Titan Maximum Interview with Tom Root

Tom Root sneaks up on you. If you've ever seen a Robot Chicken panel, you've seen Tom being his quiet and unassuming self. He seems like one of the most normal guys on the Robot Chicken team. And then you read his work. And it's messed up. And disturbing. And scary. And hilarious. Tom talked to us about the new Adult Swim show he co-created with Matthew Senreich, Titan Maximum.

So, Tom, now that you're the co-creator of this series, do you feel more pressure?

I think I don't feel any more pressure than I did when we were starting Robot Chicken. I'm just wanting it to be received in the world the way we intended. You know, we're sort of sending it out there feeling like we're making something that we love and feeling like that will hopefully be enough to make other people love it, but feeling very anxious about how it's going to be taken.

So I don't feel more or less nervous than when we were launching Robot Chicken. So, I guess my position changing a little bit doesn't affect that. But I'm still just as anxious.

Is the show coming together like you thought it would or are there any surprises? Anything coming out better or worse than you thought it would?

Well, it's weird. When it's all on paper... You know, I wrote the pilot and I sort of had a vision in my head of what it was going to be. And then, every stage of making the show has sort of made... I think it's made the show better and it's also sort of erased whatever part of that original vision was there.

So, you know, the characters - it's funny, we're thinking about a potential season two, and when we talk about the characters now as opposed to starting season one, all of these characters have such clearly defined voices thanks to the amazing actors that we cast, that it just... what am I trying to say? It makes it...

Easier to write for them?

Well, actually, a little harder to write for, because when we wrote the early episodes, we could kind of make the characters whatever we wanted them to be, but now the characters are real. It's like they're real people. And the characters wouldn't do certain things and they wouldn't say certain things. We're really aware of it now and when the characters are even a little off pitch, it's really easy to hear it.

So it is easier that they're a lot of fun and we know the characters really well, but it's also harder, because they're very clearly defined.

Is there a character that you particularly identify with?

I think there's a little of me in all of those characters. You know, Willie is the nerd who's very enthusiastic about the things that he loves and I think all of us here channel some of that. I think that comes a lot from our backgrounds.

You know, all of us here love stuff that's not necessarily considered cool, or it didn't used to be before nerds got so cool. And then, you know, there are... You know, hopefully I have at least a little Jodi in me, where she's just very kind and generous. Hopefully there's a little of that.

And Palmer's sort of bravado, you know, I wouldn't say I'm a Palmer-type, but I think there's... To be in this business, you sort of have to have, you sort of have to put it out there and not worry about what other people think.

There's a little Leon in me too. I don't necessarily always want to talk to people. I want to do my own thing and be left alone and I think that's what Leon is about.

Robot Chicken is so in and out of sketches quickly and Titan has an overarching story. So what are some of the advantages / disadvantages to those two styles for you?

I think that one of the disadvantages is once we commit to a story, if we are bored by it or it's not holding together well, we can't just push the eject button after two minutes of it. And so there's a lot more forethought into what is going to make an episode entertaining for its entire length and how is it going to fit together with all the other episodes. The disadvantage to that as a comedy writer is that you feel a little less free to just sort of go crazy and do whatever you want.

But the advantage of having these overarching stories is once you feel like you're on the right track, it's not like you're inventing the entire show from scratch every time, which is what Robot Chicken is and that's its own unique form of exhausting, having to come up with completely new stuff every single episode.

Has working on both of these projects at once been difficult or do they kind of feed each other?

Well, luckily we have so far not had a lot of overlap. We finished Robot Chicken season four. That was in post while we were starting pre-production on Titan Maximum. And we haven't yet had to write both shows at the same time.

But actually, if it came down to that, I really, I almost would prefer it, because writing in one style for too long always makes my brain hurt and if I could change it up and write some continuing stories for a little while with continuing characters, and then write all the random bulls*** that we do on Robot Chicken for a little while, I think that would work out.

Is it a similar process in writing Beetlejuice, in that people sort of pitch ideas and others vote on them or is it totally different?

It's totally different, just because our writing staff is so much smaller. On Robot Chicken we've got a room full of writers, writing all day to try to win each other over at the end of the day so that we can vote on stuff.

And on Titan, we really just, we've got to... There's no such thing as voting because it's really just up to me and Matt to figure out whether something sounds right or not. And we just sort of get on the dry erase board all day and start putting ideas up and everyone throws them out and things just sort of get shaped that way.

It's not more or less collaborative, but it's less competitive. It's like on Robot Chicken, you're just trying to write ideas all day and then at the end of the day get at least a couple of your ideas into the show. And on Titan, it's more everyone working together, like "What are some potential stories? Alright, we like that story, how should it start? Who's got a good idea for a beginning or what joke goes here? This needs to be funnier, how can we make this funnier?"

It's much more everyone talking it through and less about sort of competing, polishing your ideas all day and then at the end of the day sort of having a war of ideas to see who wins.

Alright, shifting gears, you've had some elaborate Halloween costumes in the past. Do you have one planned for this year?

No, I think I'm skipping Halloween this year.

Why?

I don't like parties, so I'm going to make sure that I don't go to any Halloween parties and then I won't need to have a costume.

You could dress at home.

