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Seth Green Leaves His Mark on Pop Culture From 'Buffy' to 'Robot Chicken'

The multi-hyphenate reflects on taking on time loops in 'Robot Chicken's' Emmy-nominated Halloween special, recording 'Mass Effect,' and turning into a werewolf in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'

Danielle Turchiano
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Seth Green

Adult Swim (courtesy of ID PR)

Seth Green is one of those rare talents who has been able to cross over between feature film, television, and video game work, clocking almost 200 live-action and animated titles to his name thus far.

Although he has earned legions of fans from series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; films including the Austin Powers franchise, The Italian Job, and Can't Hardly Wait; and games from Mass Effect to Call of Duty, he has earned the most accolades for Robot Chicken, the Adult Swim stop-motion animated series he co-created in 2006.

Green is a three-time Emmy winner for Robot Chicken, which earned 13 nominations overall, including one this year (in the Outstanding Short Form Animated Program category) for the Halloween special titled "Happy Russian Deathdog Dolloween 2 U." The show has become a staple for anyone looking for smart commentary on iconic pieces pop culture (Stranger Things, Star Wars, Scooby-Doo), as well as clever original characters. It is a show Green has pumped a lot of creativity and energy (and hours) into for the last decade and a half, and while it is undoubtedly his baby, he has still managed to juggle several other important gigs alongside it.

In the last couple of years alone, you would have also caught Green guest-starring on The Rookie, Twenties, and the revival of Punky Brewster, as well as heard him voicing Howard the Duck in animated series Guardians of the Galaxy and What If...?, Chris Griffin on Family Guy, Blinkerquartz on Crossing Swords, and multiple characters on The Simpsons (to name a few).

"I love acting — acting is my favorite thing — but I also don't want to do it for stuff that's not awesome," Green tells Metacritic.

Here, Green breaks down the storytelling process for Robot Chicken and reflects on his experiences with Mass Effect and Buffy.

Since Robot Chicken has such a long production process with the creation and stylization of the puppets and the actual stop-motion work, you have to work on the material a long time before it will air. How has the approach to what you comment on in the pop culture zeitgeist changed over the years because of that timeframe?

Robot Chicken is never really concerned with the stuff that feels fleeting. And if we're gonna make a joke about something that only 50 people knew and remember from, like, 30 years ago, that sketch is gonna be less than 30 seconds. So, that's really the way that we we measure that. We're only looking for the stickiest stuff and the big comments that nobody's made about the stickiest stuff.

What is the process to even figure out what that stuff is?

Everything's a hedge. We assemble a panel group, basically, to talk about all of this stuff. It's the panel of judges: me and Matt [Senreich] and Tom [Root] and Dough [Goldstein]. And then we brought in a vote process, but it's really only the four of us who will get high and mighty about what belongs on the show. And really, it's usually me: I'm usually the guy who comes in and goes, "Guys, this isn't what the show is."

But it's taste-based; you don't have a checklist of things you're looking for?

No, but we don't like jokes to be mean spirited. We don't like jokes to be coming from a place of like, "You're dumb!" That's not very funny, and I don't like promoting that kind of comedy. So, Robot Chicken is, 99-percent of the time, just pointing out the inherent silliness of life and the stuff that we love and the things that we inflate to godlike status.

Along those lines, I do want to dig into the Emmy-nominated 2021 Halloween special to talk about how you decided what costumes would be iconic enough to warrant a place in it and why now was the right time to play with time loops.

We knew for a Halloween special that we wanted to do something that was long form, rather than having something broken up by channel flips. And we all thought it would be really funny 'cause time loop movies have just become such a vogue, you know? You go back to your earliest, like Groundhog Day, and then you look at every way the concept's been innovated or debated or made for horror or made for comedy or made for romance. And that in itself becomes a fun conversation, and that's what Robot Chicken really is: like, "Man, how did this idea get so stuck in pop and what are the opportunities for it? What are all the ways that it is a story and has become a trope, and how do you subvert that to make a comment about how much it's become entrenched in pop?" To the degree that you don't need to explain it. My favorite thing about the way pop culture evolves is that the next generation of audience is smarter: They don't need the origin story. They're hip to it; they get it. You've almost seen enough deep trauma movies that the concepts of those hyper-specific and 20 years ago exclusive traumas have become such a pop cultural touchpoint you can make a context joke with people that you've never met. We love talking about that, but not in a dictatorial way; you want to let people think about it after the fact. So that was it, "We were like, 'How do we tell a great story about time loop concepts while we're deconstructing the entire concept of these time loop movies?'"

