Peter G writes,
Matthew Senreich started off at Wizard Magazine, eventually becoming its editorial director and working on Twisted Toyfare Theater for Toyfare Magazine. Around 1996, he interviewed Seth Green, who was a fan of Wizard. The two eventually wound up collaborating on Robot Chicken, along with writer Zeb Wells and voice actor Breckin Meyer. The group then started another comedy series for Sony’s Crackle streaming service called Supermansion, which stars and is co-produced by Bryan Cranston and also features the voice talents of Zeb Wells, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Pine, Jillian Bell, Yvette Nicole Brown, Heidi Gardner, and Tucker Gilmore. In preparation for the debut of Season 3 of Supermansion on Crackle, Senreich, Wells, and Meyer agreed to an interview. Spoiler alert: things did not go exactly as anticipated….
G: I’m actually curious about the animation, because it’s very rare you see stop-motion nowadays. Usually, it’s CGI or hand drawn or Flash. What was it that made you decide to stick with the stop motion for this?
SENREICH: For this specific show, I think it’s because it’s tangible – there’s depth to it. And I think that’s what makes stop motion a little more exciting. You actually see these figures come to life in a way that you haven’t before, and you haven’t really seen superheroes done in this style before. So when we were talking about putting it together and what to make it look like, I think that was it. On top of that, we have a stop-motionstudio that also led to us making it this way.
G: I’m a big fan of the old Twisted Toyfare Theater. Do you find yourself revisiting some plots and ideas that you never got to get around to before the magazine was cancelled? Do you ever go, “Here’s one from the archives that was just too funny to pass up, let’s do this one?”
SENREICH: No, not really. Zeb is the one writing the show and putting it together, and he’s not coming from the Toyfare world at all.
WELLS: I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some crossover, though. We read all those magazines.
SENREICH: Well, Tom Rude, who writes on the show occasionally, and Pat McCallum, who did Toyfare…but I feel like they’re different. Especially the old school Toyfare stuff, which was mostly Mego Spidey. And we don’t really have a Spider-Man character.
G: Yeah, you don’t have a laconic character, everybody is really keyed up.
How did you decide on the cast? Because you want a cast that’s flexible enough to bounce off each other, but also firm enough that you aren’t introducing new characters every season because you’re running out of ideas. What made you settle on the line-up that you have?
WELLS: That was as hard as it sounds, to come up with the right mix of characters. And we decided on it with just a bunch of thought, a bunch of half-starts…if you look at the first animatic we made to pitch the show, Cooch was named the Bureaucat and she was very prim and proper. And then we realized we needed a different flavor from that. Titanium Rex wore an Iron Man-type costume and had a British accent and was voiced by Seth Green. So that is a very big concern of ours. That is something we really needed to get right. And you get it right by experimenting and not being afraid to change course when something isn’t working.
G: Compared to Robot Chicken, which is just a series of short, quick gags, you hit it you get the laugh, you move on. Supermansion, you are trying to create a narrative that runs through the entire season. What is the biggest challenge to doing this while still keeping it a parody and still keeping it funny?
SENREICH: I think one of the keys is NOT making it a parody. It’s finding these characters and saying, “This is who they are. They may resemble these characters, but they’re not them.” You aren’t thinking to yourself constantly when you’re writing, “This is not what Superman twisted would do.” It’s finding their personalities, really knowing their personalities, and then giving them that storyline.
WELLS: We did want it to act as a parody, but just for the first time you meet these characters. So the first time you meet them, you recognize them as a parody, but that’s not going to sustain. It works on Robot Chicken because it’s a quick sketch and then you move on to something else. For something that has characters that need to have an arc, that can’t be a parody arc. It has to be a character arc that comes from a real place. So we had to start from a place of parody but then discover who those characters really were.
G: Has it been difficult to get people to notice Supermansion? It seems like there are a lot more people doing superhero parodies now than there were back in the days of, say, the Justice Friends on Dexter’s Lab. Do you find it difficult to differentiate yourself and give yourself your own presence out there?
