The second season of the stop-motion superhero parody SuperMansion won’t be streaming on Crackle until 2017, but its fans will have a special gift to unwrap tomorrow with a brand new Christmas special. SuperMansion: War on Christmas premieres on Sony’s free streaming network Crackle tomorrow with its regular all-star line-up of voice talents, including Bryan Cranston, Workaholics’s Jillian Bell and comedy superstar Keegan-Michael Key. If SuperMansion’s version of Rankin/Bass-flavored comic book shenanigans seems to owe a debt to Robot Chicken, well, that comes naturally: the show was cooked up by Robot Chicken’s co-creator Matthew Senreich and one of its regular writers and actors, Zeb Wells.
Paste recently talked to Key and Senreich about the new Christmas special, their love of comic books and their favorite Christmas specials and movies from their youth. We hit on the hard topics during our no-holds-barred chat, debating questions like “how do you make one superhero satire stand out from another?” and “what would a real-life Captain America sound like?” and “is it easier to relate to Canadians or outer space aliens?” Before reading, you might want to gird yourself for the truths we discovered.
Paste: Is this an actual holiday special or one of those British Christmas specials where it’s just a new one-off episode that airs near the holiday?
Matthew Senreich: This is very Christmas. For some reason, even as a Jew, I like to have fun with all holidays, but Zeb Wells my partner had a twist on the holiday that we couldn’t pass up. With a different view of Santa Claus.
Paste: How does Santa fit into the world you’re created there?
Senreich: He really has inner conflicts of how he’s going to his job done in such a short amount of time. How does one pull something like that off, and where is one’s breaking point when having to deal with the stresses of that kind of job?
: Not to mention, in this particular show, having never done this job before.
Senreich: These are particularly strange circumstances.
Paste: So we’ve got a fill-in Santa, it sounds like.
Senreich: I don’t know how much of a comic book geek you are—you know the Mister Mxyzptlk character from the Superman universe? [He’s a magical trickster who regularly bedevils Superman—Ed.] We have our twist on that, this doll that gives a wish, and the wish is for Santa Claus to become real. Santa comes to live and realizes what his role is and has all this inner turmoil and has to figure out what to do, all in the presence of the League of Freedom.
Key: Who aren’t always the most helpful of individuals
Paste: Okay, so it’s about the holiday. What are some of your favorite Christmas specials or movies?
Senreich: For me, it was always Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s probably part of the reason why I’m in stop-motion animation. It’s a reason we’ve been doing Robot Chicken Christmas specials for the last nine or ten years. I think they’re even doing a whole slew of them airing for Adult Swim. It would definitely be Rudolph, it’s just that toy coming to life that looks so cool for me, and captivated me every year.
Paste: Did you like the other Rankin/Bass Christmas specials?
Senreich: Again, I’m Jewish. I was always like “what’s this Christmas thing? Why do they have a tree? What does this have to do with Jesus?” I had to find all this out. Rudolph helped me understand.
Paste: Keegan, how about you?
Key: The movie A Christmas Story is something that’s been a part of my life for a very long time. I think it’s a movie I saw in the theater as a child, and I’ve watched it at least every other year since I’ve been alive. It’s one of those stories where the backdrop is Christmas more than anything, and it’s the story of a family, and I’ve always felt that the wish of the main character was so clear, and Peter Billingsley was classic in that role. And the other thing that’s always been interesting to me is that you can tell the movie comes from a book because the characters are all so well-drawn and fleshed out. There are really terrific performances in this lovely, heartfelt movie. It really is a classic of storytelling and filmmaking and it has a sense of nostalgia that never goes away that I really enjoy.
Senreich: I just wanted to add that they air it for 24 hours at Christmas on TBS, I think. It’s the one movie that I watch with my dad every time we’re in the same room together. We will watch it from whatever point it’s at until the end. It’s that bonding experience. It’s about that family and that’s what makes it so strong.
Paste: It’s impossible to avoid now.
Key: It really has a great feeling to it.
Paste: It’s almost sad when the 24 hour marathon ends, because it’s basically a sign that Christmas is over now.
Senreich: I wonder if they have a little tag at the end on TBS—“hey, we’re done with Christmas, guys, see you later!” And what’s that next show they put on?
Paste: Guess we’ll have to find out in a couple of weeks.
Senreich: Instead of waiting up for Santa I’ll wait up to see that.
Paste: So Matt, I know you’re into comics and your co-creator Zeb Wells has written comics. Keegan, were you a comic book guy growing up?
Key: I was a comic book guy in junior high and the lion’s share of high school. I became a bit of a collector. I think the first comic book I ever started collecting in earnest, looking at it as a commodity as opposed to a form of entertainment, was the very first Punisher series. Prior to that I had always been a big X-Men fan. A lot of the guys I was in Boys Scout with at 11, 12, 13, that was kind of our reason for living, was sitting around and talking, very lengthy, intense discussions about how could you actually kill Wolverine. If you hit him in the jugular vein, would he just bleed forever? Very important questions.
Paste: I feel like now in the comics they’ve obliterated him down to the atom and he’s still somehow regenerated.