And specifically with the toucan, which is such a touchpoint from my childhood, and now it's a mascot of a much bigger thing.

We were talking about, "Well, how does this thing even end? What is the point?" And we kept talking about, "Do we even want to have an opinion about it?" And I can't remember who said it, but somebody said, "Well, you just unmask Trippy the f---ing time loop toucan." The [writers'] room was like,"Maybe that's a thing." So we just leaned into the concept of, it's a trickster god that's been doing this because it's what they do, and then we don't have to really explain it. We can even have the totem of it be just as argumentative as the concept. It just made us laugh.

How do you feel about returning to it as one of Robot Chicken's recurring characters in the regular show?

We love building out original characters. Sure, any time we can launch a new character and build him into the ad campaign for the new season, we love that. But we'll see. We always follow what's funniest. Why the show stays fresh is because, as much as the show is about the celebration of all of these other things, we only go back to a particular IP if we've got a new idea.

We had that whole conversation this year about Star Wars. We were like, "We don't ever need to talk about the original trilogy anymore. If we're gonna talk Star Wars, it should be about any of this other canon." And so, we just refused. It's got to be so good to not already have been said to put it on Robot Chicken.

Going back to the evolution of the show for a minute, how has the recording process and animation work changed over the years or for this special, which was longer?

It's the same process for every piece of content, it's just the duration of the schedule. In writing a special, we give it the same kind of time that we give anything in that form. When we were doing the sketch show, we broke up 20 episodes — 20 quarter-hours — into four- or five-week cycles, and in those four- or five-week cycles, we accomplished either four or five scripts. We bring in a new cycle of writer that pair with our legacy panel. And then when we're doing a special, we'll try to get a group of writers that we know work well together, work quickly, are gonna make each other laugh. That's really critical.

Do you still record cue by cue?

It depends on the thing. If you have a scene that's gonna snap and you guys can do it together, then that's great. But if you've got stuff that is just as it's written and needs to be just so, then a good director can get everybody in silos and still edit it to be the right thing.

How does that compare with some of the other voiceover work you've done, especially Mass Effect?

The recording process is similar in that in Mass Effect we went cue by cue, but I had 700 cues. I had did three four-hour sessions for each one of those and then some DLC stuff that was a separate record. That almost killed me. Not as bad as Call of Duty; Call of Duty almost killed me. I had two mods and 10 DLCs on Call of Duty, and you just go in for a four-hour session, and I couldn't get them far apart enough to really be able to recover in between. And it was also in a time where I was like a crazy person recording four other cartoons, so I was working every week and not having any recovery time. And then, you do the work of a video game, which is all of the screaming, all of the emotives; it's intense.

Do you have rules you set for yourself about the kind of content you are willing to lend yourself out to when you are working on so much at once? What was it about Mass Effect that made you want to sign on?

The first Mass Effect was 15 years ago. At the time, it is far more conceivable. If you were doing three features in a year, you have months in between to recover [and] prepare, typically. So, doing something like a video game doesn't feel like a lot. It's when you're doing your second long-form video game after doing three installments and multiple DLC of a legendary game, and then coupling that record process with Family Guy, Robot Chicken, [Teenage Mutant NinjaTurtles, and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. And I did 10 DLC of Call of Duty. Gotta drink more tea!

But I don't have mandates [on content]. I know it when I see it; you feel it or you don't; can't fake that funk. 

How much freedom did you have on Mass Effect, maybe even compared to Robot Chicken, to adlib some lines?

A lot of times if people are hiring me to be funny, their expectation is that I'll innovate on whatever's there. But I always ask that question because you don't want to offend anybody. A lot of writers want you to do exactly what they've said in the way that you would do it: They want you to bring your thing to their words, and I respect that just as much.

Are there adlibs that made it in that still stand out to you as ones you love — or perhaps ones that didn't make it in that you still wish did?

At this point, I've done 220 quarter-hours of Robot Chicken, six-half hour specials — so much material and content over a 16-year period, and I've played literally thousands of characters. And so, there was a point — even the first five, six seasons, maybe even seven, I had encyclopedic inventory of every thing: each record, who played what character. And when you're in it at that microscopic level, it's like frames. So, I've got the mix of the thing against a particular color timing, and t's untenable to store that volume. I got to the point where I literally can't recognize new people.

