"Eat Sheet Metal and Die!"
Did you used to think that the robot football George Jetson watched on TV was cool? If so, you are probably the target audience for Battlebots, the dueling robot show on Comedy Central.
Battlebots features real fights between homemade, remote-controlled robots in four weight classes. The lightweights are about the size of a breadbox, and the lightweight champion, Ziggo, is apparently constructed out of an upside-down wok. The super-heavyweights are bigger than a lawn mower but smaller than a snowmobile. The fights are three minutes long, and each half-hour show predictably has three fights, though Comedy Central has recently started airing the show in back to back hour-long slots.
These smash-em-ups between glorified toasters have the perfect home at Comedy Central, rather than, say, the Sci-Fi Channel or ESPN2. Battlebots delivers laughs similar to those you get from the hyper-dramatic Iron Chef. The two interchangeable hosts, Bill Dwyer and Sean Salisbury, analyze the “spectacle of robotic brutality” with deadpan sincerity and excitement. They discuss strategy and slip into sports lingo, declaring that the robots have to “step up” in the playoffs and need “a big robotic heart” to compete. After a battle, they’ll issue generic platitudes like “A real champion overcomes adversity.” In short, the hosts—sitting behind their stylized desks on their colorful set, looking for all the world like an NFL Today knock-off—do a fairly good parody of sports commentary.
Although the competition is real, Battlebots is more than a little influenced by professional wrestling. The show uses a hyperbolic announcer and offers repeated (and annoying) panning shots of the audience. Clearly under instruction, members of the audience pump their fists in the air and wave signs such as “Wedges are for wimps” or “Eat Sheet Metal and Die!” The non-humanness of the competitors, like the fakery of pro wrestling, gives us license to let loose our inner sports maniac and cheer for violence and destruction. “The 21st Century’s baddest sport” gives us violence, but no one gets hurt. The audience members, like the hosts, take the spectacle very seriously, at least when the cameras are on them.
In fact, the robot designers—some of them anyway—come across as the only ones who see any silliness in this. Of course, since they’re competing for prize money that doesn’t cover the cost of building a robot, they’d better have a sense of humor. A friend of mine described them as “just the sort of people you’d expect to find on a robot-building team,” but this might not be entirely fair. The designers range from geeky guys to passing-for-mainstream guys, from young-ish guys to forty-ish guys, and from white guys to, well, they’re pretty much all white guys. Women are present as part of family teams or are referred to with sentiments along the lines of, “If I weren’t spending all my money on my robots, my girlfriend would spend it.”
(Curiously, the robots are all referred to as “he,” even though you really can’t tell, even when they flip over. Are the robots defined by the gender of their designers? Or are they defined as males because that’s the way we imagine fighters and athletes? Or is the gendered pronoun part of the show’s general effort to humanize the robots? Until we meet a robot with a female name or a solo female designer, we just don’t know.)
Judged like a sport, by the quality of competition, Battlebots is mostly a success. Many of the fights, such as the championship match between Biohazard and Vlad the Impaler, have been genuinely exciting. Credit for this should go to the robot designers, who bring a variety of robot types and weaponry to the arena. The battlebots wield flipping arms, wedges, spinning blades, hammers, jaws, and spikes to defeat their opponents and the fights are usually more strategic than one metal box smashing into another. Part of the show’s fun is seeing the next design. Most of the designers have also named and decorated their robots to give them a semblance of personality. El Diablo is decorated with a devil motif. Tazbot looks like he was designed by alien insects.
Unfortunately, not all of the duels are aesthetic delights. The success of the wedge design, a sloping front to get leverage for pushing or flipping opponents, has led to a number of similarly designed robots. Fights between wedges look like doorstops on wheels bumping into each other. Remember the caveman club-fighting that Fred Flintstone used to watch? Something like that. And some of the victories seem random. Faulty electronics and arena hazards, such as spikes along the wall and “kill-saws” that rise from the floor, can take out a ‘bot without much of a fight.
The question remains: why should we care? If you smashed one Lego car into another until one of them broke, you could entertain a five-year-old, but I wouldn’t call it a sport. Of course, designing and controlling a robot takes skill that can be appreciated. On another level, we can pretend that the robots are self-conscious entities deserving support. Battlebots encourages this pretense by focusing almost exclusively on the robots, rather than their human controllers, during the duels.
Battlebots has a refreshing gee-whiz enthusiasm. There’s little to no trash-talking and the designers mostly seem just happy to be there. Let’s face it, this is one professional sport where the heroes, like Biohazard and War Machine, won’t be caught in a room full of cocaine and hookers. Clean-cut Bill Nye (the science-guy) gives brief interviews with the designers and brief segments illustrate the hobby of robot-building. The show positions itself as clean family fun. I assume the tacky showgirls were in the ring for the championship presentation because the show was filmed in Las Vegas. (Next season it will be in San Francisco.) Although, I have to point out that ex-Playboy bunny Heidi Mark is clearly not there for her interviewing skills.
Still, the duels themselves are maddenly addictive, so much so that the filler segments have begun to grate on my nerves. Man on the street interviews with New York citizens about Battlebots is an obvious time killer. Interviewing the two mooks from The Man Show is even worse. When a show promises “metal on metal action,” it needs to deliver. Mostly, it does. And as long as “Comedy Central, the leader in robotic sports” continues to take this more seriously than we do, Battlebots will deliver comedy as well.