Seth Green is a 1980s action-figure savant. “If you give him a detached forearm, Seth can look at it and say, ‘That’s a Cobra trooper from 1986,’” says Matt Senreich, Green’s friend and business partner. “He knows them all—when they came out, their accessories. It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen,” says Senreich, who can recite the first Star Wars movie word for word.
Although these tricks might relegate some men to moderating Reddit subgroups, Senreich and Green, a comedic actor, director, and producer known for his roles in the Austin Powers movies, found remunerative uses for their talents. For the past nine years they’ve run the stop-motion animated show Robot Chicken, the most popular—and one of the longest-running—programs on Cartoon Network’s (TWX) nighttime spinoff, Adult Swim. Robot Chicken airs six nights a week and averages about 1.1 million viewers per episode, according to Horizon Media, putting it on par with HBO shows such as Veep and Girls. Last year, Green and Senreich co-founded their own stop-motion animation company, Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, with two of their animators.
Robot Chicken’s tone and sensibility are similar to that of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy—crass, boyish, and obsessed with referencing what came before it. In the first episode of Robot Chicken’s seventh and most recent season, there are skits about Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Smurfs, Carl’s Jr., the obscure 1980s cartoon Dino-Riders, the slightly less obscure 1990s Nickelodeon show CatDog, and those old Pace salsa commercials where effusive cowboys shout “New York City?!?” (In the Robot Chicken version, they follow that up with a bloody assault.)
“We cannibalize pop culture,” Green says. “We will take your favorite childhood toys and blow their heads off.” Robot Chicken episodes are only 15 minutes long, and skits are short, often 10 or 15 seconds. If a viewer doesn’t understand one cultural reference, he’ll be lost for just a few moments before the show moves on to another.
Green and Senreich met in 1997 when Senreich, who worked for Wizard Entertainment (one of the companies behind the Comic-Con conventions), asked Green to write an article for ToyFare magazine. The two kept in touch. A couple of years later, Green called Senreich to see if he wanted to collaborate on a stop-motion animation idea. “I was booked as a guest on Conan but didn’t have anything to promote,” Green says. “Conan and I both recently had action figures of ourselves out, so I decided I’d make a funny video with our toys.” From there, Green and Senreich worked on a short-lived Web series for Sony (SNE), turned the episodes into a demo reel, and spent the next five years shopping it around Hollywood. Nobody wanted it.
In 2004 they brought it to Adult Swim, which had been airing old episodes of Family Guy, on which Green voices the character Chris Griffin. “We liked that sort of stuff,” says Mike Lazzo, an Adult Swim executive producer. Since the network launched in 2001 it had been building a cultish empire with metaparodies of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the 1960s and ’70s: Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. “It was hilarious and a no-brainer—I told them I wanted to make the show,” Lazzo says.
“No, what he really said was, ‘I don’t like stop motion, but your show is funny,’” Senreich corrects.
Robot Chicken premiered in 2005—it was named after a mistranslation of a menu item at the writers’ favorite Chinese restaurant—and at first used real toys. By its nature, stop motion takes a frustratingly long time. An animator has to position the figurines, photograph them, move them ever so slightly, photograph them again, and so on until about five hours and a million frames later he has a few seconds of video. In its first season the show was consistently over budget and behind schedule, and the toys’ arms kept falling off. Green was in Hungary filming a movie and “sneaking out onto my hotel balcony, trying to get an Internet signal so I could review skits.” Nobody slept. “Our animation director actually pulled us aside and said, ‘This isn’t working,’ ” Senreich says. “I thought the show was over.”
But audiences loved it. In Robot Chicken’s first season, its ratings landed just behind those of Family Guy repeats and helped make Adult Swim a destination for men ages 18 to 34. (By 2013, Adult Swim had more 18-to-34 viewers, male or female, than any cable network in its time slot.)
For the second season, Senreich and Green hired head animators Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV, who made the show sleeker, less chaotic, and a little less “like it was just cobbled together by some dude in a garage,” as Green puts it. Towner and Harvatine briefly left Robot Chicken to create their own animation studio, Buddy System Studios. By the show’s sixth season the gang had reunited; in 2013 the foursome combined the two companies to create Stoopid Buddy.
The Burbank (Calif.) company has 100 employees and 25 animation “stages,” a generous term for closet-size spaces blocked off by curtains, behind which animators film scenes for various projects. Pull one curtain back, and you’ll find a miniature replica of the Vatican; next to it is a sketch in which North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un and the Disney Channel (DIS) character Kim Possible fight over who’s the better Kim. The animator for that sketch, Dillon Markay, uses an old Nintendo Power Glove he retrofitted into a camera remote to take pictures as quickly as possible. “And then I have tweezers attached to it so I can do this,” he says, removing a paper smile on the Kim Jong-un doll and replacing it with a scowl.
Stoopid Buddy’s stop-motion projects now range from College Humor sketches to a Soulja Boy music video to a Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) commercial. They won’t release financial info but say they have more work than they can handle. “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing on the business side,” Senreich says. “That’s what happens when you have a company run by four creatives.” According to John Ikuma, executive editor of Stop Motion Magazine and a former Robot Chicken animator, top animators can make as much as $400 a day, and it’s not unusual for stop-motion projects to cost up to $1,000 per second of usable footage.
“We will take your favorite childhood toys and blow their heads off”
Robot Chicken has always been on the low side of that price point. While Laika, a studio in Portland, Ore., used 3D printers to create puppets’ facial expressions on the new film The Boxtrolls, Robot Chicken prefers stickers. They fit with the show’s cheap-looking aesthetic, which often is part of the joke. “You can animate something to do whatever you like,” Green says. “But if you work within a toy’s limitations, it’s funnier.”
The show also features voice work from celebrities such as 50 Cent and Jon Hamm, and it “has had a huge influence on the market,” says Ikuma. In recent years stop motion has gained popularity in different media, including full-length movies such as ParaNorman and Fantastic Mr. Fox. “I don’t know if it’s us or them, but we’ve noticed [movie] studios are open to other ideas now,” Towner says. He and Harvatine have a feature film in the works, which they can’t talk about other than to say it required them to buy a 1970s Winnebago that now acts as a company mascot.
The four founders are still intimately involved in writing and producing their projects, but Green, 40, and Senreich, 39, have had to hire younger writers to fill their blind spots. “We were at Orlando MegaCon this year, and if we mentioned G.I. Joe we’d get some applause, but if we mentioned CatDog or Alex Mack the whole room would erupt,” Senreich says, referring to late-’90s children’s TV shows. Their newest writers are under 25. Almost all of Robot Chicken’s sketches involve the use of licensed characters, logos, or catchphrases. “We either pay for the rights or prove parody,” says Green, who in his nine years of running the show has become “somewhat of an armchair expert on fair use law.” Still, there is the occasional cease-and-desist letter from places such as Archie Comics and MTV.
After Robot Chicken aired a Star Wars parody in 2006, Senreich and Green received a call from Lucasfilm. “I look at the caller ID, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, we’re about to get sued,’ ” Senreich says. It was the opposite: George Lucas loved the sketch. He invited them to his Skywalker Ranch and approved Robot Chicken to do a 30-minute Star Wars special, of which there have now been three.
“Can you quote it right now?” Green asks Senreich. They’re hanging out with Harvatine and Towner in Stoopid Buddy’s writers’ room.
“Did you hear that? They’ve shut down the main reactor,” Senreich starts, which Google (GOOG) confirms is the first line of dialogue in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.
He continues for several more lines, making the necessary R2-D2 beeps.