Robert Smigel

With the new MacGruber, Saturday Night Live broke its decade-long radio silence of making feature-length movies from its three- to five-minute sketches. As in anywhere else in Hollywood, though, for every movie that gets made, there are countless others that will go no further than staying a dusty collated copy or a forgotten .doc on a hard drive somewhere. On Saturday at Park West, co-writers Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk will breathe life into one such screenplay: a never-produced but completed Superfans script.

Smigel began writing for Saturday Night Live in the mid-’80s and has gone on to become one of the sketch-comedy institution’s most popular writers, before moving on to be come Conan O’Brien’s first head writer for Late Night and performing on that show as Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. Before coming to town, Smigel talked to The A.V. Club about his plans for a Triumph movie, why a Hans and Franz movie was both the stupidest and best idea he’s ever heard, and why he’ll never write with heart.

The A.V. Club: So what happened with Da Bears Movie Dat Wasn’t?

Robert Smigel: I’m guilty of writing probably as many SNL movies as anybody, but mine have never been made.

AVC: Yeah, looking over your IMDb page, it looks like you haven’t been involved in an SNL movie that’s gotten made.

RS: [Laughs.] I don’t think so. I appeared in Wayne’s World 2 and [Bob] Odenkirk and I played nerds for 30 seconds in that movie. That’s the closest I’ve come to an SNL movie. I’ve written many movies and I’ve only had one made: [You Don’t Mess With The] Zohan with [Adam] Sandler. I’m working on another one with him for next year. But yes, I have no movies outside of that gentleman.

The Chicago Bears fans movie—usually these things happen by accident. The first movie that I ever wrote for SNL was [Hans And Franz: The Girly-Man Dilemma]. It just sounded as awful an idea as possible when it was pitched to me. It’s just something that Arnold Schwarzenegger instigated at the time. Arnold had appeared on the show with Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon at least once, maybe twice. They created those characters but I used to write on those sketches. He had this idea and I just thought it was awful. Because some characters you just think, forget it, it’s just ridiculous. If you hear their voices for more than three minutes your head’s gonna explode. That’s why they’re just characters. But you know, I just started thinking about what you could do, and I had this idea to make it a musical. The basic crux of the idea was that they wanted to become movie stars like Arnold. I just thought if we could get over the Hans and Franz backstory in the first 30 minutes and then have the rest of the movie be in Hollywood and be sort of a parody of Arnold’s oversized action-star career, there could be something there. Then we actually went ahead and did it, we wrote it; mostly me and Kevin Nealon, but Carvey and Conan both worked on it as well. It’s probably the funniest of the screenplays that I’ve worked on. The craziest, at least.

AVC: Are there any moments that still stick out in your mind?

RS: You know, I’m so old, I’m trying to remember. Mostly I remember it was really funny, but that’s not going to entertain your audience. Let me think back. There was a really funny idea. You get your influences from different things and in that case, Pee-wee Herman’s movie, he’d done two movies by then, but that’s a very oversized character and I thought Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was one of probably the best comedies of that era. Maybe the best comedy of the ’80s period. I remember it had a very playful, Pee-wee-style thing where they’re very comfortable in their universe, and it was a make-believe world within reality. Nealon had this funny idea that they lived in the Little Austria section of New York, like if you take the subway and you pass Chinatown and Little Italy and you get off at Little Austria and you get out of the subway, it’s this four-block section of Manhattan that’s just lush rolling hills and Austrian muscle men, lifting animals in the field and singing songs about building their muscles. Just stupid, just so ridiculous that it cracked me up.

There was a little bit of a road-picture element. I remember that I had a real desire to make fun of a lot of the staples of ’80s, you know a lot of the comedies that would take themselves seriously. They would always have kind of a serious element to the story, where there would be a real villain and the guys would really save the world. I remember we created this character that sort of had a neo-Nazi element to him. Dolph Lundgren was supposed to play him and he was a muscleman in Little Austria. You know how Hans and Franz—I don’t know if you remember these characters—but they were really vitriolic Austrian bodybuilders who had real disgust for people who were not in proper shape. They called them “girly men,” and the movie was called Hans And Franz: The Girly-Man Dilemma because this bad guy in the movie played by Dolph Lundgren who lived in little Austria, he was sort of the true believer who takes it too far. There was a neo-Nazi kind of element. Like [adopts evil voice], “I’m going to eliminate the girly men!”

