With its new season, “Robot Chicken” will be hitting two very special milestones — a 10th season and a 200th episode — but the team behind the Adult Swim show are not focused on such industry markers.
“Whenever I see the anniversary episode of a sitcom or anything, the time they take to celebrate the anniversary is not as funny or entertaining as if they just made an episode. So I saw it more of a burden, in a way: How do we make this as entertaining as it should be?” co-head writer and executive producer Doug Goldstein tells Variety.
The answer for those who break the pop culture inspired sketches was to “do what we usually do,” according to writer Mike Fasolo. And what “Robot Chicken” usually does is dive deep into pop culture — sometimes as deep as “really obscure properties that we remember from our childhoods that mabe no one else remembers,” Goldstein admits — as well as zeitgeisty people, properties and events to bring a unique piece of commentary — all done through stop-motion animation.
In the 10th season, the show will take on tentpole properties such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But because of the production cycle of the show, the sketches are often written almost a year before they will air, so the team can never get too topical or respond directly to what viewers of those actual programs are saying or Tweeting.
“Right now when you say ‘Game of Thrones,’ everyone’s saying, ‘In my opinion they botched the ending, and that’s the legacy of the show. When we air a sketch months later and it’s not about that, people may say, ‘That’s weird.’ But we tell ourselves that they rerun our show so damn much that it all has to be taken without worry about being timely,” Goldstein says. “The biggest challenge, anniversary season or not, is always that it has to be fresh.”
The long lead time actually helps in forcing the content to be fresh, says co-head writer and executive producer Tom Root: “We don’t get to make the first joke about something, so we don’t get to make the obvious joke about something. Anything we consider making a comment about has to absolutely be something nobody else can think of.”
Having the character of the Nerd also aids in making sure the commentary on a common title has a new take. Root cites “Star Wars” as the perfect example here, noting they come up with about half a dozen pitches for that property each season, but after “Episode 7” came out, “everyone gets a year to make fun of it or have gripes about it or praise it,” he notes. “Robot Chicken’s” work-around was to put the Nerd “in the middle of the movie and see it through his eyes, because that’s something nobody else can duplicate.”
The new hires in the writers’ room that the team prides themselves on bringing in every season also lends themselves to keeping the material fresh. “We run into sketches more and more often where I’m like, ‘Clearly a middle-aged white men wrote this’ and we try to cut those off at the pass because our viewers include middle-aged white men, but I don’t think that’s our demo,” says Root. “I always think of it like a college kid eating Cheetos on the couch — because I was very close to that when I created the show. So there is consideration given to that; do they really want to hear a lecture about how kids today can’t get off their phones?”
Since the second season “Robot Chicken” has brought new voices to the table, focusing specifically on resumes and writing samples of those who are aware of newer shows and movies, as well as who have really specific knowledge, dubbed “nerd expertise” by Goldstein, of certain properties. Each 20-episode season of the show is broken down into “five cycles of four episodes each,” he continues, with new writers coming and going in each cycle as a way to “quality control” and ensure the right fit. “That way, if for those four weeks we have a writer that’s not working out, fine, but if we like them, we bring them back,” he explains.
Root adds that what becomes most important during this stage is encouraging the new writers to “stand by their voice and their fresher look at pop culture than we would have.
“There was this Super Smash Bros. sketch that was pitched, and the younger people in the room were laughing, and the older people were like, ‘We don’t really understand why this is funny,'” he says. “We had to decide whether we’d trust the younger guard, and we did, and it was really great.”
As the years have gone on, technological advances have allowed “Robot Chicken” to work faster, smarter, and more creatively — at one point even toying with the idea of creating a 3D sketch, Root shares. And the peak content time has aided the show’s storytelling by providing hundreds of new properties to inspire humorous takes. In fact, the only area in which the show has not wanted to expand is in how political it gets. While former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have been turned into puppets and become characters (as has current president Donald Trump), the team behind the show is not interested in creating “a situation where half of our viewers are annoyed to like, ‘What?!'” says Goldstein.
Although the long lead time on the animation would prevent the show from ripping from the headlines anyway, Root stress that “the college kid eating Cheetos on the couch doesn’t care” about politics, and they are more interested in serving their audience than being topical.
“The tone and the bizarre factor mean so much more than the politics,” Goldstein says. “If you’re interested in politics, there are so many more places you can get it that are so much more knowledgable about it. It’s not really our place to take a stand, and I wish more shows didn’t.”
The 10th season of “Robot Chicken” premieres with back-to-back episodes Sept. 29 on Adult Swim.