Comedy writer Robert Smigel has built a formidable career out of childhood fixtures such as silly voices, animals, cartoons, and puppets. He received his big break in the mid-'80s, when Lorne Michaels hired him as a writer for Saturday Night Live; Smigel went on to write such classic skits as the one in which William Shatner admonishes a crowd of Star Trek fans to get a life. In 1991, Smigel hooked up with fellow SNL writer Conan O'Brien to write Lookwell, a revered pilot starring Adam West as a clueless, washed-up TV star turned detective. The show wasn't picked up for production, but Smigel later become one of the primary creative voices behind Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
In 1996, Smigel masterminded The Dana Carvey Show, which was soon cancelled, but which introduced animated characters like The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which he resurrected for his TV Funhouse segment on SNL. Smigel's cartoons won him a devoted cult following, as did Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, a randy hand puppet that soon became one of Late Night With Conan O'Brien's most popular recurring features.
In 2000, Smigel expanded TV Funhouse into a half-hour Comedy Central show. It only lasted a year, but it represented the most elaborate, sustained, and fully realized manifestation of his comedic sensibilities. Last year, Smigel, in the guise of Triumph, released Come Poop With Me, a surprisingly solid old-school party album and DVD filled with profane songs about canine sex. This year, Triumph made headlines when a Quebec-baiting performance in Canada for Late Night prompted torrents of controversy. In connection with the Lions Gate DVD release The Best Of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Smigel about SNL, Conan O'Brien, Triumph, the Quebec controversy, and mixing it up with Eminem and an inebriated Dell Dude.
The Onion: How did you become involved with Saturday Night Live?
Robert Smigel: Well, [SNL writers] Al Franken and Tom Davis were shooting a movie in Chicago, and they saw our sketch show. I think this was my third year there. The movie, of course, was One More Saturday Night. I'm surprised Rush Limbaugh doesn't have it on his web site. [Adopts Limbaugh voice.] "Watch Al Franken sing as if he's in The Grateful Dead! Tell me, who's lying to who?" Al and Tom Davis cast a guy named Dave Reynolds, who was one of the cast members of our stage show. None of us had gotten into Second City. I don't think we had the right sensibility. So we produced the show with our own money, and it became very successful. We moved to a bigger theater, and we were all able to quit our jobs and make a living doing three shows on the weekends. So Franken and Davis came to see us, and they really liked it. We hung out with them afterwards, and we were all really excited, but we figured that was the end of it. A month later, we read that Franken and Davis had been hired to produce SNL. We got incredibly excited, and allowed ourselves to dream, instantly, that we would be involved in the new SNL. A few of us ended up auditioning, but they only hired me, as a writer.
O: What was the atmosphere like when you started at Saturday Night Live?
RS: I was a very nervous little nerd my first year there. I grew up in New York, so whatever anybody else thought about SNL, and however big it was, it was even bigger if you lived in Manhattan. It was this phenomenon that people talked about. I really liked the show. I know it's hipper to say that Monty Python and SCTV are your influences, and I love those shows, but I hadn't seen a lot of Monty Python when I was that age. I was not a curious enough child to venture to public TV at 10:30 on a Sunday night. But I loved the energy of SNL. I still think those people—Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, all of them—were incredibly funny. I was incredibly scared, and I had a few people in my court, like [Simpsons writer] George Meyer. I was hired as an apprentice writer. I actually shared a room with this guy John Swartzwelder, a legendary Simpsons writer. But I really didn't do that well. Early on, I just wrote whatever I thought was funny. I was in awe of the place, but I hadn't figured out what Lorne Michaels or anybody else wanted. I got something on my first week, a sketch about a Spanish variety show that Madonna was the host of. I was actually a background singer. It was bizarre to be sharing an apartment with two buddies in Chicago, and then two weeks later to be Madonna's backup singer on national TV. The first sketch that ever worked well was something I did for Tom Hanks. I think it was our fifth or sixth show that year, and I'd really been struggling, and the show was a disaster. I don't know if you remember, but this was the year with Terry Sweeney, Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Jeffrey Dahmer… really bad choices. [Adopts Lorne Michaels voice.] "Dahmer has a youthful energy and a dangerous element that I think people are going to hook into with the show."
O: Didn't they have the season finale where the whole cast was about to be set on fire?
RS: Yeah, that was the other thing I wrote that year. I got a lot of shit for that from some people in the cast. They didn't talk to me that week. It was a parody of the new "cliffhanger" phenomenon on TV. It's hard to imagine a time when cliffhangers weren't an inherent part of our entertainment schedule, but back then, they were this new creepy thing. I thought this was a great way to parody that, and also to comment on the horrendous year that we'd had. Jon Lovitz was the breakout, the one guy everybody could agree on. There were other people who were very successful, though, like Dennis Miller and Nora Dunn. I think those were the people who were especially incensed. Dennis was mad at me, but after the show, he gave me a hug and apologized. He understood that I was just trying to not get fired, by making it as funny as I could. I almost did get fired that summer. I went back to Chicago, planning for my demise. I'd started working on a sketch show that I was going to do with Bob Odenkirk, whom I'd met while doing sketch stuff in the early '80s. Actually, "In The Year 2000" was going to be the finale of the show we were planning, which ended up on Conan eight years later. I'm still not sure why I was rehired. I think it's because certain people like Lovitz and Dennis Miller and A. Whitney Brown spoke up for me. They were a few people who'd had some success and were in Lorne's trusted circle at that point. It was a very narrow circle after that year. The second year, I was much more successful, and I didn't have to worry about it after that.
O: It seems like you had a lot more to work with in terms of people who were sketch performers.
