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Robot Chicken

Tim O'Neil

You don't have to be a big ol' nerd to laugh, but it helps if you know your Mark Hamill from your Leonard Nimoy.

Robot Chicken

Airtime: Sundays, 11:30pm ET
Cast: Seth Green, Dan Milano
Network: Cartoon Network

The most frustrating aspect of Robot Chicken -- the latest addition to the Cartoon Network's immensely popular Adult Swim lineup -- is that it's only 15 minutes long. Twelve when you subtract commercials. It is that rarest of television programs: it actually leaves you wanting more. Just like vintage South Park, it packs a mighty punch of satire couched in a barrage of lowest common denominator juvenilia.

Speaking of South Park, the most annoying part of Robot Chicken is Les Claypool's theme song. Claypool was no doubt chosen because of his identification with South Park, inarguably a profitable connection in the minds of millions of viewers weaned on that show. But Claypool's shtick is about as fresh now as it was back in 1997, and while the South Park theme may have aged gracefully merely by dint of positive associations, he is still essentially a one-trick pony of minor-key basslines and weird voices. Let us hope that the good folks behind Robot Chicken go no further in their obeisance to South Park, because as it stands now, they have the superior show.

Robot Chicken is the brainchild of Seth Green (with the aid of Matthew Senreich), who, in addition to his moderate movie and tv fame, is also well known in certain circles as a ferocious toy collector. Robot Chicken might exist because he was Oz on tv's Buffy, but it could not exist if he wasn't a huge nerd. This show is the nerd equivalent of FUBU ("For us, by us"), wit the "us" being those who recognize the coolness of anachronistic stop-motion animation technique (evoking nostalgic touchstones from Ray Harryhausen to Davey and Goliath), and who appreciate the never-ending blur of pop-culture jokes that compose the backbone of Robot Chicken. You don't have to be a big ol' nerd to laugh, but it helps if you know your Mark Hamill from your Leonard Nimoy.

But Robot Chicken is greater than the sum of its Dukes of Hazzard jokes. Here is where brevity is productive: every episode is composed of a dozen or more quick skits, some as short as five seconds, none longer than two or three minutes. If you don't like one joke, just wait a few seconds and there'll be another. The breakneck pace is suited to TiVo (to say nothing of the inevitable DVD release), which allows the viewer to pause and rewind at any point. There are so many gags in any given episode that it would be impossible to catch everything the first time through. Just like South Park or The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead, Robot Chicken offers multiple layers of humor.

Among these layers, the scripts stand out. One skit opens with the announcement, as in Armageddon, that a giant asteroid is heading for the planet Earth. NASA, poor after decades of insufficient funding, decides to hold a nationwide telephone poll to choose a team of astronauts to destroy the rock. After a flight-suit-clad George W. Bush announces his ineligibility, Harrison Ford is selected to lead the team. When he protests that he is only an actor (and almost 60 years old at that), Ford learns that his copilots will be Aerosmith (and if they're not 60, they look 80). And so it seems the American vox populi ensures the world's demise through its own inability to differentiate reality from celebrity -- a pernicious barb wreathed in the colorful imagery of Stephen Tyler throwing up in space.

The series repeatedly offers similarly zany premises: Skeletor, Cobra Commander, Lex Luthor, and Mum-Ra stuck in traffic on the way to work; Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise organize another Cannonball Run, with Vin Diesel racing against Knight Rider, the Dukes of Hazzard, and the Super Mario Brothers; a Behind the Music featuring the members of the Muppet Show house band. Cherished icons of the boomer and post-boomer generations are ruthlessly skewered, while also enabling the creators to attempt more sardonic and considered feints at society at large. (Although it should be noted that they don't always add up to more than the sum of their parts -- the perils of over-intellectualizing a Cannonball Run spoof should be self-evident.)

My personal favorite skit features a visit from the Tooth Fairy. She arrives amid a flurry of glittering pixie dust to place a dollar under a child's pillow, but ends up eavesdropping, with growing horror, as the child's father and mother scream at one another, eventually coming to blows in another room off-camera. At the end of the skit, the dolls acting it receive an award for "Most Awkward Comedy Sketch" in television history. It's funny because it slams together disparate elements, like seeing Santa Claus being arrested on Cops for breaking and entering. The Simpsons and South Park are still the touchstones here (remember when kids acting like scabrous assholes was a novelty?), presaging a generation of television comedies inverting dramatic expectations to indecent effect -- practically the thesis statement for the entire Adult Swim lineup.

While Trey Parker and Matt Stone have allowed their once-shocking show to become a vehicle for churlish Libertarian politics and surprisingly reactionary cultural mores, Seth Green and his crew of animators are currently channeling the same anarchic glee that once made South Park the absolute apex of current satire. I don't know how long they can keep it up, but for so long as they do, Robot Chicken will remain absolutely riveting.

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