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How I Made It in Comedy: Robert Smigel

"There’s just something about the combination of a tiny animal and a man’s nipples that tends to upset viewers. Isn’t that an old comedy saying?"



The similarities between Robert Smigel's comic universe and Saturday-morning cartoons exist only in appearance. His "TV Funhouse"—which has featured the crime-fighting X Presidents and the Ambiguously Gay Duo—originally aired on Saturday Night Live and later became a series on Comedy Central. Smigel's best-known character is probably Triumph the dog, the cigar-chomping insult comic who speaks with a vaguely Hungarian accent and follows his rude remarks with his favorite catchphrase, "I keed. I keed."

How did your parents react when you made it clear that there wasn't going to be another dentist in the family?

My father was understanding. He had sort of been led into dentistry—his father was a dentist—and he never enjoyed it until he made it interesting for himself with dental aesthetics. My mother was somewhat horrified, but still supportive. I sort of crawled to the finish line at NYU. I even tried to finish predental, but then I flunked organic chemistry.

A few weeks later, during the summer of 1982, I left for Chicago and joined a Second City offshoot I'd heard about called the Players Workshop of Second City. I also joined an improv group called All You Can Eat. I didn't name it, by the way. We put on a show that we produced ourselves called All You Can Eat and the Temple of Dooom, which grew to be very successful. We would split the profits each week, which came to around $300 for each of us. I lived with two friends in this group, in a filthy apartment, and our rent was $450. It was probably the happiest time of my life. Chicago is still a great place to start out in comedy; it's cheaper than most cities, and there's a huge community of people doing improv and sketch comedy. It's not hard to find like-minded people.

What sort of sketches did you perform in the stage show?

There was a range of silly ones. I don't think it was the most inventive comedy group that was out there at the time, but we tried to do clever material, and we became very popular. It was actually good preparation for Saturday Night Live. We didn't do improv onstage, just sketches. At the time, I thought improv was great as a writing tool, and I loved watching people at Second City develop scenes in improv sets. But I was not a fan of watching improv games.

At what point did this stage show lead to Saturday Night Live?

Al Franken and Tom Davis, two of the great original writers for SNL, were shooting a movie in the Chicago area called One More Saturday Night [1986], and one of the members in our improv group, Dave Reynolds, just happened to be cast in a major role. Franken and Davis became friendly with Dave, and they came to see our show, and they really liked it. We hung out with them afterward at a goofy German bar. And I thought, Well, that was fun, and that's the end of that.

About a month or so later, I read in TV Guide that Lorne Michaels had gone back to Saturday Night Live, after a five-year-hiatus, and that he was hiring Al and Tom as producers. It was about the closest that I'd ever come to literally hitting the ceiling. All of a sudden, there was a possibility that I could actually be doing what I most wanted to do, and it felt completely alien. I was never the kind of person inclined to go after things aggressively.

Bob Odenkirk has told interviewers, including me, that before he joined SNL he didn't know how to properly write a sketch. He said that it was you who taught him how.

I don't know why Bob would say something like that. I think if anyone taught all of the young writers how to properly write a sketch, it was Jim Downey, who had been with the show, off and on, for more than 20 years—he was the head writer for a number of years.

Downey once summed up SNL sketches this way: actors love to act in sketches about a crazy person in a normal situation, and writers love to write sketches about normal people in a crazy situation. And, of course, the ideal is to have a balance. He also made a point of not beating the audience over the head with a political opinion. He felt it was lazy, since most humor writers tend to be liberal anyway. But he also thought the audience resented the heavy-handed stuff. Downey left the show in 1998 and returned in 2000. In the time he was gone, SNL swung much more obviously to the liberal side.

Many writers have complained over the years that the environment at SNL does not foster an atmosphere conducive to creativity—that it's not a place where the best comedic writing can be accomplished.

I think the difference between me and Bob Odenkirk, for example, who has been a critic of the show and who describes his time at SNL as being unhappy, is that Bob really didn't have a lot of reverence for the show. Bob was his own entity who would create characters for himself; he was someone who could do stand-up and perform in a one-man show, which is something he did when he wasn't at SNL. On the other hand, I truly revered SNL. It just meant everything to me. And I did my best to fit into the show's parameters, while also trying to come up with smart and interesting material.

SNL is its own entity, and Lorne Michaels tries to make the show a comedy gumbo. There are a lot of different tastes going on, and the audience isn't going to necessarily be of one mind. There's a lack of a safety net for a show like that. It's a different beast than Mr. Show, where the audience is all of one mind and where everybody wants and expects one kind of comedy—and they're going to get it. Mr. Show was outstanding, and I loved it. But there's a reason why certain sketches that will kill in a closed format like Mr. Show might eat it on Saturday Night Live.

I have a lot of respect for alternative comedy, but it's a different challenge to survive and get laughs on mainstream TV while still being hip and smart. It's a lot more difficult to be a rebel in a sweater.

With all of the freedom that you were afforded on Saturday Night Live, why did you decide to leave the show as a full-time staff writer in 1991?

I left for a little while, but not for long. I would have left for good if a sitcom pilot called Lookwell had been picked up by the networks in the summer of 1991. I cowrote it with Conan O'Brien. It starred [Batman] Adam West as an incompetent detective. Only the pilot was broadcast.

Lookwell is one of those mythological "lost" comedy projects that has a real underground following among humor fans—especially now that the pilot is available on YouTube. You were the executive producer for another "lost" project that is now much loved and respected, but was only on the air for only a short amount of time in 1996: The Dana Carvey Show.

The problem with The Dana Carvey Show was that it just didn't belong in the 9:30 time slot, which was during prime-time, after Home Improvement. We were trying to be the rebels with the sweaters, but following Home Improvement, even the sweaters were too much. We needed to wear Mickey ears.

I suppose the very first sketch on the first episode didn't help your cause.

Right. That was the sketch in which Dana Carvey played Bill Clinton. In order to prove that he was compassionate—that he was both a father and a mother to the nation—Clinton fed babies, then puppies and kittens—real ones—from his lactating breasts.

What's rarely mentioned is that not only did the first episode have the Clinton sketch, but it also had a sketch that featured Pat Buchanan eating the live heart of an illegal immigrant.

There's just something about the combination of a tiny animal and a man's nipples that tends to upset viewers. Isn't that an old comedy saying?

How good of an education does one necessarily need to become a humor writer?

You mean an academic education? You don't necessarily need one. What's just as important, I suppose, is to be self-educated—to read and soak in as much as you can from the world at large. Del Close once said, "The more you know about, the more you can joke about." And he had way funnier heroin material than I've ever had.   v

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