INTERVIEW BY ROCCO CASTORO
PHOTOS BY JESPER DAMSGAARD LUND
Sometimes I find it hard to believe a person like Robert Smigel actually exists. He’s made a good living pouring salt in the wounds of popular culture, and he’s done it in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and innovative. There is no other person on earth who can get away with screaming “Asshole!” in Simon Cowell’s face multiple times on national television just because a dog puppet is hovering between them.
But besides Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Smigel has been responsible for a large chunk of the best American comedic television of the past 25 years. Throughout the mid-80s to early 90s, he wrote some of the most memorable sketches to appear on the Second Coming of Saturday Night Live. In 1996 he became the executive producer of The Dana Carvey Show, which lasted for only eight episodes but was a template for the future of television comedy and served as an amniotic sac for people like Steve Carell, Louis CK, and Stephen Colbert. It also spawned The Ambiguously Gay Duo (its titular characters voiced by Carell and Colbert), which after Carvey’s cancellation ended up airing on SNL among an ongoing series of animated shorts called TV Funhouse that eventually became one of the only reasons to watch the show.
The cartoons led to a dedicated TV Funhouse series on Comedy Central that aired in late 2000 and was the first kids’ show blatantly made for grown-ups. It ran for just one season, but you can easily see the influence it had on the perverse short-form stuff found on places like Adult Swim and Funny or Die. Smigel was also the initial head writer for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where he conceived Triumph and a whole bunch of other recurring sketches my dad thought I was stupid for staying up late to watch as a kid.
Smigel agreed to this interview on the condition that I refrain from asking questions about the intellectual-property situation regarding Triumph and NBC because it could cause him a lot of unnecessary grief. He also said he did not wish to comment on the Jay Leno versus Conan shitshow altogether. I was fine with that because a) I was not looking to resuscitate a dead horse, and b) it’s pretty easy to guess what he thinks about the situation. Above all else, I wanted to speak with Smigel because he’s figured out a way to distill honesty into comedy without compromising the laughs or coming off as preachy.
Vice: Most of your work relies on subverting childhood entertainment like cartoons and puppets and kid shows to poke fun at adult topics. Do you think your style of comedy taps into greater truths than a typical stand-up routine or sitcom?
Robert Smigel: I would hope so. I think you’re ultimately more effective anytime you can be less specific when you’re trying to make fun of things. Your scope is wider and there’s more art to it. I’ll do something right down the middle if it’s too funny to ignore, but sometimes it’s almost joyless to go that way.
Did you grow up watching a lot of cartoons and reading comic books?
People assume that I loved superhero cartoons when I was a kid, but I actually didn’t. What I loved about them was their theme songs, and then I would turn the channel back to Magilla Gorilla. I was a very weird kid in that I could not sit through anything on TV that took itself seriously. I did, however, love the George Reeves Superman show because my sister got me into it. I also remember loving Lassie. My sister and I would literally kiss the TV at the end of the Lassie credits. I couldn’t follow stories, though. If someone asked me about the story line for a particular episode I would’ve just said, “I don’t know, but she’s so brave and beautiful.” My favorite cartoon was Peanuts—well, more so the comic strip than the cartoon—and I loved Hanna-Barbera stuff. The Adam West Batman series is one of my favorite shows ever. Everyone in my class loved Batman, but none of them thought it was funny. They thought it was serious, including me. I have a very vivid memory of being the only one in the class whose favorite show wasn’t Batman. It was Gilligan’s Island. I felt like a complete loser.
I’ve read that you initially went to college to become a dentist, which is perhaps the most humorless profession in the world besides terrorism. What happened?