It’s not enough to just have disdain for them; this guy wanted to take it way too far and eliminate them. We would actually have him make speeches where he would turn to the camera and say, “I’m going to kidnap all the girly men and control them… And I’m going to hurt the environment.” So every time we cut back to this guy and see how he was progressing in his evil plans to kidnap the girly men in the world, at the end of his conversation with his flunkies someone would ask, “Oh, and how’s the environment?” And he would turn to the camera and be like, “Oh, it’s hurting. It’s hurting!” [Evil laugh.] And you know, ominous music. [Laughs.]

Yeah so it was like a road movie and then there was this section where they were traveling by car, I can’t remember how they were getting to California, I think by bicycle. Every now and then they would turn into a building and Siskel and Ebert would be in there, watching the movie in progress. They would just bother Siskel and Ebert, like [adopts Austrian accent], “It’s pretty good isn’t it? Ja, ja. Did you see this last part here? Better than you thought. Didn’t think these two characters could stretch out into an hour and a half, did you? Thought it would only be funny for four minutes?” And then they would say, “What did you think of this part here?” and then they would just cut to the screen and it would be them saying what they just said to Siskel and Ebert.

Just a lot of fucking with movie conventions. I remember just loving this movie and thinking that if I could only convince them to make it, it would be such a good thing for film comedies. It really ended up coming down to Arnold. Unfortunately, Arnold shot Last Action Hero while we were writing this movie. That movie came out and it was a failure and I was told by his agent that Arnold decided [adopts Schwarzenegger voice], “I will never be myself in a movie again! It can’t be done, this is the proof. I can’t play myself in a movie, automatic failure.”

AVC: But you said the idea started with him, right?

RS: Yes it started with him but it also ended with him.

AVC: What was his idea for it originally?

RS: His idea for it was [adopts Schwarzenegger voice], “Hans and Franz come to Hollywood and they want to become movie stars like me.” That was the idea. Then we expanded it and came up with all this other stuff. The girly-man dilemma, eventually there would be celebrities who were reported, you know, famous girly men like Paul Simon, and there would be news bulletins, “Sonny Bono has not been seen.” We would see these celebrities in some dungeon being forced to lift dumbbells and struggling. [Laughs.] I think there was a moment where the movie’s getting exciting and suspenseful and they turn in to the kind of room where Siskel and Ebert have been turning up [in] and in this particular case Ebert’s missing and it’s like [adopts Austrian accent], “No! They’ve got Ebert!” [Laughs.] It’s all coming back to me. And that’s how they find out where the villain is and what the exact plan is, because they see the huge screening room where Siskel and Ebert are watching the movie and Ebert’s missing and so they see Ebert on screen with Dolph Lundgren.

AVC: This movie sounds pretty complicated.

RS: Oh yeah, there was a lot going on. You can just imagine a studio in 1990 reading this, just like, “What?” Everything I wrote throughout the ’90s I would always hear, “It’s too crazy,” “It’s too expensive,” and, “Where’s the heart?” That would be the other mantra, “Where’s the heart? Where’s the scene where the music shifts?” There’s always some kind of sweetness underlying to the movie, but I refused to write movies with plodding, labored, forced moments that stood out. Now I think comedies have gotten a lot better. I think Austin Powers was probably the first where Mike [Myers] really avoided ever feeling like you were meant to take any of this seriously. There was a very subtle tender moment I think between him and Elizabeth Hurley, it was very well done, very low-key, it was all you needed—and the rest of the movie was pure ridiculousness. It wasn‘t until that movie came out that I [thought], "At least finally somebody’s going in the right direction here." Anchorman is one of my favorite examples of a movie that’s completely ridiculous from start to finish and yet you manage to like the characters, give a shit about them, and love the movie.

AVC: So what happened with the Superfans movie?

RS: The Superfans movie was a completely different situation. Those were my own characters—something that was self-generated with Odenkirk and me. I created those sketches with Bob and the thing about those characters [was] that [they weren’t] as assured in our heads as Hans and Franz, the idea of them being either in a movie or a sitcom because those characters are so much more grounded in reality. As cartoony as the way they’re written, they’re based on real people. It was sort of an outsider’s cartoonified view of Chicagoans. It’s not like I knew a lot of Chicagoans that well when I created those characters, but I had observed enough. I had gone to a lot of sporting events in Chicago, I was a student, I took improv classes there in the summer of ’82, and that’s when I first went to a Cubs game and that’s when I first saw the guys in the walrus mustaches and the aviator shades. They basically dressed exactly like that—they even wore these weird oxford shirts under their T-shirts just the way we did it in the sketch back then, and they sort of strutted around with this attitude that really amused me, just this quiet masculine confidence. The mustache was sort of an emblem of virility that didn’t exist anywhere else in the country except in porn films.

