After 10 seasons and countless jokes about action figures pooping, having sex, and dying, the best-known Robot Chicken sketch is still probably one of its earliest: “The Emperor’s Phone Call.” When the Star Wars parody first aired in Season 2, Robot Chicken’s creators knew they were taking a legal risk by poking fun at Lucasfilm. Instead, they ended up setting the Adult Swim show on a new path towards success, while also teaching George Lucas a valuable lesson about taking himself (and the franchise he created) a little less seriously.
Inverse spoke to Robot Chicken co-creators Seth Green and Matt Senreich, along with executive producer Tom Root, Adult Swim executive Keith Crofford, and others as part of an extensive oral history of the stop-motion sketch show. Below, find an excerpt of the full article that explains the unlikely story of how the Robot Chicken Star Wars special came to be.
Seth Green: We love Star Wars, and it’s obviously ripe for parody. By the second season we had done two different sketches. One was about some silly interpretations of spoilers. The other was where the Emperor receives a phone call from Darth Vader after the death star has been destroyed and he has a really mundane conversation with Vader. We liked juxtaposing a businessman doing very mundane office duties with something as fantastic as the Emperor.
Tom Root: It was weirdly frustrating because we were told if you mess with Lucasfilm they’re gonna sue. So I never wrote any Star Wars sketches, but Doug Goldstein wrote as many as he wanted, and he was getting Star Wars sketches into this show.
Matt Senreich: A couple days after it aired, I got a call on my phone and it said Lucasfilm on the Caller ID. I looked at Seth and he was like, “Oh my God.” So I pick up the phone and say, “Hi, you’ve reached Matthew Senreich and Seth Green’s office. How can I help you?” pretending to be an assistant. After some confusion, she was like, “I love the sketch that you guys did.”
Seth Green: George had seen the sketch. He’d showed it at a board meeting as an example of the type of thing he liked because it wasn’t cannibalizing the sincere value of the brand. Instead, it was expanding on their sense of humor and helping an audience find a different access point.
They invited us to come up to Lucasfilm and take a tour of all of their facilities and meet with some of their top executives and discuss if there was an opportunity for us to produce something with them.
Matt Senreich: We didn’t meet George, but we had lunch with the marketing and publicity departments. Then I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a whole episode just based on Star Wars?” I still remember Seth stepping on my foot when I did it, but I knew that was the one shot I was going to get.”
Seth Green: I didn’t think that they would go for it, but they did. Once we got the go ahead, we started writing sketches with their consent and approval.
Keith Crofford: George Lucas is the one we had to thank because he became a fan of Robot Chicken, and that sparked an interest in George, who’s a very reclusive and private guy. But he struck up a friendship with Matt and Seth and so he was on board from the get-go. It was one of the easier deals we ever did because back then, when he owned the company, it was just, George wants to do it, so let’s make it happen.
Tom Root: It wasn’t a challenge for us to write nothing but Star Wars sketches. We had been waiting our whole lives to write nothing but Star Wars sketches. We had thousands of them waiting to get out after being fans for our entire existence.
Seth Green: In one sketch, our nerd character meets George Lucas at a convention. We thought it would be funny to show how fans react to George and how he would react to those kinds of fans. We wanted him to do his own voice. It seemed really unlikely, but he was game to do it.
Matt Senreich: I remember George coming in to record and he took the script and he threw it up in the air and was like, “I’m just going to be the actor.” Then Seth, who had met him before, was like, “Okay, I’m just going to be the director and tell you to do it one time, exactly how it’s on the page.”
And so they were just bantering with each other and I still hadn’t even said hello to him yet. I always feel like I’m always the dad to Seth and George, who are like 8-year-old kids together.
Seth Green: We got him to do his actual voice. Again, it seems entirely improbable, but that’s the great thing about George Lucas. In addition to being a brilliant innovator and a technological pioneer, he has an incredible sense of humor and an honest awareness of how people perceive him. He was willing to play around with that impression so he couldn’t be easily defined.
Matt Senreich: After Star Wars, we did a DC Comics special because Geoff Johns, who was at DC at the time, was a writing partner of mine from way back. Same thing with The Walking Dead special. I was at dinner with Robert Kirkman and he was like, “How come you haven’t done Walking Dead?” But Star Wars definitely set the pace for it, which was really nice.