To understand Stoopid Buddy Stoodios—the production house behind Robot Chicken, SuperMansion, and Buddy Thunderstruck—it helps to know about the Winnebago. That 1973 Winnebago was the first office of Buddy System Studios, founded by Eric Towner and John “Harv” Harvatine IV in 2008. They bought it off of Craigslist, bad brakes and all.
“The guy was selling it for $2,500 out of Compton, and we offered him a thousand bucks, and he took it,” Towner says.
Now, it sits at the middle of Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, a lynchpin in both a metaphorical and physical sense; that’s where the director of the studio’s latest offerings has his offices. It’s also where Harv and Towner found the list that would become the Buddy Code–“Thou Shalt Be A Good Buddy”, “Thou Shalt Create Everyday”, “Thou Shalt Communicate, Not Complicate”, and “Thou Shalt Respect The ‘Bago” are just some examples—that they keep pasted up around the studio.
Stoopid Buddy was formed in 2012 when Robot Chicken creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich merged their Stoopid Monkey shingle with Towner and Harvatine’s Buddy System. You’d be forgiven for missing Stoopid Buddy Stoodios. Though the animation company is one of the driving forces behind Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim—and is just down the road from the street from the skyscraper bearing the company’s name—it’s in one of the most nondescript office buildings in Burbank, right next to the 5 Freeway. The studio looks like any other office park in any other part of the city. Indeed, the buildings surround Central Casting. My guide tells me that they’re waiting for the company to move so Stoopid Buddy can annex that building into their stop-motion empire.
Inside, though, you’d never mistake Stoopid Buddy for anyplace else. A massive humping robot dominates their reception area, which is also home to countless action figures and a cadre of smiling nerds that produce some of the most inventive and bizarre animation to grace the small screen.
Just miles from Warner Brothers, the seven-building complex is literally a studio in miniature. The nearly 250 writers, animators, and VFX personnel work on sets representing everything from Christmas to Star Wars to The Walking Dead. Of course, all of those sets are in miniature. So it’s possible to walk, as I did, from a set parodying Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to one of Wonder Woman to one of Darth Vader’s entry onto Princess Leia’s Corellian cruiser within feet of each other.
Stoopid Buddy’s offerings are all strange but of a piece with each other. Robot Chicken, returning soon for its ninth season, is essentially SNL with puppets—puppets that fight, fuck and sometimes explode. I first stumbled upon the show as a very stoned teenager, when I would plant myself in front of Adult Swim and watch whatever passed in front of my eyes. (If I have to explain the visceral appeal of watching your favorite action figures fight, fuck and sometimes explode, then we are fundamentally very different people.) The most successful of all the Stoopid Buddy offerings, that show has spawned both Star Wars and Walking Dead specials.
The Star Wars special came about after a phone call to the Stoopid Monkey offices that Senreich and Green didn’t want to answer.
“We did a sketch called ‘The Emperor Phone Call’ sketch on Robot Chicken and it aired, and I think it was like, two or three days after it aired our caller ID lit up with LucasFilm,” Senreich says. “And Seth and I were like, ‘You take it, you take it.’ We didn’t want to answer the phone ‘cause we thought we were going to get sued. I ended up picking up that phone, and I was like, ‘Hi. Matt Senreich and Seth Green’s office. Can I help you?’ Pretending to be an assistant just in case, and the woman on the phone is like, ‘My name is Tracy Cannobbio, and I was calling for Matt and Seth.’ I’m like, ‘Who is this?’ She’s like, ‘This is Tracy Cannobbio.’ I’m like, ‘Come on. That can’t be your name. You don’t work at Lucas Film.’ And literally her name is Cannobbio.”
George Lucas had seen the sketch and invited Green and Senreich along for a tour. During dinner, Senreich popped the question.
“While we were there I was like, ‘You know what would be awesome: If we did an all Robot Chicken Star Wars?’ Seth punches me under the table like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
Three weeks later, the special got the green light.
The talent involved in Stoopid Buddy would cause anybody to stand up and take notice. Just outside the voice recorder studios—where I spotted Seth Green pacing on the phone—you’ll see trees painted on the walls holding Polaroids of people like Chris Pine, Max Greenfield, Tyler, the Creator, Jon Bernthal and others who have lent voices to the puppets that comprise the Stoopid Buddy empire. That talent comes around in part because the ask is generally 15 to 30 minutes of voice work, as opposed to hours of makeup, and in part because of the playful spirit of the heads of the studio.
“I think it’s important, though—for kids and adults, too—to unplug every now and again, because we’re so connected to the rest of the world all the time,” Towner says. “We’re constantly looking at things and checking things out. I grew up in a small town by farms and stuff. We didn’t have TV, so it was like making our own. We were just entertaining ourselves, my brothers and such. I think the tools that everybody has now to make things, is amazing. I think if we’d had those when we were younger, it would have been a dream. I think finding a balance between technology and the analog nature of toys and stop-motion, is cool.”
Though toys are massively available on a scale the founders don’t recognize, they’ve retained their crate-digging ethos.
“I like that bootleg stuff, the bootleg figures,” Harvatine says. “What I like about it, like an action figure that looks hand-made, not practical, it doesn’t look perfect, and then it’s packaged. There’s something I find very appealing about that.”
Harvatine is the most obsessive about his toys, though he does share selectively. Senreich jokingly compares him to Kathy Bates’ character in Misery. Harvatine invites neighborhood kids and parents over to his Dad Shack to play with some of his toys, though others are just for show.
Stoopid Buddy has been something of a spawning ground for exciting talent. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator and star Rachel Bloom was hired to write on Robot Chicken after Senreich and co. saw her “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” video online. Emmy-winning writer Shelby Fero was hired based on a standout Twitter feed. Hiring younger people also highlights the sometimes-invisible generational divide between the analog world of the founders and their younger counterparts.
“There was a moment at one of the conventions, comic conventions, where we started talking about Smurfs. We were like, ‘Hey, who here’s seen Smurfs?’ Everyone raised their hands. Then, I looked at the camera and I think I said, ‘The cartoon?’ And no one raised their hands, and they put their hands down, there was like four people. I’m like, ‘Wait! The movie?’ And everyone raised their hand, again. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ We had this moment where we started laughing. We were like, 'If we do Smurf sketches, it has to be about the movie.’ Everybody started laughing. You realize at that place, this is a very different audience.”
Like all successful companies, Stoopid Buddy is diversified. There’s Buddy Builds, which creates things like a giant bird that Travis Scott used onstage at Coachella and a massive costume that answers the question: What if a Winnebago were a Transformer? There’s also Buddy Spots, which creates ads for entities like TBS, LEGO Batman, Ziploc and more.
The studio is full of Easter eggs like those. The VFX department shows off on an arcade cabinet modified to play reels for lucky visitors. Next door, model mockups and puppet hands are 3D printed in a process that has just been brought in house—saving a great deal of time and money. In a pair of stairwells hang custom tapestries commissioned to gift to Adult Swim executives, complete with references to shows like Squidbillies. Dioramas dot the premises, including some of which even my tour guide doesn’t know the provenance. That do-everything ethos defines and drives Stoopid Buddy, which will be creating demented stop-motion animation for the foreseeable future.