Thanks to its crack team of writers, directors and animators, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken has become a standard-bearer for loving parodies of iconic properties all across the pop culture spectrum — often simultaneously. But in DC Comics Special II: Villains In Paradise, the RC team focuses its energies on taking the historic comics label down a peg or two by deconstructing a handful of its heroes and villains, and then subjecting them to the same mundane problems and indignities that even super powers can’t easily solve.
To commemorate the release of the DC Comics Special II, Spinoff spoke with writers Donald Goldstein, Tom Root and Zeb Wells, each of whom detailed his comedic niche as the team tackled the DC Universe for the second time. Additionally, they talked about the differences between the normal Robot Chicken pipeline and the process of creating a property-specific special, touching on the notion of whether or not their merciless humor actually has a beating heart beneath it — or perhaps more specifically, if they’re actually interesting in accessing it.
CBR News: What is the comedic niche that you feel like you fill as your team is conceiving ideas for each of the Robot Chicken episodes?
Tom Root: You know, when you read comic books, or you watch superhero movies, there are just certain things you need to buy into — and I like refusing to buy into those things. So if it’s something as stupid as how tight the costumes are, or something really obscure, like some Batman villain from the ’40s, I love finding out what’s stupid about these things. It’s almost like you’re treating them seriously, and that’s going to get them in a lot of trouble when you do that — because they won’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny.
Zeb Wells: What I think is funny, and I basically write variations of this joke, is someone who’s super cocky or full of themselves or vain, and then showing the underlying humanity behind that. Like Lex Luthor doing his big, evil villain laugh as the thunderstorm rains down — and him realizing he left his windows down, and has to stop everything and run out. I think I just try to sneak a joke like that into almost everything I write.
Douglas Goldstein: I like to expose how inappropriate our suspension of disbelief goes. There are so many holes and so many things that we take for granted in pop culture and even real life, in the news, that if we just stopped and thought about it for a second, our lives would be so much better. Things like when the Kents took Superman in as a baby — they would be killed! They would die. And it’s not an evil thought, it’s just a fact-of-the-matter, objective thought. And it’s the truth, but no one ever says that out loud — and I love getting characters to say things like that out loud.
How similar or different is the process of creating a spinoff like the DC Comics Special from the demands of a normal episode?
Goldstein: It’s surprisingly not that different, except for the fact that we’re given blinders to focus on exactly what the DC characters’ story we want to tell is. It starts really free-form, without any instructions beyond it being about DC and we want to focus on the villains. As the writing cycle progresses and we know that we have a through story, we slowly start to identify what that story’s going to be — and we focus on it even tighter. We don’t focus on anything during the actual season — we just want to do whatever’s funny — and in a lot of ways, it’s almost better this way, because if you have freedom to do anything, you kind of trip over yourself. It’s hard to think of something if you can think of anything. But if someone says, “Okay, in this story, we’re going to have to have a part where somebody flushes Starro down the toilet. How does that happen?” We’ll be like, okay, how does that happen? Let me think! It’s kind of nice to sit back and be told what to do once in a while.
Some of the other collaborators on the show acknowledged that nobody’s necessarily in love with all of the villains you bring to life, like Starro. How much is that an advantage, and how much is it a challenge to reintroduce them — or just introduce them?
Root: I think we’re on the side of the audience, so if the audience looks at a character and says, “Why is that idiot on my television right now?” We’re like, yeah, we’re with you! Why does that idiot exist in the first place? We sort of write for our audience, because we are our audience. I never feel any responsibility about what we’re putting on TV. We’re just putting on what entertains us.
Goldstein: The best example of that is, I forget what season of Robot Chicken it was, but we wrote a sketch about a public access TV show that is only available in the New York City tri-state area. A few of us knew about it, because we grew up there, and the rest of us were like, what are you talking about? But thankfully, in my opinion, it was written in a way that even if you hadn’t watched the actual show, it was funny. The jokes weren’t too insider-ish. So as long as we think it’s funny, it’s going on the show, no matter what it is.
