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What’s next? Check out robots battling to death on cable TV

SHARE What’s next? Check out robots battling to death on cable TV

PASADENA, Calif. — There's one very surprising thing about the upcoming Comedy Central series "BattleBots," in which homemade robots fight to the death.

Early indications are that it could be quite entertaining. "BattleBots" is just goofy enough to work.

This despite the fact that the entire premise of the thing is robots beating the crud out of each other in front of thousands of screaming fans.

"They're fighting to the death," said Randy Sklar, who, along with his twin brother, Jason, is a reporter on the show. "It's not like the World Wrestling Federation or anything like that where it's fake. It's real. There are real pieces of robot flying around."

"This is not a blood sport, it's an oil sport," said executive producer Mack Anderson.

"It will be the first robotic death on American television," said Bill Hilary, executive vice president and general manager of Comedy Central.

The thing about "BattleBots" is that, while it can be very funny, the participants are very earnest.

"They're deadly serious about it," Anderson said. "I mean, people spend years designing these robots. I ran into one of the competitors in San Francisco, and he was pacing the streets late at night. And I said, 'What's the matter, my friend?'

"He said, 'I've got to face (the robot named) Biohazard tomorrow, and I'm a wreck!' "

Yet another contestant drove his van cross-country for the San Francisco competition, breaking down three times on the way.

"He still made it there. And his robot, like, died in the first round," Jason Sklar said. "But he still wanted to be there, and he was hurt. And these people take it very seriously because it's real sports."

And, make no mistake about it, this is genuine competition.

"We have lightweight robots, heavyweight and super-heavyweight robots," Anderson said. (The heaviest robot to date weighed 480 pounds. The robots range in price from a few hundred dollars for the lightweight models all the way up to $75,000 for one of the super-heavyweights. And sometimes hundreds — even thousands — of man-hours spent building the robots.)

"BattleBots" is a single-elimination tournament of sorts. And there are rules — but not a whole lot.

"We don't allow flammables," said Trey Roski, the creator and president of the BattleBots organization. "Projectiles have to be tethered. We have very few rules, but they're basically just safety rules."

"We have no nuclear devices, don't forget," added executive producer Bradley Anderson.

The competition takes place in the "battlebox," a court or playing field that includes hazards like buzz saws and spikes that rise out of the floor and pneumatic hammers off in one corner.

"A lot of robots, they don't necessarily have to possess their own weapon," Jason Sklar said. "If they're a wedge robot, then they will push their (opponent) into the hazards. There's a lot of strategy involved. It's not just all muscle. There's a lot of brains involved."

"Part of the strategy is making good use of the hazards in order to kill the other guy," said Mack Anderson.

To hear the guys who are really, really into this, "BattleBots" is more than just a game — it's educational TV.

"A lot of 'BattleBots' is about education," Roski said. "It's about kids. It's about teaching people how to build things. . . . Building these robots is difficult, and you have to be a little bit intelligent. It's a hands-on thing that kids are doing. So it's very much for education."

"And, also, people really like to see (expletive) flying around," Randy Sklar said.

(Which seems more like it.)

Comedy Central has ordered 13 episodes of the show, to debut sometime this fall. (There's also a pay-per-view special in August, and ESPN is also going to do a special, tentatively slated for January.) And the shows will be both about the killer robots and the people who build them.

"There are some great stories behind the people themselves. There are great human-interest stories," Randy Sklar said.

"We're in the process now of doing a lot of up-close-and-personals, sort of like, well, just like the Olympics," said Mack Anderson. "We're treating it as Comedy Central's sports franchise."

One contestant builds robots that build cars when he's not working on his BattleBot.

"He built a robot out of a wheelbarrow," Jason Sklar said. "He literally beat his plowshare into a sword."

Even before it goes on the air, "BattleBots" already has fans. The competition in San Francisco was completely sold out. "People were scalping tickets," said Mack Anderson. "People were saying, 'I've waited all year to come to this.' It wasn't like we had to recruit an audience. . . . People were crazy for this thing."

And the audience included a wide range of people.

"There were the Goth people and then there were the families," Mack Anderson said. "Then there were the people who had so many tattoos you could barely see them."

"It knows no race or creed," added Randy Sklar.

And, as with all sports, there are the surprising underdogs. Like one teenage girl "who had a plastic ladybug on the front of her robot," said Tony Fox, Comedy Central's senior vice president of communications, "and everybody could not imagine how this could possibly be competitive. As it turns out, her secret weapon was to cup over the top of her competitor . . . and she started dragging it toward the buzzsaw blades. The place went crazy."

"She was beating these older guys who were serious tech-heads," Mack Anderson said.

ALL'S WELL ON THE MAFIA FRONT: HBO's president of original programming, Chris Albrecht, scoffed at reports that his company is locked in bitter contract disputes with two of the stars of "The Sopranos," Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco.

He did acknowledge that both actors asked for raises, and he indicated they're going to get them.

"We always look at people's contracts at the end of every season to see if adjustments are necessary or advisable or appropriate," Albrecht said. "We are talking to Edie and Lorraine's representatives, and those discussions are going very well. (They're) all but over."

Besides, he said, "We're going to make them an offer they can't refuse."

DEALING WITH DEATH: "The Sopranos" will, however, have to deal with the recent death of co-star Nancy Marchand. We do know that her character, mother-from-hell Livia, will be written out.

"You know, Nancy has been sick since the beginning of this production," Albrecht said. (She had lung cancer.) "So (creator/executive producer) David (Chase)'s plan was to just keep going and let the situation play itself out as it was going to play itself out.

"It's a terrible loss for the show. But the show will deal with it in real terms."

The HBO exec wasn't giving much away, but he did say that while Livia may be gone she won't be forgotten.

"The specter of Livia will be very alive within the show, not only in the physical plotlines, but also in the psyche of Tony," Albrecht said.

E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com