‘Robot Chicken’ pushes envelope

New, edgy show perfect for Emmy nomination

The Television Academy is quick to recognize sharp new toons and slow to forget them. Both “South Park” and “The Simpsons” were nominated in their first seasons and have been represented on nearly every Emmy ballot since.

Robot Chicken” joins the ranks this year (after earning a general animation Emmy in 2006) — so yet again the Academy acknowledges a cutting-edge toon.

Rendered in a crude stop-motion style, “Robot Chicken” uses toys and action figures (some real, many custom-made by Florida-based Plastic Earth) for whiplash-fast pop-culture parody. But as “South Park’s” primitive construction-paper aesthetic proved, Emmy is more interested in a show’s comic sensibilities than its animation techniques.

“In the first season, we pitched it as an animated ‘Saturday Night Live,'” remembers producer Alex Bulkley, who co-owns ShadowMachine Films with Corey Campodonico. “We were looking to pioneer a new form of sketch comedy,” one that would play to auds’ ever-shortening attention spans.

Each “Robot Chicken” episode features roughly 11 minutes of densely-packed gags. Unlike the other four nominees in the category, the show features no unifying narrative or recurring characters (by contrast, first-time nominee “Avatar: The Last Airbender” features an arc serialized across an entire season). Instead, “Robot Chicken” pushes a comedy device similar to one often used in “Family Guy,” explains Campodonico.

“They have the family, and then they jump out to these tangents all the time,” he says. “Our show is really a string of those little bits. We’re constantly out in that tangent world.”

In “Robot Chicken’s” Emmy-nominated “Lust for Puppets” episode, the writers imagine what might happen if the characters in the “Mario Kart” videogame took a wrong turn into the world of “Grand Theft Auto,” or how grown-ups react to the crazy way Calvin believes Hobbes is a real tiger.

Violence factors heavily into the show’s sense of humor.

“Watching toys do violent things to each other is funny because when you were playing with toys as a kid, that’s the stuff you were doing,” says “Robot Chicken” co-creator Matthew Senreich, who developed the show with fellow toy enthusiast (and regular “Family Guy” cast member) Seth Green. “The beauty of our format is you can get in and out of a sketch in the span of anywhere between five seconds and three minutes.”

The concept originated as a Web-only series of four- to six-minute interstitials for Sony Digital’s Screenblast site, and the writers stuck with the short format when adapting the idea for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

Given “Robot Chicken’s” online roots, it’s no surprise the show has found a second life online, broken into individual sketches featured on mobile devices and sites like YouTube.

“We could absolutely pretend that we were predicting the trends in culture and media with the profitability of short bursts of entertainment, but we weren’t really trying,” says Green. “We were very lucky to anticipate something, I guess.”

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