Root: I had not seen that public access show. I did not find that sketch funny —
Goldstein: You’re thinking of a different sketch.
Root: — but I won’t hold that against you. For the record.
What are your priorities when it comes to creating the ensemble, deconstructing their mythology, juxtaposing that with the mundane details of everyday life and then finding a story to fit all of that into?
Wells: I think we try to preserve the insanity of Robot Chicken for as long as we can, just to be throwing out these ideas, these observations, all of those things. And then we get to a point when we have to start finding what the story is, or we’re not going to make it on time, so we start thinking in story terms. The order of that is kind of predicated on the schedule and how we have to do it, but we try to keep all of that swirling around for as long as humanly possible, and then, just at the very end, rein it in.
Goldstein: When we have to come up with a story like we do in the DC Specials, it happens very organically. Like, besides the fact that we walked in on Day One saying, let’s look at the villains this time, we all just start with pitching what we think is funny, and when someone hears a pitch and says, “Wait a minute — their headquarters is in a swamp? What a terrible office location!” That begins everyone thinking in the same direction, and the story slowly builds. “Okay, they work in a swamp — that must suck. What if they leave?” And then Tom goes, well, I’ve always loved the old beach revenge movies from the ’80s, or maybe earlier, and then that kind of becomes a destination when someone says, “Well, what if they went somewhere else?” We’ve had people ask us, so, wow, you had people do a big fight at the beach? And it’s like, no, that just kind of came to us on the day. That was no one’s goal. Whatever we think is funny ends up on screen.
Root: I want to say Stephen King said this, but I’m not sure, but there’s this old saying about writing — that plot is the last refuge of the hack. And I think that gets proven over and over to me when we do the Star Wars specials and the DC specials, because of the way we write it. We just have this pile of jokes that are loosely connected, and then we stack them all up. And that becomes the story. There’s very little work involved making the story connect in a sensible way. And to me that’s proof that the difference between us writing a DC special with just a crackerjack tightly-woven plot, and just a bunch of scenes in order. You almost can’t tell the difference. The value of one is no greater than the value of the other. So it might not work on every show, but —
Wells: For our purposes, yeah.
Seth [Green] mentioned the idea of a child-single parent relationship as one of the story strands of the DC special. How much do you think about the sentimentality of the ideas you’re exploring, and how often is the punch line enough?
Goldstein: I think that something that’s in our minds is people, the next day, I hope are saying, “Oh, my God. Did you see Robot Chicken? It was so funny!” And no one ever says, “Oh, my God. The way they set up that one shot? Wow! I’ll watch that again.” So that’s something we always keep in mind — that if someone says, well, this one will look really cool, and Person B says, but this is really funny, then we kind of gravitate towards Person B.
Root: Do you remember, we had a sketch once where one of our animators took it home and showed it to their wife, and their wife saw it and cried because it was so sad, where we were just trying to be funny. When we try to be funny, we get really dark, sometimes. And sometimes, the fact that we’d be really dark about toys that look really silly — that’s the joke. But another person will just see the sadness behind the joke —
Wells: Which is real.
Root: I wish I could remember the sketch, but it would not surprise me if 98 percent of our audience looks at Lex Luthor and Lena Luthor and their relationship and thought it was a funny take on Lex being a single dad — because he’s a super villain. But there might be two percent there who say, “That’s me and my dad.” “I was rebellious like that too — I’m really on her side.” “Oh, I see Lex’s point of view — he’s really worried about his daughter.” It’s not crazy to think that someone would react to it that way.
But that’s not something you’re thinking consciously about.
Root: Only in regard to the comedy of it.
Wells: Yeah, the comedy. Because I think when you’re writing the comedy, you are trying to find something that’s universal or human, but you’re trying to do a funny version of it. That sadness is that humanity a lot of the time, and for some reason, I think we’re trying to make that funny — probably because that’s how we cope with our feelings — by making it funny. [Laughs] Sometimes it peeks through, but it’s not conscious — I don’t think any of us are brave enough to attempt that.