Dentistry is a profession that’s often passed on, especially when I was a kid. There was no glamour in dentistry. There were a million jokes about being a dentist; they were like mothers-in-law. My father’s father was a dentist, and he didn’t really enjoy it. I didn’t particularly want to be a dentist. But in my mind, I had no confidence that I could succeed in show business or writing. It seemed way out of my reach. I would think about it because I was funny at school, but what I really wanted to do when I was a little kid was to be a cartoonist. I was very good at drawing popular cartoon characters, but it just seemed like a pipe dream. Going into dentistry was a completely fear-based decision. It’s strange because I was a complete pain in the ass in terms of making fun of my teachers and friends, but at the same time I took life very seriously and didn’t want to fuck up. I went to Cornell and the entire time I knew that I really didn’t want to be a dentist. Science-related stuff in general gave me the most trouble, so I dreaded going through pre-dental and I sucked at it. I failed so badly at what I was doing that my parents felt sorry for me. I transferred to NYU to study communications. No one should study communications. [laughs]
Yeah, that’s what I studied at college and look where it got me. It was a tragic mistake.
It’s a complete waste of time, the last thing you should be doing at college. I would take radio production and TV production and whatever—you’d alternate between different “jobs.” It was always the weeks where I was supposed to be the writer or the director or the performer when I would shine. It reminded me that I wanted to be a performer. Everything else was a waste of time. There happened to be a stand-up-comedy contest at NYU, and I didn’t think anyone at the school knew me because I wasn’t allowed to live in a dorm so I thought the element of surprise would work in my favor. I had to stay with my parents because they lived in Manhattan and the school wouldn’t allow me to take up a spot on campus. It was a very strange time in my life. Then I entered this contest and ended up being one of the winners. It changed everything. I was like, “Wow, I made strangers laugh!” Ultimately, I got to perform at the Comic Strip comedy club after winning another contest. I had a very strange act where I would come on and wear a cotton-candy beard, dressed as an Orthodox Jew with a very dour face, and slowly turn the pages of the Chumash—licking my finger each time I turned a page. I would do that until people started laughing and then I would eat some of my beard.
From there you ended up in Chicago with Conan and Bob Odenkirk, where you took part in an improv revue called Happy Happy Good Show. It seems kind of weird that you wanted to be in the comedy business but moved from New York to Chicago.
Around the same time I was doing stuff at the Comic Strip I ran into the actor Tim Kazurinsky, who had just started on SNL. I was obsessed with the show, and he was shocked that I recognized him. SNL had just gone on temporary hiatus due to a writers’ strike a few weeks after his debut. He told me about this class in Chicago where he got his start and said I could take it over the summer. I liked the sound of that because I was so afraid of committing to anything. That was pretty much the springboard for the rest of my career. I also met my wife there.
Are you involved with SNL whatsoever these days? I’ve noticed that there haven’t been any TV Funhouse segments for a bit.
I’m not. Over the summer Lorne Michaels asked me if I would think about coming back, but I’m busy working on movie scripts right now. I have a lot of movie ideas and TV projects that I’d love to do, and it’s so hard to get them going. I’d go back to being a sketch writer if I had to but I’m not at that point right now. The problem with TV Funhouse was that its budget was too big to sustain. It’s very expensive to turn around cartoons that look good in such a short amount of time. Looking back, I never felt bad that NBC forced him to put an end to it because I couldn’t believe I got to do it for 11 years. When I first started TV Funhouse my attitude was that I’d do it for a couple of years, and then it got to the point where I couldn’t believe I had a gig like that. I was the only person in the country who could make a cartoon about whatever I wanted that was broadcast on such a big platform. As the years went on, short-form cartoons became a much more common thing, especially on the internet. Part of me thought that what I was doing wasn’t as special anymore.
Was there ever a time when NBC executives or the standards-and-practices board intervened to the point where an entire concept had to be axed?
Some of the stuff that would make me the angriest at SNL was when I made a cartoon that would almost have a conservative point of view and they just didn’t get it. There was a cartoon that featured Pat Robertson talking about stem-cell research that segues into another cartoon about Britney Spears—this was before she married the dancer guy. Part of it was about her teaching little girls how to cut Underoos into a thong. She also sang this song about how there were so many holes you could use without making Jesus mad. In other words, you could stay a virgin by using these other holes. It didn’t have any dirty words in it, but they were just so mad at me. Meanwhile my whole point was that this girl is a role model for eight-year-olds, and maybe she shouldn’t be. We got around it eventually by making fun of the fact that they censored us, but all some of the standards-and-practices people care about is if 1 percent of the audience doesn’t get it and decides to boycott. That’s all that matters to them.
