Since 2007, the crew at Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken” has been mining the “Star Wars” universe for laughs with the full blessing (and even participation) of George Lucas. They’re back at it again on Sunday at 11:30 p.m. with the third in the series (or saga), titled “Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III.” Series creators Matthew Senreich and Seth Green talked to Hero Complex contributor Patrick Kevin Day about the making of their latest special.
PKD: Can you explain why seeing ‘Star Wars’ characters doing mundane tasks is so fascinating?
MS: Because when you’re playing with an absurd world, when you focus on the mundane in that, it just becomes entertaining. Because you don’t expect the people who are saving the universe to have to do laundry.
SG: There’s nothing better for comedy than relatable behavior in fantastic situations and every one of these characters in “Star Wars” is meant to have a significant life outside of your own field of vision. And we just find it really interesting to say, “What is Darth Vader actually thinking in this moment?” That’s what got the specials going. We just did sketches as part of the regular season and got approached by Lucasfilm and pitched them on making a complete special. We experimented with the idea of storytelling in the second one, and then Matt had the idea for the third one to tell the story of all six movies through the eyes of a couple of key characters. And so you see “Star Wars” from start to finish through the eyes of Boba Fett and Darth Vader and the Emperor.
PKD: It’s a nice structure because you’ve got the spine going through the special, but you’re free to drift off in any direction you want.
MS: Originally when I was pitching it, I wanted to do a full-on storyline, which the writers room pointed out that it’s not “Robot Chicken,” which is a sketch comedy show.
SG: You get this great blending of the two mediums, which you can do storytelling through similarly themed sketch comedy that still gets broken up into short form content.
PKD: It seems like knowledge of the “Star Wars” films is optional to enjoy these specials. You have a really entertaining sequence in this special about a character named Pruneface that I don’t remember at all from “Return of the Jedi.”
SG: Pruneface was in one frame of “Return of the Jedi.” Literally one frame. And he got an action figure. I remember seeing this action figure, and the toys came out before the movie, so you always were like, “Oh man, who’s this guy going to be?” With that cape and that eyepatch and that gun. A hood. This guy must be a Jedi. Maybe he’s a badass. And then he’s not even in the movie, so what’s his subplot? So you can see through all the fans they’ve made their own interpretation of who these characters are. They’ve written entire backgrounds for them published in entire encyclopedias that are put out by Lucasfilm and we just think that’s really funny to play around with.
PKD: So you actually go back and read the official histories before writing the sketches?
SG: Yeah, but we made up the stuff about Pruneface.
MS: More embarrassing is that we have a collective knowledge that competes with those encyclopedias. It’s pretty sad.
PKD: Did you get together to watch the movies frame by frame to find him?
SG: Everybody knows who Pruneface is. Tom Root said, “I have this idea for Pruneface.”
MS: Everyone in the writers room has a general knowledge. Except for one guy who’s never seen “Star Wars.” But he wrote this great Wampa sketch, which we find brilliant. Because it has nothing to do with “Star Wars,” all he kind of remembers is this scene with the Wampa getting his arm cut off by Luke Skywalker. So what happens when they meet again?
PKD: What kind of sketches do people most respond to when they talk to you about these specials?
MS: It’s all over the place. There’s moments that are three seconds long that you don’t expect to play, but the super geek out there in the audience is like “That’s my favorite.” Stuff that we hate internally becomes a popular favorite and we’re always shocked by that. That’s what we like about “Robot Chicken”: our voting system to get something into the show is myself, Seth and our two head writers, Tom and Doug, get votes. No one else gets votes and our writers hate us for it. But three of the four of us have to say yes. Which we always come back to 25% of the show, each of us individually will hate. But that’s okay, because you’re on it just as long as you need to be for the comedy and then you’re on to something else.
PKD: Is there any humor to be mined from the extended universe or do you feel you need to stick to the “Star Wars” of the movies?
MS: It’s something we touch upon. Unfortunately, we cut one or two sketches that dealt with the extended universe. But when playing at 44 minutes, you only have so much time and you want to get to the biggest and most wide-reaching jokes that you can. We cut a Mara Jade joke that I thought was really funny. We had a “Clone Wars” one as well, but it didn’t fit with the bigger picture.
