Robot Chicken is a show that I set to record on my DVR no matter whether it’s a new episode or a rerun. I keep a bank of episodes for when I’m eating a quick meal, in need of a short break from something taxing, or cleaning up around my apartment. It’s easy to have on in the background, but whenever I can give the show my full attention, I always find something to laugh at. It’s diverting escapist fare that requires very little effort from its audience to engage with the show.
With its channel-surfing pastiche, Robot Chicken pokes fun at a lot of movies and television shows that I love, but also a great deal that I’m aware of but have never devoted significant time to, like many of the 80s references. It’s a relatively simple way to get a laugh out of material that has entered the popular consciousness. But the key element is that the creators enjoy the original material that they’re skewering, and lovingly mock characters and stories that in other hands would seem too snarky (think all those VH1 decade-specific talking head specials). To some, this technique may seem lazy and uninspired, but it’s reliable and effective.
Seth Green gets a lot of shit for this show, even if it’s just gentle ribbing from Seth MacFarlane during the Family Guy tributes to Star Wars. I’ve never been able to figure out why. One of my favorite scenes from An Evening With Kevin Smith is a female questioner’s capsule review of Chasing Amy: “dumb, but harmless.” Robot Chicken may be ignored by that same sentiment, but it’s better than that kind of flippant brush aside. It’s often downright hilarious, and never overstays its welcome. If you laugh at a 10-second bit, that’s great, but if not, there are 15 other ones waiting in the queue. Something will make you laugh, and that reliability is charming, even as the show has never been groundbreaking.
Tonight’s DC Comics Special is a perfect example of what Robot Chicken does well: take well-known characters and archetypes and mock them for logical inconsistencies that don’t come up in a highly stylized and trumped-up comic book plot. The special features Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Aquaman, Flash, Bane, and a bunch of other easily recognizable villains. The voice cast includes Nathan Fillion, Megan Fox, Neil Patrick Harris, Alfred Molina, and Paul Ruebens. There are even some incredibly obscure characters from the DC Universe—and their obscurity is the point of their inclusion with a segment called “Real Characters from the DC Universe” that openly mocks ridiculous creations. I mean, honestly, a banjo player and a squirrel in the Green Lantern Corps? No wonder Firestorm is so pissed at getting looped in with those pitiful excuses for characters.
There’s even a tiny semblance of an overarching plot, involving how badly the Justice League treats Aquaman and his choice between honor and vengeance. Aquaman has been the butt of countless jokes for his comparatively weak superpowers, but instead of just piling on the character, that mockery is built into an arc, which builds from frustration to betrayal to a not-so-surprising twist that puts Aquaman in a rare position of power, that he quickly squanders in slapstick fashion.
Most of the sketches bounce between the Justice League characters and the Legion of Doom, but there are some other characters, like Swamp Thing and the parallel reality Earth-C, where Green Lantern has trouble taking anyone seriously. Most of the jokes aren’t all that original, from pointing out cold-based character redundancies to the litany of jokes about Aquaman’s limited powers, but a few of the setups are intriguing, such as the male Justice League members going to a bar to pick up women in costume. And what about that Superman power? Kissing someone’s memory away is an undoubtedly strange ability, but it doesn’t really get used for its dark potential, perhaps because amid all the rampant violence the show normally descends to, they couldn’t make Superman into a Rohypnol machine after obtaining the license to use these characters for a special.
The final battle features a bunch of callbacks to jokes throughout the episode—including a nice reference to the comedic “rule of three” as Bane continually breaks Batman’s back—that play out nicely as a last cacophonous burst. Aquaman is the most maligned regular member of the team, and seeing him finally fight back only to find a surprise party waiting for him was nicely ironic.
It’s unlikely that Robot Chicken will run out of material to skewer as long as comic book films and cult properties continue to be ushered into mainstream culture. At this point, the show will probably only end when Seth Green and the other creators want to call it a day, but if they can keep putting together specials like this, it can justify another 20 episodes of parody mish-mash.
- The Robot Chicken recurring geek character shows up to take Hal Jordan’s place briefly, and his use for the ring is annoyingly perfect.
- Whenever I watch Robot Chicken, I’m consistently reminded of Action League Now!, the stop-motion shorts that aired as a part of All That and KaBlam! on Nickelodeon.