Last December, IndieWire witnessed something that doesn’t happen all that often these days: The recording of an audio commentary track for an episode of television. In the “Robot Chicken” offices in Los Angeles, CA, I sat in a recording booth and watched Seth Green, Matt Senreich, and and director Tom Sheppard make fun of “The Robot Chicken Walking Dead Special: Look Who’s Walking” — alongside “The Walking Dead” executive producers Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman, whose show was being parodied on the screen in front of them.
It was parody on top of parody, though as Senreich told IndieWire later in a phone interview, “I always say ‘Robot Chicken’ doesn’t make fun of things, it has fun with things… it just feels like a bunch of friends hanging out having a good time.” He paused. “I know that sounds really cheesy to say.”
But that tone permeated the recording session, as all the producers delighted over Michael Cudlitz’s singing voice, Andrew Lincoln’s comedy chops, and the casting choices that led to Daniel Radcliffe performing a key role in the special. “Working hand and hand with the creators of these properties is part of the fun,” Senreich said. “It’s lightening them up to joke around with us.”
When it came to the actual special, the “Robot Chicken” team used the show’s actual cast to spoof their own characters — one detail gleaned from the commentary is that Melissa McBride, who plays Carol on the show, was far funnier than anticipated when she was in the recording booth. In addition, Gimple and Kirkman were also involved in the writing: Senreich said the writing of the special took three weeks, with Gimple in the room every day for at least an hour or so, and Kirkman calling in regularly “to just give us shit over the phone.”
Added Senreich, “[Kirkman’s] got a dark sense of humor if you don’t know him, by the way. I will point that out. He’s got the straight faced sense of humor that you don’t expect.”
The 22-minute “Look Who’s Walking” special originally premiered on Adult Swim last October, and was released on digital and DVD/Blu-ray just a few weeks ago. You can buy the digital copy with the click of a button on Amazon, but you won’t get the commentary — something people increasingly care less about, judging from the ongoing decline in DVD sales.
Plenty of directors still do commentaries — Taika Waititi’s solo track on “Thor: Ragnarok” is notoriously hilarious, as are Rian Johnson’s recorded insights on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — but they aren’t nearly as much a part of the zeitgeist these days.
Senreich is still a fan of these commentaries. “There are little bits and pieces about the actual property itself that you may not have known — why certain things were created the way that they were created,” he said.
But for him, the biggest draw is “getting to know the personality of the people behind it. Which is what I love.”
Two of his favorite commentaries are the ones on “Escape From New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” specifically for Kurt Russell’s thoughts. “The ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ one, [Russell] doesn’t remember any of it,” he said. “Watching and listening to him have this flashback memory to the movie that, growing up, I watched any time it was on HBO. I would just catch it while it was on and watch for the rest of the way through. It was fun seeing his perspective of it, when it was a staple of my childhood.”
Added Senreich, “It’s getting to know the personality of person that you’ve admired and looked up to in some capacity. Also, just that little intimate knowledge that this is something I’ve watched for however long, and here is this little piece of information that I never knew existed.”
Similarly, those listening to the “Robot Chicken” and “Walking Dead” producers goof around with each other on the commentary track for “Look Who’s Walking” will get a taste of their personalities and friendly back-and-forth, which goes all the way back to the special’s origins.
“It was at San Diego Comic-Con, we were at dinner together,” Senreich said. “[Kirkman] was giving me crap about how we did these DC specials and why I haven’t done one with him. I was like, ‘OK.'”
Kirkman, in the commentary, tells the story in a similar fashion, adding that he feels like he wants to do everything that “Star Wars” has done. The producers then proceeded to goof on the idea of adding Jar-Jar Binks to the “Walking Dead” universe.
When it came to writing the parody elements, Senreich said that it wasn’t too hard to keep the nature of the parody in good fun. “You establish a shorthand and you find where that line is. If you cross it occasionally, they’ll hit back hard,” he said.
That didn’t mean there weren’t bumps in the road. “I think the joke that probably hit a little bit the hardest to Scott Gimple was the bullet to the baseball bat — how that would never work,” he said. “I think that hurt him a little bit. He actually brought in all this research that they had done, on how a bat could block a bullet. ‘It’s all there, its all there.’ It was just funny, how like, it wasn’t really a joke anymore. It was like, ‘Hey guys, you might find this funny, but this is true.'”
One sketch that Senreich remembered Gimple enjoying was a cut scene about how “everybody had eye patches. [Gimple] really leaned into that one a lot. I just remember him pitching a lot of jokes and dialogue for that one. We kept asking him what other characters are going to have eye patches.”
The experience of making the special, Kirkman says at the end of the commentary, “was a great release for the actors who did it and the fanbase, because our show is so insanely serious.” The previous 22 straight minutes of jokes and laughs seemed to prove his point.
And while it was fun to observe the actual recording of the commentary, when I watched it at home, a few months later, the experience wasn’t too dissimilar. It did feel, in fact, like the producers were in the room with me, sharing their thoughts on what we were watching.
“I think the main reason that people still buy DVDs is that intimate conversation with that person who makes it,” Senreich said. “All the other type of material that you put on a DVD can end up on YouTube or other things. But you don’t get to really have that one-on-one interpersonal relationship with the people that are giving that commentary.”
“The Robot Chicken Walking Dead Special: Look Who’s Walking” is now available for download, as well as (if you want the commentary track) on DVD and Blu-ray.