PKD: By the time you get to the third special, is it stuff that people have pitched to you before that didn’t make the cut?
MS: One thing was that went in. For the most part it’s all new. Because we went in with that storyline in mind and said, OK, what are these characters’ story arcs throughout the films? What are their personalities? How do they grow and change from the prequels through “Return of the Jedi”? And then there’s the jokes of like C3PO learning Spanish.
PKD: With the “Robot Chicken” specials, the “Family Guy” specials and Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking,” it seems like “Star Wars” related humor is going strong, long past Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs.”
SG: I don’t think people realize how significant “Star Wars” is as a cultural touchstone. You’re talking about something that’s maintained relevance and financial success for over 30 years. And if you look at the next 15 years, where Lucas will release all the movies in 3-D while supported by one, potentially two on-air series, it’s cross-generational from infants to 60-year-olds. There’s nothing in the world that rivals “Star Wars” as a relevant brand in today’s marketplace. As far as running out of steam, we do something very simple. I don’t know if we’ll continue to make these specials for the rest of our lives, but to argue “Star Wars’” importance in the world today is a fruitless effort.
MS: I love that kids today are buying “Star Wars” toys even more today than so many others.
SG: It’s bigger than that. Kids aren’t dressing up as Darth Vader, they’re dressing up as Rex the Clone. There’s an entire new generation of characters that most of us don’t even know because we’re not watching the cartoon. Kids watch the cartoon and then discover the movies.
MS: My son is probably going to see the movies for the first time in 3-D in the theater.
PKD: “Star Wars” seems to have grown in stature as its key demographic has gotten older, similar to how the baby boomers embraced The Beatles.
SG: Yeah, I think that’s a great analogy just because when something comes out, everyone estimates its cultural relevance. Then 20 or 30 years later, you see how long it’s sustained. And what’s been compared to it. If you remember when New Kids on the Block came out, you remember people said they were the new Beatles and that was because we as a culture didn’t know how to quantify the kind of attention they were getting. So we looked at the screaming girls and said, “Oh, that’s just like the Beatles” without taking into consideration the cultural significance of their musical impact.
PKD: Does George Lucas have a sense of humor?
MS: Yes, he has a wicked sense of humor. We’re going to have a featurette on our DVD that shows him being campy.
SG: Look at what he’s achieved and look at how many slings and arrows he’s received on a daily basis and ask him if he’s a guy who has a sense of humor. He’s widely misreported as a stringent megalomaniac who’s running around suing everybody, but you have to take into consideration that his brand is the most pirated, bootlegged and stolen brand on the planet. So just to protect the integrity of your I.P., you have to sue people who are doing things illegally. That said, he gets the joke. He knows that he’s not infallible. And he also understands that with the positive adulation, there’s going to be harsh and loud criticism. He’s gotten comfortable with the notion of legacy.
MS: We’ve had the opportunity to watch our specials sitting next to him and actually hear him laugh. There’s nothing more satisfying.
PKD: How closely are you working with him for the upcoming animated “Star Wars” humor series? Do you actually pitch jokes to him?
MS: Oh yeah. We can’t talk about the show too much, but he’s a fiercely involved creative figure. He’s all over it.
PKD: It must be so strange to spend your life thinking of these characters and then to have someone come in and be comedic with it.
SG: He wants to be silly with it too! He sees us having fun with it, he says, “I want to have fun with it.”
PKD: Do you know when it’s going to be on the air?
SG: No, he’s so cool. He’s just going to make it exactly the way he wants it and then figure out who’s going to distribute it.
PKD: What’s your idea to inclusion ratio?
MS: Oh God, something like 1 to 100. The writers room is a fierce and terrible place to exist. If we weren’t all friends with each other, we’d probably kill each other. Because you could work six hours on something, thinking it’s the most brilliant idea in the world and suddenly, it’s no, no no, and it’s gone without a fight. But the stuff that hits, there’s an excitement that builds. Our writers room is a core group of people who aren’t really from the entertainment world. Most of us come from a comic book background, if you can believe that. I’ve known Tom Root and Doug for 20 years now. I’ve known Seth almost 15 years now. It’s an interesting dynamic.
— Patrick Kevin Day
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