Do you feel like you’ve ever gone over the line?
Yeah, when I did the Triumph comedy album Come Poop With Me. I wrote a bunch of songs with my friends, and I thought each one was very funny individually. I wasn’t aiming for a huge audience, but the thing got picked up by Warner Bros. I didn’t really adjust the tone of the album according to the larger audience it was now going to reach because I just wanted a parody of 60s albums that had dirty songs on them. People’s expectations were much different due to the scope of the promotions. It sold incredibly well for like four weeks and then sales literally fell off a cliff. People were looking for Star Wars fans being made fun of. They got bestiality and the like and were not very happy.
During your tenure as the initial head writer for Late Night you set some pretty strict parameters for the other writers, which makes sense because the show was so cohesive. Yet I feel like that approach is unique in the world of late-night talk shows. Would you turn down ideas that might’ve been funny but didn’t fit into your idea of what the show should be?
A lot of the way that show was conceived was by thinking about what talk shows weren’t doing. Dana Carvey was asked to do that gig months before it landed in anyone else’s hands, right after Carson announced that he was retiring. Lorne knew that he was going to get to oversee the show, and the first person he wanted to host it was Carvey. He wanted Conan and I to work on it, and at that time no late-night talk show was doing any sort of sketch comedy at all. That idea expanded when it was decided that Conan would become the host. But before that happened I thought that the show would feature Carvey playing a lot of different characters. Months later Conan called me and said that this idea would work in reverse—he could be the straight man to all of these crazy characters. The sketches evolved into playing with visual jokes because Conan and I bonded over our love of cartoony humor.
In terms of parameters, it was important to me that the show have a very specific feel that was different from everyone else’s. Not only was it about doing a certain kind of comedy, it was about not doing certain types of comedy. I’ve said in other interviews that I talked Conan out of doing remote segments for the first year, which makes me look like the dumbest man in the world. But at the time Conan sort of understood the logic of it because everyone was trying to do what Letterman was doing and nobody was doing it as well. I was a little obsessive over parameters in those first years, and it would’ve been a very bad thing if Late Night were canceled. I would’ve felt like I was the one to blame, at least partially.
Do you think his new cable show will be a refreshing new beginning and allow him to do some things that might not have worked on network television?
I think it will be refreshing and sweet and cleansing and lemon-lime. He will be able to focus on making a show that is absolutely about him having a good time. It should translate into comedy he’s excited about and bits that play to his strengths. I imagine the studio will be a little more intimate—that was one thing we were worried about going into The Tonight Show. Though I think that stuff is a little overstated... a lot of late-night television is about viewing habits, and it would’ve been hard for anyone to take over that show and succeed right away. In general I think there’ll be less of a concern at TBS about pleasing some kind of imagined audience. Conan will get to do the show he wants to do. The title Conan is probably an indication of that. And if he adds an exclamation point it can be a daytime show. You know, “Everybody in the audience is getting a Robot on the Toilet!” [laughs]
Triumph originated on Late Night, and I’ve always wondered where you found the original puppet?
I found it at a store called Mable’s. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a country-furniture store. I was looking for country furniture. [laughs] My wife and I bought a lovely kitchen table there. In the corner there were these realistic-looking animal heads. I pulled one out of the rack and immediately started sniffing my wife’s rear end with it. Yet we actually didn’t buy one that day. My wife came home with a few of the puppets as a surprise another day—a couple of dogs and a seal and a cat. I was just delighted. The fact that they looked so realistic is what really got me excited. It’s funny that you brought up the crazy parameters and mandates I had for Late Night, because one was that whenever we did a show with a fake animal it had to be a realistic-looking one. It couldn’t be cartoony or an animal that had a cutout face for the human actor. Or if it was an inanimate object, it had to be realistic. If it was a fruit joke, it had to be a piece of real-looking fruit. It couldn’t be a Fruit of the Loom joke where the fucking face is cut out. I remember a few years later they did some sketch—I think it was with gargoyles or something—where the faces were cut out, and my heart was broken. It was like “My God. You’re really fucking me up the ass with that one! They know that’s wrong!” [laughs]
Are you a dog lover?
