Order a helping of Cartoon Network's 'Robot Chicken'|
March 31, 2005
By Franklin Harris
I know all about fried chicken. And grilled chicken. And teriyaki chicken. And even chicken a la king. But what on Earth is a "Robot Chicken"?
You can find the answer every Sunday night at 10:30 (and repeated at 1:30 a.m.) on Cartoon Network. "Robot Chicken" is the newest addition to the network's Adult Swim block, a popular lineup of cartoons that has become a big hit among adults 18-34, especially men.
"Robot Chicken" is old-fashioned stop-motion animation, like the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, but with a postmodern and irreverent attitude. Think of it as action figures doing bad things — really bad things.
The show is the brainchild of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich. You probably know Green from his roles as Oz on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Scott Evil in the "Austin Powers" movies. He also provides the voice of Chris Griffin on "Family Guy." Senreich is the former editor of ToyFare magazine, and ToyFare's regular "Twisted ToyFare Theater" feature is the obvious inspiration for "Robot Chicken."
"Twisted ToyFare Theater" is a comic strip comprised of photos of action figures — mostly Marvel Comics superheroes — in humorous situations. For instance, a recent installment has Spider-Man in search of his missing roommate, Thor, who has taken a job at a movie theater's concession stand.
"Robot Chicken" proceeds along similar lines, and, like "Twisted ToyFare Theater," at its best it's hilarious, if sophomoric.
While prostate cancer is usually no laughing matter, it can be if the patient is Optimus Prime, the robotic leader of the Autobots. Another episode replays the climactic scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" in which Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker's father. But this time, Vader goes on to tell Luke that Princess Leia is Luke's sister and that Vader built C-3PO when he was a child, leaving Luke shaking his head at the improbability of it all.
But when a "Robot Chicken" skit doesn't work, it really doesn't work. One episode, featuring a flesh-craving cyborg with Walt Disney's head, may be the least funny 10 minutes in TV history, not counting any random 10 minutes of "The Nanny." When Uncle Walt swims to Cuba to eat Elian Gonzalaz, the result is a joke that wouldn't have flown even in 2000, never mind five years after everyone's forgotten who Elian is.
Fortunately, "Robot Chicken" hits the mark more often than it misses, and with each episode being just 10 minutes long, Green and Senreich rarely let a floundering sketch go on too long.
The show also boasts an impressive list of Hollywood talent lending their voices to each episode. Apart from Green, "Robot Chicken" features the likes of Burt Reynolds, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Scarlett Johansson, "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane and Mark Hamill (usually as himself or his "Star Wars" alter ego).
But where did they get the name "Robot Chicken"? As Green tells the tale, it comes from an item on a Chinese restaurant's menu. But what is this strange dish? That remains a mystery. Green didn't order it.
Still, even if robot chicken isn't something you'd want to order for Chinese take-out, you might want to stay in for Cartoon Network's "Robot Chicken." It's never sweet, and sometimes it's a bit sour, but mostly it mindless fun.