Those characters, we managed to make them successful at SNL, we came up with a framework that worked there. Those sketches were fairly broad and silly but at the same time we knew that it wasn’t that big of a leap to flesh those worlds out because they really were grounded in reality. I still wasn’t that interested in doing it until Bob came up with an operative idea that got me excited, which was this premise that the owner—the only idea I had at the time, the baseball strike of 1994 happened where the World Series was cancelled, which was an incredible thing to go through if you were a sports fan at that time. It was seismic. All I had at the time was just, “Well what if all the sports went on strike, how would they respond?” That’s in the movie, but Bob had this great idea that took us further. We liked the idea of the corporatization of sports and making it a big satire about that, so Bob came up with the idea. The McCaskeys were sort of the controversial family, I don’t know if they still are, but after George Halas died, his son-in-law basically took over running the place.

Anyway, the idea here is that the son-in-law sells the Bears to a businessman who is somewhat fey and has no interest in football. We imagined Martin Short in the role and wrote it with him in mind. This character named Burton Kimpkington. He pretends he’s going to maintain the tradition of the Bears but he wants to squeeze out the regular fan and starts making crazy changes. His ultimate goal is that he wants to renovate Soldier Field into a 200-capacity luxury stadium that’s all couches and piano bars and water falls. [Laughs.] So there are crazy scenes with the other owners, and we were hoping we could get owners to play themselves, like Steinbrenner and Al Davis. Then the Superfans revolt in their own way and come up with a way to fight back at the owners. We pitched it at the time to the studio and they seemed to like it and they actually paid us to write a script. I think what happened was Bob and I took the satirical element of the movie really far and it became a huge part of the movie. And I think what they wanted more was the Superfans and their wives and kids. Again: family, heart, pathos, that kind of thing. There were elements of that in the movie, but we were writing this heightened reality, which was all the movies that I was writing back then. So they really didn’t like this movie, and we still might have had a shot at making it but there were other things going on. One was that this coincided with SNL going through a really rough year. I think this was the year they brought in Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo and there was an awful article written in New York Magazine about the show and the network wanted to lay down the law—no SNL movies. That was one problem we had, and it was frustrating to me because I had left Conan to write this movie. I had given up my job as the first head writer there. It was the best job I’d ever had, but I was very excited at the prospect. Once people started to pay us to write this movie I just thought it would happen. [Laughs.] Then everything went to hell. With Chris Farley, Tommy Boy came out and his people didn’t want him to be in an ensemble, they wanted him to be the star and to do another movie with [David] Spade. Just do another one! [Laughs.]

AVC: So how many heart attacks total are in the Superfans script?

RS: [Laughs.] Well you’re gonna get the abridged version. We can’t make an audience sit through the entire thing. Again, there are a few caveats. This script is a first draft. We never got to the rewrite stage with this movie. The first draft was 132 pages. We’re just sitting and reading in front of an audience. We’re probably going to cut it in half, 65 pages will probably take an hour. You’re not gonna get all the heart attacks, but I think you’ll get the idea that they’re fat, slovenly, [and] they can have a heart attack at any minute.

We have George [Wendt] coming and Joe Mantegna and I believe Horatio Sanz, even though he’s not overweight anymore, but that’s fine. He’s a funny man.

AVC: And Richard Roeper is involved with this, is that right? Isn’t he the narrator?

RS: Richard Roeper is going to read the stage directions. Somebody’s got to read the stage directions so we figured we’d get somebody who’s fun to listen to on some level. We’re also gonna have an illustrator draw out some of ridiculous visual jokes in the movie. At one point I think celebrities gain access to the field, and I think there’s a scene where Jack Nicholson has paid $10,000 to ride the back of an offensive lineman for the entire game. [Laughs.] I asked Richard Roeper to do that justice by reading it but we’re gonna try and draw some of these things out.

AVC: How do you turn a sketch into a movie script?

RS: It’s really just like approaching any screenplay, at least the way I do. It’s always in my case an incredibly slow process, which is a problem, but I start with characters and a general premise. The only difference with an SNL movie is that you’ve got the characters already. Everything else is like any other approach to a screenplay where you need a good story, or you don’t in the case of Hans and Franz. [Laughs.] That was like an anti-story. There were stories in there but it’s not what you would call a plot-dependent movie like Date Night or The In-Laws, which are great movies in their own way. That’s probably a byproduct of some of these SNL character movies. Actually I haven’t seen a lot of them, but I know Wayne’s World was a big success, and part of the point of Wayne’s World was that is was anti-plot, very freewheeling, really meant to be a character-driven. It worked but you just can’t do that with every character.

