Last weekend, Matt Senreich ’96, the Emmy award winning co-creator of “Robot Chicken,” had an action-packed 36 hours on campus. For the few of you who haven’t heard of “Robot Chicken,” it’s a stop-motion sketch comedy show where everything is parodied and nothing is sacred. Aside from hosting a WesFest event and giving out career advice all day through the CRC, Senreich also gave a midnight showing of two never-before-seen “Robot Chicken” episodes at the Goldsmith Family Cinema, where students got a special surprise: Senreich called up his co-creator Seth Green to chat as well.
The origin story of “Robot Chicken” is an unusual one. After Wesleyan, Senreich worked at Wizard Magazine for eight years. He had always wanted to write comic books, and believed he could gain some insight into the industry by working for a magazine.
“I was going get to know everybody in the comic world by interviewing them,” Senreich said.
Ultimately, Senreich did get his big break through Wizard, albeit not into the industry he expected: Seth Green asked Senreich if he would be interested in making a film short for the actor’s appearance on the Conan O’Brien Show after the two had met through an interview. Senreich accepted, and the two created “Sweet J Presents,” a series of 12 stop-motion shorts produced through Sony Digital that practically no one watched during its on-air run 2000. But there was a silver lining to the failure of Senreich’s first show.
“I had something on a VHS tape that I could take around,” he said.
Senreich’s next foray into the world of television was producing a pilot of a dramatic TV series for FOX. Nothing came of it, but Senreich gained some experience pitching and writing a potential TV series. Following this, he and Green came up with the idea for “Robot Chicken,” pitched it to every network they could think of, and finally sold it to Cartoon Network after four years of unsuccessful attempts.
During his various talks at the CRC, Senreich told his story and gave tips to aspiring comic book writers, TV producers, and anyone generally interested in “Robot Chicken.” Senreich emphasized the importance of networking, humility, and persistence.
“They way you network is key,” Senreich said. “You’re not the greatest person. It’s all in your salesmanship. I want to see that you’re humble, that you’re wiling to learn. You’re looking for advice. The best way I sold myself and got a job I shouldn’t have was when I interviewed to head up a new magazine. I was just a staff writer with no editing experience. I said to my boss, ‘I may not have the skill set needed for this job now, but by three months I will learn enough to be better than anyone else vying for this job, or you can fire me. ‘”
He also recommended making use of the Internet and social-networking tools.
“Look up people on Facebook,” he said “You can email them and say ‘hey’ and try to talk to them. I wish the Internet was there when I was young. I would’ve taken advantage of that like crazy. Like that ‘Friday’ girl, God bless her. If she takes advantage of that she’s going to make millions.”
During his undergraduate days, Senreich was always thinking of a future in comic books. He avoided Friday classes, not so that he could party, but in order to take internships in New York at Marvel Comics, or at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in Amherst, Mass. He majored in history, served on the Student Judicial Board and “did minimal film stuff.”
He also took screenwriting and dabbled in filmmaking.
“I did make a bunch of live action shorts in an editing system that was literally in the closet of the science center,” he said. “I think I made four shorts in a semester that I will never show anybody because they are pretty god-awful. I also helped other people make their shorts in future semesters.”
But Senreich said that the skills he learned at Wesleyan went beyond the curriculum of his courses.
“[Putting in the] minimum amount of effort for the maximum gain: the art of multi-tasking,” he said. “I was okay with getting an A minus. I asked myself, ‘Is this worth the extra 3 hours it would take to make this paper an A? Especially if I can take those 3 extra hours to do something else productive.”
Senriech’s brand of comedy depends on its outrageousness and absolute willingness to parody anything. This may seem odd, considering he was educated at Wesleyan, which is famous for being “PCU,” and Senreich waxed philosophical when asked about issues of political correctness.
“Do they still use the word PC on campus?” he asked. “I was so conscious of being PC while I was here. I find that word fascinating because I don’t know if it means what it means anymore. If you insult everyone equally is that PC? I think you can become so oversensitive to what is PC and what isn’t that it becomes part of who you are, and even when you cross the line, if you do it in a self-aware manner, does that make it OK? Comedy keeps changing and involving. You have to keep up with it…The best way to [succeed] is just by being in touch with your audience.”
Still, it took four years to get a network to pick up “Robot Chicken.” Networks have even told Senreich and Green that they loved their irreverent style of comedy and then asked them to make it family friendly. Despite these setbacks, “Robot Chicken” has persevered and even won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Short-format Animated Program.
Senreich says he still does not understand why they won, joking, “Have they seen our show?” At his talk, he recounted an almost Robot Chicken-esque accident that took place right after he and Green received the award.
“I stabbed myself with my Emmy,” he said. “I got myself on the chin, and there was blood everywhere, all down the Emmy. I didn’t notice. A photographer was like, ‘I have to get a picture of this’ and I was like, ‘Of what?’”
Unfortunately, no pictures of this incident remain on the Internet, but you can check out episodes of “Robot Chicken,” now in its fifth season, on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in the wee hours of the morning on most days of the week.