WELLS: Probably not more than any other show does right now, with the amount of television that is being made right now. It’s probably hard for everybody to pop.
SENREICH: I think what makes us stand out is we love this show and we think it’s a really good show. That’s why Crackle has given us a third season. We also have a voice cast that’s unlike anything else. We always say we’re the Little Show That Could. It’s everybody from Bryan Cranston to Keegan-Michael Key, Jillian Bell to Breckin Meyer. It’s an amazing cast, and two of our actors got Emmy nominations. We’re with Seth MacFarlane and the South Park gang. We’re getting known more and more over the course of time. And with Crackle, which is an upstart as well. They’re getting known more and more over the course of time, as well. It’s just not a place that a lot of new shows existed on until recently. And as it gets more, people will keep finding us.
G: How much of the script is written in advance, and how much is you in the booth going, “I’ve got a better idea?” Like how Sean Gunn, the stand-in for Rocket Raccoon on Guardians Of The Galaxy, improvised some of his dialog on the set. At what point is the script written, and at what point do you do your own thing?
WELLS: I’m excited to hear this answer from Breckin.
MEYER: I think, most every time I come in the booth, I think, I have a better idea.
MEYER: But it’s never used. Well, there’s similarities and there’s differences to Robot Chicken. The similarities actor-wise are, all I want to do with Robot is make Seth in that little glass box laugh, because then I think I got it. And it’s the same thing when it Zeb or Matt or whoever is directing the episode on Supermansion. I just want to make them laugh and give them the funniest read I can. But, with Robot, I definitely riff a little more. I’m also a writer on it, so I feel a little more freedom with it. But with Supermansion, it’s a linear story. You don’t need to riff too much. It’s really funny when we get there. There are a couple of ins and outs, and your given total freedom to do it, but it doesn’t need it. So there are places where I’ll do ins and outs, or buttons of a scene where I’ll improv and change a word or two, but for the most part, it’s there. You don’t need to. Luckily, Zeb and Matt are so well-versed in this superhero world that, if you’re going to let anybody parody that world, it should be the guys who create it.
So we don’t have to do much, we really don’t. Earlier, Jillian Bell came in with a very specific voice for that character that then changed the writing for that character from them on, which I think, as an actor, if I can lend a voice that makes it more concrete and better for Zeb to go back to the room and write that character? Great. It like shows like The Office or Parks And Recreation where the actors help elevate the material so much so that they can write TO them. And I think if we give Zeb a chance to use those weapons, great. But there isn’t a lot of improv that needs to happen, in my opinion, on Supermansion.
G: One of the things I love about the show is the delivery of the lines. One of my favorites is the Halloween special, when the Groaner and Black Saturn realize they were in the closet together, and Groaner delivers that, “Oh…shit!” Anybody else would have just read the line as it was. How do you figure out how to punch it up and deliver it in a way that no one’s ever done before?
WELLS: I think that’s why it’s so important to hire people who are legitimately funny.
WELLS: Because legitimately funny people have grown up with that sort of defense mechanism they’ve created, which is, “How do I say things in a way that will make people laugh?” The line, “Oh, shit,” isn’t funny or not funny. It’s just two words. But if you hire somebody who’s….
SENREICH: Like yourself?
WELLS: (confused) Like myself?
SENREICH: You’re talking about yourself! The guy who wrote it is talking about himself!
(laughter breaks out)
SENREICH: “Someone like me, who is really funny…..”
MEYER: “I just strike gold every time!”
SENREICH: “I told you before, it’s just two words, it’s not funny or unfunny. But then you put someone like Zeb Wells, strap him to that comedy ball….”
(interview collapses into unrestrained laughter)
G: Ah, who doesn’t toot their own horn once in a while?
SENREICH: I think the biggest conversation we had over an actor was Chris Pine, who is perceived as a comedy actor. And what happened was, he was on Robot Chicken, and I was trying to explain to Zeb how funny he was….