I never thought the Superfans were broad enough to coast through a movie. That’s why Bob and I didn’t really get interested until we saw that we could use the movie to make a really funny satire about the way big-time sports was being taken away from the regular fan.

I guess I made one other SNL movie. Years later I wrote one with [Stephen] Colbert, I wrote a version of my cartoon. Oh no, I did two! This is so funny, both of my cartoons, I wrote a crazy Ex-Presidents movie with Adam McKay that was just meant to be completely silly and very cheap. I was just trying to get it produced for like, $3 million. It had a very similar rhythm to the original Batman movie from 1966. We had a lot of fun writing it, we wrote it on spec, and we ended up making a graphic novel out of it. That’s the only one that’s seen the light of day, oddly enough, because I wrote it on spec.

AVC: Wasn’t there an Ambiguously Gay duo movie as well?

RS: That’s what I wrote with Stephen Colbert. It had been suggested to me to write an Ambiguously Gay duo movie a couple of years after that cartoon had come out, and I resisted until I thought of doing it as a live-action movie. I thought that would bring a whole new life to it and it would be a way of parodying the superhero genre without doing a movie that was just a superhero movie. You know the people who do those Not Just Another movies? I never wanted to make a movie that was just a superhero parody. They come out with those movies and they do direct hits on things. I didn’t want to do that—I just wanted to play with the genre and how seriously it had started to take itself, starting with the Tim Burton Batman movie. I though that would be funny to play against these ridiculous characters and I also thought it would be hilarious to see them in those costumes and to see that car. You just want to see that car, and Colbert and I ended up writing a pretty crazy movie. It had a lot of satirical—Ace and Gary are big characters in it but there’s also enormous time spent with this rogues gallery and the government as well. We ended up getting to do a lot of funny social commentary about people’s attitudes about sexuality. I confess to still thinking about that one now and then. It was a very funny screenplay that we worked hard on and I know Colbert really liked it at the time before he became a national treasure. Now he’s like, “Ambiguously what?”

AVC: Have you seen MacGruber yet?

RS: I haven’t seen it. That’s one I’d like to see. I honestly—you’re going to assume this is bullshit or something—but I don’t think I’ve seen an SNL movie since Wayne’s World 2. There were like three in the late ’90s, right? Yeah, I never saw any of those movies.

AVC: There was a 10-year gap, before they started up with them again. The Ladies Man came out in 2000, and now we’ve got MacGruber. Do you have any insight as to why, after a decade, this is the one that they’re coming back out with SNL movies again?

RS: Well, those guys are fantastic filmmakers for one thing. They’ve been one of the most vital parts of Saturday Night Live for the past five years, making those digital shorts. To me, it makes perfect sense that you’d want to see their sensibility extended to movies, whether it’s using an SNL character or not. I’d imagine with MacGruber, the little sketches on SNL are just a dropping-off point and that it’s an entire entity unto itself. I would imagine that 30-seconds MacGruber is not much of a factor in this movie at all.

AVC: It’s interesting, too, because it’s such a shorter sketch being stretched even wider.

RS: Right, when I thought about it being turned into a movie I thought, "Well, I can see those guys potentially making that work because they won’t be making a movie version of that sketch at all, they have something else in mind and they’re funny and Will Forte is funny." So that’s one that I’m certainly curious to see.

The Night At The Roxbury, I didn’t see it, so who am I to say anything about it? All I can tell you is that I really loved that sketch on Saturday Night Live, and the reason I loved it was because it was silent. They played those things out like little silent movies each time. I thought that was a really nice departure for a SNL sketch.

AVC: Were there other SNL characters that maybe you would have liked to see a movie made about?

RS: That’s a good question. I mean, the trick is: Will the character look like a sketch character on film? That’s why I’ve held out some hope for MacGruber because he’s not that broad-looking. Wayne and Garth, actually, I was kind of amazed that they pulled it off. Two guys in their thirties in wigs playing teenagers? When I heard they were doing a movie I was just inherently worried. The characters were just so popular and the movie didn’t take itself seriously in any way, I think that’s how they pulled it off. I think in general the SNL actors who succeed are the ones who never need wigs—their personalities are relatable. People like Bill Murray, and I think Sandler is obviously a huge success because he comes off as a real person. Even Farley had the potential to be a real movie star because the audience connected with him emotionally as well as thinking he was funny. It’s definitely an uphill battle for a sketch character, especially if it’s a broad sketch character.

AVC: Do you know much about the aborted Dieter movie, speaking of Mike Myers?

RS: I was excited about the Dieter movie. I don’t know much about it. I know he wrote it with Jack Handey.

