marvel Comics or DC. And over 15 years of sketch, is there almost somebody who kind of keeps like the book of continuity together for Robot Chicken? Because there's so many characters and there's so many things that happen. It's obviously looser than like a Marvel Universe, but do you ever have to go back and look at previous episodes to pull something for reference?
Matthew Senreich:
All the time. And the best part about it is it's online.
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
As much as I want to say that it's us that is keeping that, we have a good idea and remember most of it, but there are some great sites that keep track of who's been on our show's voice talent, what sketches we've done with what properties, how long those sketches were, where can I find a way to see this? It really is amazing what's out there. But yeah, it takes a while to try to track some of this stuff down because yeah, having lived through it and knowing that we do anywhere between 10 to 20 sketches per episode, almost 200, it's madness.
Ryan Summers:
It is madness. I have to ask, what's the process like for getting clearance to use some of these characters? Because I mean, in our industry, we've all worked with the Disney's and the Warner Brothers and the different people who kind of run the properties. I have to imagine that, that's a big part of the process is that you could write a sketch, but maybe there's a character that doesn't want to be seen with another character. Or maybe you didn't realize it and there's a property owner that's totally fine with these two worlds colliding. What's that part of the process like?
Matthew Senreich:
It's actually less about getting their blessing than it is it's parody law. It's really about first amendment rights, and as long as you have justification for doing what you're doing, that's the main thing that I think it works. Look, I can't make Superman and Strawberry Shortcake just hang out together. There has to be a reason and-
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
For what it is that we are telling. And as long as we have that kind of reference and reasoning behind it, it holds its own.
And also we found really early on, we found a lot of toy companies, it's free promotion for them.
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
They started sending us their toys to say, "Do something with this," because it just gains more traction for them to be able to have fun with them in this way. And we're not making fun of these things. It's more we're having fun with them. And I think that's the key to it.
Ryan Summers:
Right. I think like you said, that spirit of nostalgia and that sense of fun in the toy box when you're a kid of being able to cross those worlds, I don't think any rights holder or anybody who's kind of involved with it would ever want to like disavow that because it's so into what the spirit of buying the toy would be anyway.
I was going to ask, the list of voice actors that you have, you were mentioning earlier, if you go to the Wikipedia for Robot Chicken and just start scrolling through the amount of people that you've worked with, it's astounding. It's amazing. Were you ever surprised by what somebody was able to give you in terms of like a performance or something that somebody offered? Or was there even maybe an actor who was dying to play a character? Are there any great stories about working with all those voice actors?
Matthew Senreich:
For me, it's more of the it's the older generation for me that I always got really, I wouldn't say intimidated, but just like beyond excited about in that way. Like I always refer back to, we had Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise come in-
Ryan Summers:
Oh my gosh.
Matthew Senreich:
And they came in together, and-
Ryan Summers:
Wow.
Matthew Senreich:
Watching their interaction was really amazing just to see that they've known each other for this long, to see their friendship, how it hasn't changed and to see just them improving off of each other was really a magical experience for me. And anytime we have people like that, those are the ones that I probably get, I wouldn't say I get the most excited about. I also get really excited about people that I see perform in a show and I'm just like, "Oh my God, this person's amazing."
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
But I'm always amazed by the people who want to come do the show. I think first season it was a lot about who Seth knew-
Ryan Summers:
Right.
Matthew Senreich:
Bring in. And once the show actually got out there, people started asking us to come on the show as well. So it's a nice balance between the two.
Ryan Summers:
That's amazing. I think that's one of the brilliant things about animation is that sometimes actors who don't get cast as often as they used to, or didn't get the kind of the choice kind of roles that they get, or didn't get to work together in a live action thing, being able to bring that magic back together, that's something that's just through the lineage of animation. If you look at Jungle Book at Disney Animation. If you look at current movies, that you have this kind of resurrection of careers, that it has to be an amazing thing to witness. But you're also a voice actor yourself, aren't you?
Matthew Senreich:
Use that term loosely. I think I do voices on the show just to make Seth happy. If you see the voices that I do, it is a torturous experience for me, but there are certain things that he really likes me to be able to do.
Ryan Summers:
That's great. You're the secret weapon. You're the Robot Chicken secret weapon.
Matthew Senreich:
Sure. [crosstalk 00:20:25]
Ryan Summers:
I also noticed that you're officially part of Star Wars cannon because it looks like, if this is true, that you were a voice actor in an episode of Clone Wars.