I was a big cat guy when I was a little kid. We were given a cat, and I was in love with it even though I was allergic. I lived through my teenage years with a runny nose and watery eyes, and I couldn’t have cared less. When the cat died my sister replaced it with a fruffy little bichon. I was really disappointed, but eventually I fell in love with this ridiculous dog. I never realized how hilarious dogs were—their faces and all the expression. They lend themselves to anthropomorphic comedy. My wife used to have the dumbest dog in the history of dogs. It was this half-wolf, half-husky tail-chasing idiot that inspired the dog that would constantly chase its tail on TV Funhouse.
Has doing the Triumph routine all these years had any physical or mental repercussions? You’re sitting there bent over all the time, your hand raised, with a sheet of paper taped to your face so people don’t make eye contact. It’s got to be hell on your knees and dignity.
Oh my God, it’s so degrading! Sometimes the only reason people will talk to me is because I look so pathetic. I’m this balding, middle-aged guy and I’m crouched in this weird position. That’s how I got Jennifer Lopez, I think. I looked so unthreatening and like such a loser she thought she was doing me a favor. I remember one time in particular when Triumph was supposed to be getting a blowjob from a poodle in the back of this limo. I was literally on the floor of the limousine with my legs sticking out of the door. There’s a trainer on top of me, and food is being passed in order to keep this poodle interested in Triumph’s crotch. I’ve suffered for my art.
You’ve had a history of creating shows and writing screenplays that are uncompromising but last for a short period of time or never see the light of day at all. It’s one of the things I admire most about you—there’s no intention of pandering to an audience. After being in the business this long, do you have a better idea of why certain things get off the ground and others don’t?
A good example is the Anchorman script, which was rejected by everybody for years. Then Will Ferrell did Old School and everybody wanted to do Anchorman. Sometimes it’s just that simple; it’s all about the stars. I was involved in a script based on the Hanz and Franz sketch on SNL, which is something we wrote with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had all the momentum as far as that project went. Then Last Action Hero came out and it was a horrible bomb so he didn’t want to do it. If we really pushed to get that movie made we probably could’ve made it, but I didn’t have any intention to turn it into something else.
When we were setting up a time for this interview you mentioned that you were very busy planning your semi-annual autism benefit, which will air in late October on Comedy Central and feature pretty much every funny person on the planet. What can we expect this year?
I can’t give away certain bits for obvious reasons. Some people will be doing some musical bits that will hopefully be surprising. We have Steve Carell coming into New York, performing live at the Beacon Theatre for the first time, so we’re excited about that. We’ll have some unbilled surprises too, which I can’t tell you about because they’re unbilled and also surprises. [laughs] The biggest people in comedy are doing it and they’re incredibly busy, so my highest priority in doing this show is that the people who do them come away feeling like “This was so much fun” and not like “I did these guys a favor and I got through it.” We want to pay them back by writing some great bits for them and make them really psyched to have done it.
What else do you have brewing?
I rewrote a script for Jack and Jill, which is a new Adam Sandler movie that will be coming out soon. It’s a silly setup, but it has some very funny and surprising twists. It’s looking like Shaq has a cameo, although it’s nothing that changes the course of the movie particularly. It’s based on a character Adam has done for many years in writing rooms, a voice we all really like. Beyond that, there’s shit in development: sitcom ideas that I’ve been pitching around and movie ideas that I haven’t had time to flesh out for various reasons. Hopefully I’ll get to those. Even The Ambiguously Gay Duo live-action movie that I wrote with Stephen Colbert might work out. There are people who are interested in that.
Are you looking to get Colbert and Carell back together for it?
I think they both feel that they’re maybe too old for the roles.
Maybe they can just dub over the voices of Tobey Maguire and Michael Cera, or whatever pair of actors you can find who are capable of reaching such extreme levels of homosexuality.
Actually, we’ve talked about getting really hunky guys and letting Stephen and Steve do their voices. That absolutely cracks me up. Whether we could sustain that for an entire movie is another question.