AVC: I guess it was supposed to be the next SNL movie after Ladies Man in 2000, but it wasn’t going to be an SNL movie?

RS: Yeah, I’m not even sure that was an SNL movie. In Mike’s day you could lift your characters that you’ve already created and retain the rights to them without being locked into making them with anybody. I mean, Wayne’s World ended up being a Lorne Michaels SNL movie, but I don’t think Dieter was going to be. I think Dieter was something he was making with Imagine Entertainment or something. I’m really not sure. I also was involved in some of the sketches and I loved the Dieter character and I actually thought it did have potential to be a funny, silly movie. Then I remember hearing that Linda Richman was also being talked about. I don’t know. I would never put anything past Mike’s ability to make it funny. Just to have succeeded twice is amazing. He did it with Wayne’s World and then he created Austin Powers, which wasn’t an SNL character but was an incredibly broad character and idea. He did a good job with that. If I heard Mike was gonna take a shot at Dieter, I would be very happy. I would still be interested.

AVC: Was there ever any talk of a Triumph movie? He had an album.

RS: There was an album. I still have standing offers to do Triumph as a movie or a TV show, and its one of those things where I guess I’ve been extra-protective of that character because it’s been by far the most popular thing I’ve ever been associated with. The idea of tanking it is just too upsetting. I actually took a shot at a movie once. Somebody suggested, “Why don’t you just cover the election and make a movie out of that?” And it just seemed so logical. This was in 2004. It was a very funny election. The nation was so crazily polarized at the time and the candidates were both really funny. I started to do it, but unfortunately the first week of shooting was at the Democratic convention and the studio saw the footage and they said, “This is just going to be a long remote [segment]?”

By then I had worked out a very rough storyline, Borat-style, where it was gonna be semi-scripted and I had crazy ideas where Triumph was gonna try and make a movie like Michael Moore. He was gonna try and cash in by becoming a serious journalist. I had a scene where he’s on Hollywood Squares and Tom Bergeron asks him a question and Triumph just has an epiphany at that moment like [adopts Triumph voice], “What does it matter, Tom? With everything that’s happening in the world, what does it matter what percentage of percentage of women said they would cheat on their husband?” And then he walks off the set leaving Caroline Rhea mystified and he decides he needs to do something more important with his life.

So he decides to make a political movie but he knows nothing about politics, so he hires Ross Perot and Sam Donaldson to give him advice, to be his technical consultants on this movie. I was gonna have them just be there to be harassed by Triumph. They were gonna be the equivalent of the fat guy in Borat. [Laughs.] So they saw this footage and said, “No this is going to be ridiculous. It’s just going to be a remote.” So I tried to explain my absurd plans.

AVC: Well, of course it was going to be ridiculous.

RS: Yeah, but I have a standing offer. But you know, I have a lot of issues at home, too. I have a son with autism—you probably know that. I do these fundraisers. Now I have two other boys and the idea of traveling on the road and making a movie like that, it appeals to me creatively and that’s about it.

AVC: Well, the Triumph segment went over really well when Conan was in town.

RS: The Chicago show? Good. That was actually Conan’s idea to do that. I have something like that on my album where there’s a cut on the album called “On The Road.” We see him sort of repurposing jokes for different cities and then he starts getting confused and he forgets which city he’s in and starts cursing out the audience when he bombs. I can’t remember the details. But yeah, Conan told me the idea and it was just absolutely perfect because again, it’s just too hard for me to tour, but it was a perfect use of Triumph. So yeah, I’m pretty psyched to be part of that tour. Did you enjoy it?

AVC: Yeah I did. It was a lot of fun, but there was quite a bit of singing and it was three hours long.

RS: My God. Well, you know he has been cooped up and he wants to give his audience everything he’s got.

AVC: There were no celebrities coming out and hawking their latest projects or anything, so that’s definitely a nice change.

RS: That’s good. The one thing I had suggested to him was he could interview the Empire Carpet guy. I’ve never been able to tour as Triumph, but the few times I was able to hit other cities that’s what I would do, I would get a local celebrity and shit on him.

AVC: That would’ve gotten a huge response.

RS: [Laughs.] I know they’re working really hard. That’s another reason why I’ve never toured as Triumph. Triumph working is dependent on the immediate. If Triumph is talking about the people around him, the audience goes crazy. Even when I do charity fundraisers, I have some locked material, but the stuff I do about the other comedians in the room, the other performers onstage, or the location, anything like that, that’s always the biggest stuff. They just want to see Triumph create conflict and be an asshole. It’s always funnier when he’s doing it to people.