[3 November 2008]
Like the gig that keeps him knee-deep in residual checks (Family Guy) Seth Green’s Robot Chicken is awash in random pop culture references. But where Family Guy uses references at a detriment to the plot to get cheap laughs, Robot Chicken is all pop culture references—references to Strawberry Shortcake, the Smurfs, He-Man, and Star Wars are stacked on top of each other like clips from a dream random pop culture reference cable service.
In some ways, Robot Chicken is the first post-Internet TV show—its jokes reveal themselves in no more than two minutes (and sometimes in under five seconds), catering to the audience’s short attention span. It’s like YouTube, but it’s on basic cable.
First and foremost, Robot Chicken is a show for nerds, geeks, dorks, and spazzes. Who would find She-Ra’s on her period jokes funny? Nerds. You know who would laugh at a skit based on the fact that the Green Arrow is essentially Batman with a bow and arrow? Geeks. But sometime around the Robot Chicken Star Wars special, and plugs on the Blue Harvest episode of Family Guy, Robot Chicken had a breakthrough to the mainstream.
The third season of Robot Chicken, released on this DVD set, represents the show’s coming out party. Once relegated to the stoner and nerd bloc that watches Adult Swim on a regular basis, Robot Chicken is now the number one show among adults 18-34 and men 18-24 at its time slot. But the only difference with the show is that its audience is bigger—the show still gets most of its laughs from the fact that it’s made entirely from stop-motion animation of action figures from long-forgotten TV shows and movies.
The best bits in season three are often the ones that imagine the in-between scenes from famous movies, like what happened at the dinner on Cloud City when Lando sold Han, Chewie, and Leia down the river. Robot Chicken posits that Han would have a flip-off contest with Boba Fett, Lando would tell jokes about betraying Han (too soon), and Darth Vader would use a dinner roll to demonstrate the explosion of Alderaan. Naturally, it helps if you have a decent knowledge of the source material, but a lot of the sketches are so absurd that an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars and other nerd properties isn’t necessary.
Season three finds Robot Chicken also going into political joke territory—they re-imagine the Hurricane Katrina disaster as a flood of the Smurf forest, complete with Anderson Cooper showing up and a media circus. But the bit ends in absurdist territory—Gargamel finally gets to eat some Smurfs, and he finds out they taste terrible.
Like every previous season of Robot Chicken, there comes a point when the rapid-fire references grow thin (sometime around the Sir Mix A-Lot “Knights of the Round Table” song), leaving you wishing for something resembling plot or pacing. That’s not to say the show isn’t funny most of the way through (because it is), or it isn’t incredibly enjoyable (because it is), it’s just that the gluttony of clips grow tiresome in long stretches—which is presumably why a Robot Chicken episode is only 11 minutes long.
As the Robot Chicken Star Wars special proved, Robot Chickencan be transcendent when zeroing in a singular pop culture target (for my money, the Ponda Baba as an architect in that special is one of the top three funniest things I’ve ever seen)—and that cohesiveness is what’s largely lacking in season three. Heroes references give way to Jem references, give way to Dora the Explorer references, which give way to Tarzan references. It’s not that every episode needs to be zeroed in a singular part of the Zeitgeist, but a little more thematic tying would be welcome.
The season three set comes packed with tons of extras—including an extension of the Darth Vader in Cloud City sketch mentioned above—and effusive commentaries from Green, co-creator Matthew Senreich and others. If you ever wanted to know the inspiration behind some of the sketches (Why did you go with Chatty Kathy here Seth?), the commentaries are what you’ve been looking for.
At the end of season three, as they have done with the past two seasons, Senreich and Green end the season with a sketch that details how Robot Chicken is going to be cancelled forever (this year, Green and Senreich kill off all of the people who worked on the show in action figure form). But given the show’s expanding fan base (around 9.5 million viewers for every episode) and its virtually limitless joke pool (I can’t wait till they have to start pulling stuff from the 1940s: Rosie The Riveter vs. IG-88 coming soon), I can see Robot Chicken having an endless run. Somehow, I find that vaguely comforting.