Matthew Senreich:
Again, it all stems back to it's people just trying to make fun of me or have fun with me, and I blame Dave Filoni for that. I think Dave Filoni heard me as a specific type of voice and he thought that can work. But if you ever interview him, you can ask him how good or bad I was in that role.
Ryan Summers:
I will. And he'll reiterate secret weapon of Clone Wars and Robot Chickens. That's amazing.
Matthew Senreich:
I look forward to hearing that on one of your, yeah-
Ryan Summers:
Well, Dave's a big hero of a lot of us here. So when I get to that, I'll send it to you for sure. Speaking of voice actors, do you or Seth have a white whale that you're still chasing for Robot Chicken that you just haven't been able to make the timing work yet? In that list, it'd be hard to find somebody who hasn't been on it, but is there somebody you're still trying to get?
Matthew Senreich:
Every season we reach out to Harrison Ford's people.
Ryan Summers:
Oh my gosh.
Matthew Senreich:
And yeah, we've never gotten him. And I know he's very specific in the types of things that he does. We were really close one time. To his credit, John Favreau actually tried to help when they're doing Cowboys VS Aliens, but we got the note a little too late, unfortunately. But no, that's probably the one. The other one that we talk about is Tom Cruise.
Ryan Summers:
Oh my God.
Matthew Senreich:
[crosstalk 00:21:49] To be honest, I don't think we've ever really gone out to him yet. So I can't say we haven't gotten him, but we should remember it and see if that happens.
Ryan Summers:
I mean, with Top Gun 2, just right on the blocks, ready to come out, him bringing back Maverick would be amazing in animated form, and I think it'd be perfect.
Matthew Senreich:
I agree. I totally agree.
Ryan Summers:
I don't think there's anybody in our audience that's probably going to have this problem, but I was wondering, I would love to know what your answer is, because it'd be great to be able to direct people. If there just happens to somehow be someone who's never seen an episode of Robot Chicken before, and they're hearing this interview right now and they want to check it out, what's the perfect single must-see episode that as soon as this is done, they run off and try to find? Is there one that you would point them to?
Matthew Senreich:
For one episode of Robot Chicken you're saying?
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, yeah. Just one episode. Maybe one of the specials or an episode that like it's underrated that people don't talk about that you love.
Matthew Senreich:
I would say our Star Wars special, our third Star Wars special for me. I fel like it was our longest episode. I feel like it tells a great story. It focuses on that emperor character. Yeah. It's one of those that I hold to heart a lot. There were so many episodes that I love and so many sketches that I adore, but that one just kind of had the longest and most passionate feeling from me, I would say.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. I mean, it had to be amazing to be able to work with all those Star Wars characters. I mean, I don't know if there's a pure thing of, for me specifically, having nostalgia than having those Star Wars figures in your hands and being able to like see the show and be able to play with those characters. It had to be amazing.
Matthew Senreich:
Unbelievable. And the fact that George Lucas even partook in it. Yeah, it's still unbelievable to me.
Ryan Summers:
I think I'm a George Lucas apologist a hundred percent, but I think it's underrated how willing he has been before and after Disney with allowing other people to play with his toy box. For a person who created a world and you would think would be very like, specific about how it would be represented, he's been very generous with the fan community and with other professionals, like to be able to get in and mix it up, it's kind of amazing.
Matthew Senreich:
I agree. I think he's just misunderstood, that's all.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. I don't disagree. One last question for you before we let you go. And I think this is probably one of the biggest things our students would love to know about. You mentioned that Robot Chicken was born out of these webs shorts and it seemed like it was something that was pretty self-initiated based off of you and Seth's relationship. That was, you said, back in 2000/2001. There's a lot of people in our audience kind of wondering how to make their own work kind of live on and stand for themselves. With all the new avenues that are out there for getting your work seen compared to where it was in 2000, there's so many more. If you were going to pitch Robot Chicken to the world today, how would you approach it? And are there any tips that you could share with our listeners in terms of the world that we live in now, how to take your artwork or your vision or your idea or your stories and bring them to life somehow so that more people could see it?
Matthew Senreich:
I would say make it. I would have made it. Same thing we would have done. We would have made the shorts and we would have put it out there and we would hope that people would be able to see it. I think that's the smartest and best way, us starting it, going, "We want to make something," and then figuring out how to do it, I think is the smartest and best way to do it. Especially now when you have your own phone or your iPad or your computer to be able to do it a lot easier than we did back then. Yeah. Make what you love and then show it to people.