It’s a sunny January L.A. afternoon, and the view from a loft office in a television studio on an industrial street in Hollywood beckons you to sip an iced latte on a café terrace. But inside, amidst the clutter, there are more serious matters to attend to, as two of today’s most successful television producers sit down for a business briefing.
“So the doctor says that your rash, you know, down there, is not contagious,” Matt Senreich’s assistant tells him.
“Oh, thank God!” Senreich replies.
“Man, I was really worried about that,” adds grinning co-producer Seth Green.
Along with Green (of “Austin Powers” fame), Senreich ’96 is the co-creator, writer and executive producer of Cartoon Network’s hit stop-motion animation series “Robot Chicken.” And if that first comical order of business—though followed by a long list of obligations, ranging from meetings with CEOs to an appearance at Comic-Con—is any indication, they’re not your typical pair of executives. The meeting feels more like friends discussing last night’s party rather than associates managing a business schedule.
The same kind of casualness extends to Senreich’s office, painted bright blue and adorned with action figures and “Star Wars” posters. It evokes the coziness of a dorm room more than the sterile sleekness of a workplace. And it is this melding of youthfulness with focused career ambitions that has allowed Senreich to become one of Wesleyan’s most successful alums.
Now in its third season on the Adult Swim division of Cartoon Network, “Robot Chicken” features stop-motion animation skits of puppets and action figures, poking fun at cultural icons and pushing the edge of moral and social taboos. Its most popular episode, a 30-minute extravaganza parodying “Star Wars,” will be shown in the Center for Film Studies this Monday evening, along with a never-before-seen “Robot Chicken” episode, as part of Senreich’s two-day visit to campus. He will also be speaking as part of an alumni panel on the film and television industry (along with executives from VH1 and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) this Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Usdan University Center.
Reclined at his desk in a hoodie and sneakers, it’s easy to see why Senreich describes working on “Robot Chicken” as a “dream job.” Totems of its perks, like an R2-D2 trashcan courtesy of hero-turned-pal George Lucas, are scattered around the office. But what Senreich finds most rewarding about the job is the warmth of its creative environment.
“It’s pretty intimate,” Senreich said. “There’s not a ton of hierarchy here [in the studio]. When you get down to it, it’s just a bunch of guys, messing around. And that’s what I love about it. There’s that family mentality about people working here.”
The concept of “messing around” was, in fact, inherent in the show’s conception. Senreich, who befriended Green while working as the editorial director for toy and comic enterprise Wizard Entertainment, got the idea from Green’s appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
“Seth’s action figure for ’Austin Powers’ had just come out, so he brought it on the show,” he said. “Conan also had [his own action figure], and cracked a joke about the toys taking an adventure together. I thought, ’That sounds awesome!’”
But what started out as a self-indulgent side project between Senreich, Green and some art students made its way up the media ladder until it was picked up by the newly launched Adult Swim in 2004.
Though Senreich attributes the success to “good timing,” a larger portion of it is likely owed to his own drive and creativity. From the age of 16, he pursued a passion for comics by interning for publishers (including Marvel Comics) during the summer, and eventually landed a high-ranking job with Wizard Entertainment shortly after graduation. At Wesleyan, Senreich majored in history while simultaneously exploring other academic interests, and even took three self-designed classes, including ones that focused on video art and editing. It’s no surprise then, that Senreich feels Wesleyan was the perfect fit for his inclination to multi-task.
“It was just a place that let you be who you wanted to be…It’s very easy to be lazy there, I think, but nobody chooses to be,” Senreich said. “Which is what I really liked about [Wesleyan]…It was all about the people. The people really made the place.”
Senreich also divided his time between intramural softball, the hockey team, and badminton, as well as two years on the Student Judiciary Board. Honorable as ever, he still refuses to reveal details of the cases, though he does still marvel at some of the issues that came before the board.
“People would do the most stupid, absurd things…[A lot of it was] funny, very funny,” Senreich said. “Definitely inspiring for ’Robot Chicken.’”
Though he concedes to being shy, Senreich’s observations and experiences from his undergrad days have left a lasting impression on him, and he ultimately credits his offbeat wit to his time at the University.
“[Wesleyan] is the most politically correct place on the planet,” he joked. “And now I’m at a place where all I do is offend people easily. But the humor at Wesleyan, when you get down to it, is very much the same type of humor—even though people don’t want to think it is. It’s that self-awareness of the over-political correctness that’s going on. People [at Wesleyan] are very much about knowing how things are said and delivered, which is what makes things appropriate or not appropriate.”
But with a boyish grin and disarming laugh, Senreich is certainly not the type of person you would expect to mastermind “Tooth Fairy,” a “Robot Chicken” skit that finds the nighttime nymph amidst a scene of crude domestic violence. Pushing the socially acceptable envelope has often found Senreich and his team at odds with the network heads.
“That one almost didn’t make it on the air,” he said, referring to “Tooth Fairy.” “The network called us and said it was completely unfunny and inappropriate. But in the end we convinced them to air it, and we got a good response. Other times, the network is right about sketches being unfunny. Stuff like that just happens. Sometimes we win and sometimes they win.”
Senreich pauses for a moment and leans back in his chair, his gaze contemplating a “Robot Chicken: Star Wars” poster across the room.
“People are very sensitive,” he said. “They need to learn how to lighten up a little bit. I mean, I’m Jewish, I’ll make fun of myself, no problem. I think if everyone did that, they’d be a lot happier. And Wesleyan taught me that better than anybody.”