You have to let it go.

Yeah, the human computer was not meant to store this volume of information. And as technology is advancing, we're getting it faster and faster, and we're not even able to really process it. By this point, we're receiving millions of new messages. I'm looking forward to the upgrades.

Well then you're really going to love my next questions because I want to go even further back and talk about your memories of working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It was some of the hardest work: Our hours were crazy, the makeup was crazy, the stunts. And it's a lot of emotion, so your performers are in that state. You need a lot of trust. I had it because I've known Aly [Hannigan] forever; we've worked together a bunch of times. So I was like, "Hey, we're a safe place; we can just do our thing together." And then Sarah [Michelle Gellar], we worked together when we were children, so knowing her as a f---ing superstar professional who could lead a show, I just did everything I could to be solid support. Some of the best writing I ever got to play — a character that can really sink something into — and they gave me a tremendous amount of freedom to express this character's multitudes with stillness. Who does that?

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Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seth Green in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

20th Century Fox

Talking about the physical nature of the makeup, how did doing the werewolf transformations so practically affect your experience?

There was no way around having someone in a suit, but I've been into special effects and creature effects and all that stuff since I was a kid. I got to work with huge puppets and big monster rigs from the time I was 8 years old — super into it. I also, as an on-camera performer, have spent my life cultivating a patience that allows me to be an accessory for other artists' work. And then I internalize the fact that all of these artists are combining their efforts to help me bring this moment to life. So, you see yourself in the thing with the eyes and the teeth and you're like, "Right, this is where I'm at." And it's convincing and now I've just got to make it real. So, as an actor, I love it. As a human being, the first process we did was a seven-hour application. And I had to do four hours of it standing. I just had to meditate; I just had to get somewhere else. And you've got artists that are talented enough to work on you while you're sleeping if you're able to like lay your head down. And we got it down faster as time went on — got it down to three-and-a-half hours. But you're all working together, is the thing; everybody is trying to make the audience say, "Wow."

When I first watched the show, I honestly don't think I was consciously thinking about how the way Oz would lash out at Willow from time to time or cheat on her was a bit of toxic masculinity pouring out of this otherwise funny, sweet, but struggling with his transformation, character. There was always the allegory with the supernatural elements, but do you remember being cognizant of or having conversations about those things on set? And were there concerns about how the audience would receive it?

It was really clear to me that all of these fantasy elements were being used as a clear allegory for the teenage human experience, and that's one of my favorite things about it. Guillermo Del Toro talks about winning an Oscar for this insane love story about tolerant humanity, and he set it against a romance with a fish man [The Shape of Water]. What Joss [Whedon] and our incredible team of writers were able to do is tell a very relatable story about young people's experience growing up against this absurdist backdrop that doesn't make you realize the medicine you're swallowing.

It t wasn't until Willow started dating Tara that anybody was like, "I don't know how to feel about this," and then it's like, "Christ, get over yourself." It's tough, though, because any type of representation — even if it's in the form of a demon monster that's a metaphor for a particular lifestyle — is so important. Being able to see an example with something in TV or movies that you relate to that makes them feel like this alternative is possible. When you're in your own home, you're raised by your own family, you have such little access to lessons. That's why it's important to put sh-- in the media.

When you left the show, they still found a way to wrap up Oz's storyline with a happy ending, but in the absence, so much happened off screen. Do you have unfinished business with him?

I have not thought about it at all. I love the show that I got to be a part of. I cannot believe the power of this fandom and the heartfelt passion from the fandom I can always tell when somebody's a Buffy fan because we just meet differently, and that's special for me. I love the fact that I got to play this character. It's not often that I get to play a cool guitar playing werewolf that kisses the girl. I don't get cast in that.

Well, that doesn't exist a lot in general. And speaking of fandom, I do want to cycle back to the Robot Chicken fandom for a second to ask how you approach audience feedback there.

We know that people love Bitch Pudding, so we keep finding ways to put her in stuff even though she is a horrible person. I can't believe that pop culture has made this deranged narcissist a celebrity. If the audience is like, "I love this, I'd like to see more of that original character," we try. It's not often; the audience isn't clamoring for Sunshine Cowboy.