Key: It’s an interesting power to give someone. He’s one of the few characters in the world who’s stayed edgy and dangerous and sexy but he is ostensibly immortal so the challenge with him will always be how to keep him relevant since he can’t die and I think that’s an amazing exercise to watch for, what is it now, three or four decades.
Paste: There’s a certain kind of comics fan who hates Superman because they think he’s boring because he’s too powerful, but Wolverine’s basically as indestructible at this point, and if you hate Superman there’s a good chance you really like Wolverine.
Key: He’s as indestructible but for some reason he’s really captured our imagination. It’s fascinating to me and I can’t figure out why. There’s something about his ruggedness, the fact that he’s an antihero, that makes him more special in a way. He has more personality and depth than Superman does, I think. Maybe also because he’s an alien.
Paste: Well, he’s Canadian.
Key: He is Canadian. He’s an illegal alien.
Paste: Keegan, I know in SuperMansion you play the Captain American stand-in of the team. Did you like that character when you were reading comics?
Key: As a child, remember—I’m old enough to have watched the syndicated versions of those old ‘60s Marvel cartoons, where they just take the panel from the comics and move them. And then they’d make the mouths move. That’s how I was introduced to Captain America, and my dad really liked Captain America. There’s always something very powerful that resonates with you see an adult get excited about something. I was 8 when the UHF channels were replaying all the old ‘60s Spider-Man and Marvel cartoons. All of that stuff is a big part of my upbringing.
Paste: I grew up watching those old cartoons too, and they drilled a love of Jack Kirby art into my brain because all of those shows are basically just Jack Kirby panels brought to life.
Senreich: Yeah, I love it.
Key: Matt, I’m sure that stuff must have really resonated with you.
Senreich: Yeah, I was the kid at 16 applying for internships at Marvel. It changed my world when I got to work there and meet a lot of these guys and watch them actually draw in front of my eyes. It’s inspired my entire career path.
Paste: Matt, did you do any writing for Marvel?
Senreich: Oddly I did not. I started interning at Marvel when I was 16 and every summer I’d get internships at different companies. I followed Jim Shooter around for a while. I did Valiant, and he did Broadway Comics, and everywhere he went. He kind of inspired me and taught me how to write. And oddly right out of college I got a job at Wizard Magazine and ended up becoming a magazine editor and writer for eight years. I stayed in the comic book world, got to know everybody in the comics industry, but didn’t necessarily write comics, oddly.
Paste: I know Shooter is controversial in the comics industry. Maybe because I was like nine or ten when he was Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, but when I think of the “classic” Marvel era, it feels like his departure was the end of a lineage or continuity that could be traced directly back to the 1960s.
Senreich: He’s a very dominant personality, and he has a very specific vision of how he wants things done, and if you don’t get along with that you can see why there’d be conflict. But for me, it only helped structure me and helped me get things done. I found him fascinating to work for because he saw a much larger picture and a much larger world than just individual comic book stories.
Paste: Right. And that’s a big draw for Marvel, historically. Obviously the movies are really capitalizing on that.
Senrech: Kevin Feige has a similar approach, I’d say. You watch those movies and how they all tie together, and there’s that little glimmer [of the wider universe] in each one. Watching Doctor Strange for a second time, he’s in that car ride and making references to other things happening in the Marvel Universe, and it makes you wonder about the specific stuff he’s talking about. One of them is the War Machine moment, when you realize that’s the patient he’s talking about right there. The other one is Ms. or Captain Marvel—I geeked out.
Paste: Getting back to SuperMansion: There are so many superhero parodies over the last few years, and so many shows that focus on nerd stuff like this. Do you keep track of the competition to make sure there’s no unintentional duplication or anything? Since you worked at Robot Chicken, clearly you’re a big part of the creation of this genre.
Senreich: It’s getting to the heart of what a character is. When creating SuperMansion, we’d take an archetype of a character. If you use Keegan’s character of American Ranger, if you just take the concept of Captain America, and you put it in the real world, how does it work? That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s less making fun of Captain America than it’s saying, “alright, this guy was born in the ‘30s, maybe even the ‘20s. He grew up, went to World War II, what is his political point of view? What has he grown up with?” And suddenly he gets zapped into today and he’s got some issues to deal with. This is a very different world. That’s something Captain America isn’t going to be talking about.
Paste: Do you do any kind of research into a character like that, Keegan?
Key: The conversation Matt just had with you is the exact conversation he and Zeb had with me. The biggest thing we worked on was literally trying to find his voice. We were trying to dial it in and what we were looking at originally had this very strident Dudley Do-Right quality. But with lots of comedy today we’re looking to find the most real and grounded piece of a character and then spin off from there. So him having this voice—what helped us get what we got, if I tried to make him sound like a cartoon, we’re not doing the character justice. Whereas if I make him sound like what I’d like talk like while doing PSAs or newsreels in the 1940s… That again falls to the realm of reality. If you were brought here to do this, how would you sound? It’s something that’s nice and sticky for an actor, as an actor can always ground themselves in something that’s real, or something they can relate to. And Zeb and Matt and Seth and everybody, the whole creative team, has really exceeded at that. Where would the characters’ hearts really be?
SuperMansion: War on Christmas premieres on Crackle on Thursday December 8.