Robot Chicken is, in many ways, an archetypal representation of Cartoon Networks late night comedy and (arguably) mature cartoon extravaganza, Adult Swim. The show is frequently hilarious but just as often completely idiotic. It often borders on the offensive without ever taking itself seriously enough to inspire genuine anger. It’s produced by an astonishingly nerdy team of writers and producers who are in possession of an encyclopedic understanding of pop culture and a twisted sense of humor. And it exists in a stage of profoundly arrested development, amounting at the end of the day to a bunch of spectacularly nerdy, hyperactive kids playing with action figures and telling the dirtiest poop jokes they can think of. Which is actually pretty funny, really.
The fourth season is, like the three volumes that preceded it, a living testimonial to the wisdom of our ancestors, proving that everything your grandparents ever told you about the havoc that television would wreak on your attention span was absolutely true. The show is composed of tiny, fast-moving, free-floating nuggets of entertainment, processed to a degree that requires almost no mental digestion from the viewer.
Featuring mostly sketches that skewer pop culture relics old and new, notable and obscure, there are good bits and bad bits, alternating with at such a rate that telling the difference between the two sometimes grows difficult. For every It is a style that leaves Robot Chicken feeling something like the television equivalent of a White Castle slider. It is not filling, it is not tasteful, it is almost certainly bad for you, and you find yourself profoundly questioning the level of wholesomeness that was involved in the preparation of the thing. And yet, in spite of all of these valid and sometimes troubling concerns, the end product remains strangely satisfying on some level that you’d rather not think too much about delivering an experience that is absolutely singular. Even if it does leave you feeling a little bit oily afterwards.
Oddly, Robot Chicken is fearless in frequently biting the sausage fingered, Dorito coated hand that feeds it. The writers regularly and viciously mock the fan-boys and man-children that have made the show a marginal hit. It’s the kind of thing that would come off as disingenuous and sometimes downright mean if the creators didn’t come off as such a posse of card-carrying dorks themselves. Call it ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’ Syndrome, but the fact that the show is obviously run by weapons grade dorks let’s them get away with a lot.
Rather than a show that’s geared towards a network execs idea of what a nerd looks like and wants to see on TV — Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at your poorly scripted, over focus grouped ass. Instead, robot chicken is by lambdas, for lambdas. It is brilliantly fine tuned to geeks of all stripes and unapologetically so. As borne out by it’s ratings, it’s TV that an entire generation of socially inept and, ok, often inebriated dudes wants to see, and as such, it is not always pleasant. That’s forgivable – the fact that it is not always even funny is harder to take.
But it’s a hazard that is natural to Robot Chicken’sfrenetic style. When you’re telling dozens of jokes in the space of just a few minutes, it would be a miracle if all of them hit. Taking the short form to its most extreme conclusion, Robot Chicken is particularly susceptible to the unevenness that is so consistently a hobgoblin of sketch comedy. One can assume that the creators know this, and do their best to make it an advantage. By the time a bad sketch is over, your well on your way to the next one. It’s to their credit that they’ve discovered a formula that works: it’s possible to be pretty damned funny in ten seconds, but in that same ten seconds it’s nearly impossible to be so unfunny that people will change the channel, especially if they know something hilarious may be just a bong rip away.
While the show proper is well worth spending a night or two on for members of the show’s target demographic – you know who you are – there’s just as much treasure to be found in the extensive collection of deleted scenes and animatics that didn’t quite make the cut. While it’s easy to see why some bits were cut – the spoof of Hanna Barbera’s rightly forgotten Herculoids is pretty much just an episode of Herculoids with a hemorrhoid joke tacked onto the end – there are some potential classics there too, including a Milo Ventimiglia voiced Ziggy bit that is simply terrific.
Other worthwhile extras include the producers sitting on Comic Con panels and mini documentaries following a strange, awkward day in the lives of the shows animators and designers.