We don't get trick-or-treaters at my apartment complex. I could dress up, but I would be sitting at home, alone, in the dark, in my costume.

That's not sad at all. We could get a web cam.

(laughs) Well, maybe we ought to... What's that called? The thing that people do on Twitter... Ustream. We'll have a Ustream night of me sitting in my sad costume.

You guys just wrote all that stuff for Spore; are you playing any games at present?

Recently I have been playing Castle Crashers on X-Box 360. I kind of am halfway through that. I just got Batman: Arkham Asylum but I haven't gotten into it yet. I finished Tomb Raider: Underworld when that came out and I'm just now getting around to the downloadable content for that. But I haven't started that yet.

We're going to start Batman this week.

Yeah, I've heard nothing but good things about it so I really kind of can't wait to get into it.

When you guys were doing the show, did you go back and look at some of the old Eighties shows that you used to love?

That stuff is so ingrained at this point, that the answer is "No."

What were some of your favorite ones when you were a kid?

Favorite Eighties show?

Yeah.

I was really into, well at the very beginning of the Eighties, I was very into anything with superheroes in it, and there wasn't a lot. So I was watching Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, which I think was early, early Eighties. And I would watch all of the old Superfriends repeats. So I was always very excited when I could find anything with superheroes.

And then I ran the sort of boys' action gamut that everyone else my age was into, starting with, I guess He-Man was the first one - no, actually that cartoon came a little later - but, yeah, I was into He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, GI Joe, Transformers, and then sort of gave up on cartoons because I was in junior high and high school.

And then, by the very end of that decade, I think 1989 was the first year that the Beetlejuice cartoon was on the air and I thought that cartoon was awesome. I thought it was really funny. It's one of those cartoons nobody I've ever talked to has ever seen it or cares about it.

We think the new Beetlejuice DVDs have episodes of it on it.

Does it really? That's cool. You know, I thought it was really smart, especially for the time. It was actually on right before Simpsons started, so cartoons were dumb as hell and you couldn't get much out of them and that was one I thought was a little smarter. They were doing jokes about Shakespeare and stuff that was a little over my head even and I was glad that it was over my head because at least somebody was trying.

Do the older ones still hold up for you? Matt was saying he was a little disappointed when he went back and watched.

Um... I think... I'm pretty uh... They don't hold up. There's nothing in there that would even surprise you, like, "Oh, I didn't realize how cool this was." It's all way less good than you remember.

That being said, for whatever reason, we've had a fixation on Firestar for the last couple of weeks. She's just a super-powered Mary Jane, right?

That's not who she is.

We know, but when you look at her design, don't you think she's supposed to be Mary Jane, or is that just in our head?

I think you've got to understand that when they were designing that show, they were like, "Here's Spider-Man, he's the star. And then we're going to put Iceman in, who's got such cool powers, so who would be a good counterpoint for these two boys, one of which has ice power. Well, we're gonna make her a girl and we're gonna give her fire power. And therefore, her color scheme will be red."

Mary Jane might have actually shown up in that series at some point.

We don't think so. We read that actually it was supposed to be Human Torch but they didn't have rights for him so they needed someone to fill in that spot. But we were really struck by how, especially when she's not in power, her pictures look exactly like Romita Senior's Mary Jane.

I'm sure that it wasn't a coincidence.

We should probably talk more about your show.

You should start a Twitter account, as Firestar, and post all of your thoughts in her voice about what it was like.

We'll talk about her dog.

Yeah.

So is there anything about Titan that we should have asked or that you'd like to say?

Let's see here... Titan Maximum is sort of like the kind of show that we always wished was on the air when we were kids in the Eighties, meaning it's got plenty of violence in it. You know, really sort of compelling character designs and robot designs and spaceships and space battles and lasers and bombs going off.

But also, it just goes a little deeper, which I really think... I think kids get the short end of the stick on that all of the time, and I think it's why Japanese animation was so compelling when we were kids. You would get a sense from Robotech or Voltron or what have you that there's just a little more going on, even if in the English dub they wouldn't give it to us, that they were thinking a little bit more, that the characters felt more real just because they went deeper.

So that's where we're coming from with the show. These characters are sort of outlandishly cartoonish most of the time, but we wanted them to be... There is more going on in their heads than is on the screen, and I don't think that was true of the cartoons in the Eighties when we were growing up.

If you had a ton of time and money, what is a fantasy project that you would do in addition to what you're doing now?

Let's see... If I had unlimited time and money... I can think of ideas that I've had that would have a budget of about three hundred million dollars if we actually tried to make them.

Mike Fasolo, a Robot Chicken writer, and I, we wrote, ten years ago or more, this script about a robot apocalypse where robots had taken over the world and this one girl has to go find a kung fu master to teach her the greatest martial arts move in history. And once she has learned it, she'll be able to fight the robots.

And that script really would have cost about three hundred and fifty million dollars to make, it would have had two solid hours of state of the art CGI, it would have had more nudity than maybe any movie since Russ Meyer, and the name of it was FuBot. If I had unlimited time and money, I would make that kung fu robot movie.

We'd rather watch that than Transformers.

I wish Michael Bay would use his station in this industry to make movies like FuBot.

Titan Maximum premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 11:30p ET/PT on [adult swim]