WELLS: And I didn’t want to hear it, because he should not be funny.
SENREICH: And when we brought him in, you were like, “Oh, I hate you that you’re this beautiful and this talented all at once.” And you just see how unbelievable he is at these kinds of roles. He should get more comedy roles.
WELLS: And now he does so many voices, he does about three voices an episode. He’s in every episode now. He’s like our less attractive Harry Shearer….
(everyone starts laughing again)
WELLS: He’s sort of our clutch player.
G: When the series originally started, Seth Green was the voice of Titanium Rex. How did Bryan Cranston get mixed up in this?
SENREICH: Well, we begged a little….
Seth did the voice, and it wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be. And we just needed someone who was older and more stoic. And he said, “Well, who did you guys really want?” And we said, “A Bryan Cranston type.” And he said, “Why don’t you just ask him?” And we didn’t have the balls to ask him originally. And so he kind of pushed us in that direction. So we sent him the script for the pilot, and he called back within 48 hours, saying he didn’t want to just be a voice on the show, he wanted to make it with us, he loved the pilot so much. And we partnered up with him in that capacity, which was very surreal for us. And it was also in the heyday of Breaking Bad, so the fact that he was paying attention to us was amazing.
G: A guy who got a fan letter from Sir Anthony Hopkins is working with you.
MEYER: But he’s not as good as Zeb Wells, who can string together two words…
(interview collapses into laughter again)
G: Does Cranston wear pants when he’s recording his lines?
SENREICH: Good question.
WELLS: He does. He’s come in sweats and shorts.
SENREICH: There’s been a few where we have to record him from a studio…usually, he comes into the office, but there’s one he can walk to from his house, and those are the ones where he’s usually in flip flops or something like that.
WELLS: But that’s the appeal of voice acting to a lot of actors, is you don’t need hair and make-up.
SENREICH: I will point out that Breckin sometimes does strip down to his underwear in the booth.
MEYER: It helps the performance.
G: Hey, Dan Castenella throws himself around the booth when performing Homer Simpson’s lines.
SENREICH: Yeah, that sounds like Breckin.
MEYER: Dan and I are very similar.
(laughter starts again)
MEYER: But I aspire to be like Zeb, who can take two words that mean nothing….
(and we’re off the rails again)
G: You’re going to email this interview around the office, aren’t you?
SENREICH: Oh, count on it.
MEYER: …just putting magic sprinkles on a piece of dog shit….
(and we’re laughing again)
G: This is going to be part of the retirement party. Someone’s going to say, “I remember when he said….”
WELLS (to Meyer): I thought I was talking about you, but at the same time, I realized….
G: How much do you think things have changed over the course of production? You’ll start off with an idea, you’ll have a path plotted out, and by the time the other writers get involved, how much do things differ at the end from when it starts? Like, Family Guy, they start off with one single idea and you can see the trajectory of the different writers chipping in as the episode goes on. You guys have an entire season to cover. How do things change?
SENREICH: To Zeb’s credit, he has a pretty good idea of where it’s starting and where he wants to get to. It’s the stuff in the middle.
WELLS: Yeah, you never want to let that put handcuffs on you if someone has a better idea. It changes….
MEYER: But when it’s someone like Zeb Wells….
(here we go again)
SENREICH: I mean, do you put perfume on perfume? Come on! Rumplestiltskin over here, spinning gold….
G: My editor is going to think I’m nuts when I transcribe this. He’s going to be like, “Really?” And I’ll be like, “I swear to God.”
WELLS: This is going to read like you guys (Senreich and Meyer) are complete assholes.
SENREICH: The only reason Bryan’s on the show is because Zeb refused to do the voice of Titanium Rex.
WELLS: …but after the scripts are written, the nature of animation means it doesn’t change that much. There will be the odd improv….
MEYER: By someone like Zeb Wells….
(by now, I’m laughing so hard, I’m getting a headache)
WELLS: That is terrible…oh my God….