RS: A lot of great people were fired after that year: John Swartzwelder, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney from Kids In The Hall. They weren't fired, but they were sent back to Kids In The Hall. Carol Leifer, a very talented joke writer, and Jack Handey, unbelievably, was fired, and then came back very quickly, because it was hard for people to maintain the concept that Jack Handey didn't belong anywhere he wanted to be.
O: In between all these things, you worked on The Dana Carvey Show.
RS: Right, another experience where I think I would have had a better go if I'd already done the cartoons. I had this guy who was obviously very talented, and very likable, to build the show around. He's not a big, strong movie personality, necessarily, but he does do stand-up, and he's on talk shows all the time. Audiences really like Dana. I thought that he would go down easy. There are certain people who had tried to do shows like this. Like Martin Short—he's incredibly talented, but he has trouble coming off as a sincere version of himself, without seeming like he's straining a little bit. You're so used to that sort of mock-persona that he or Bill Murray or Chris Elliott have. They all kind of exist in mock-personas. But anyway, I thought Dana had all kinds of potential to carry a show like that. I'm not saying it was a great show, but I think it could've been if we'd had any level of support, like we'd had at Conan. NBC could have easily bailed on Conan. They had many opportunities, and had they done so, people would look back on it as a famous disaster.
O: Why do you think they stuck with Conan?
RS: Oh, let's see. Rosie O'Donnell said "no." Actually, I don't know who they asked, but I'm sure they sent out feelers to a few high-profile people like that. I don't think anybody was excited enough at that point to get in there. They obviously hired Greg Kinnear as a stalking horse, and his show didn't really demonstrate enough to take Conan's place. By the time all that was resolved, the show was better enough to keep going. One thing the network acknowledged early on was the comedy. The critics tend to pile on when they make a decision about something. Sometimes it was infuriating: People would say, "It's a pale impression of Letterman," where I had crazily, feverishly worked with the writers to avoid resembling the Letterman show. I created a list of things we wouldn't do, and it really helped us to generate a lot of comedy, because sometimes when you're not sure what you're going to do, it's easier to define yourself by what you're not going to do.
We broke the rules a couple of times, because there were things that Conan was very adept at, and it wasn't fair to not let him do them, like remote pieces. At first, I was adamant about not letting him do remote pieces that weren't scripted. I'd see Pat Sajak, Dennis Miller, and other people try to do it, but they're done perfectly by Letterman. We just need to think of other ways to do it. He agreed. But over time, you realize that nothing is more important than the audience liking the host. Even though the comedy was successful, and even though I think we did succeed in creating our own identity early on, I don't think it was always the best showcase for Conan. He was the best at figuring out what he felt most comfortable doing. Very few people remember this, but Conan wouldn't do topical jokes in his monologue for the first couple weeks. That's how determined we were. I'm sure there are people who would say that he shouldn't do that stuff. When I was a kid, watching Letterman, I'd say, "Ah, the monologue's boring." But a host kind of needs that. It makes Conan comfortable.
What he understood better than I did, early on, was that his goofiness worked really well within the context of a conventional-looking and -feeling talk show. I would have characters interrupt him, even during interviews, because I had this vision of doing a show like, "You never know where the comedy's going to happen." We would have a giant ant come out and pitch jokes to Conan. Sometimes it would work, and sometimes it would bomb, and it would throw Conan, who had enough trouble just being on television as a guy nobody knew. Forget the fact that he was inexperienced; the fact that the audience didn't know him was a huge obstacle. I would tell him, "It's not about you not being ready, but about the audience not being ready for what you do, because they don't trust you yet." So we would have giant bunnies come out and interrupt everything, but we realized that it was easier for Conan to compartmentalize things. Early on, in my mind, I would have said, "That's cheating. That's what Letterman does. He'll say, 'And now it's time for…'" You sort of lay out that layer of irony on a silver platter for the audience to digest before you present the character. Letterman would have someone like, "Now, here's Billy The Intern, who can't drink enough milk," you know? And now that's something that we do. We have a segment called "New Characters" where Conan will lay out the title of the character beforehand. Yes, it definitely cues the audience to understand that they're not supposed to laugh with, that they can definitely laugh at this thing, that there are many ways to enjoy this character. One good result of it is that once you create that context, you can actually make the characters even stranger, take it even further, and stay on network television. Even though that particular bit employs a safety net, I always look forward to it when I'm watching at home, because there are always some great, ridiculous ideas for characters.
O: You guys also worked on Lookwell, which has a reputation as one of those legendary great pilots that weren't picked up.
RS: I don't know how good it is. It probably helps that Conan's name is on it, and now my name has this inflated reputation. It's a funny show. We loved Adam West—Conan can go on for hours in the Adam West voice and come up with great things to say. When Batman came out, with Michael Keaton, Conan and I went to see the 1966 Batman movie. Adam West is so crazily funny in that movie, and I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. It's one of the funniest performances ever given in a movie. He completely carries the movie, and we were stunned at what a shame it was that Adam West didn't get to go on and play other arrogant idiots. I'll never understand why the Zucker brothers didn't use him, unless the Zucker brothers auditioned him and he overacted. I've seen him do that in other failed pilots. You always wonder "Is he a genius?" when you see this performance, or is it just his voice, and somebody manipulated him like a marionette, and edited around his bad takes? I don't know. I can't figure it out, even after having worked with him. When you meet him, he's this very odd combination of literate Renaissance man and oafish uncle who says embarrassing things that you wish your girlfriend hadn't heard. It was so far from anything NBC was interested in doing, and Brandon Tartikoff, who developed it, left to go to Paramount. That's another pitfall that you always face when you do any project for television, or in movies. If it takes any amount of time to develop, there's a good chance that the person who put it in motion is going to get fired, or quit, and the next person isn't going to want to do it. That's happened to me a few times. Warren Littlefield took over, and I don't think he was at all disposed toward this project. The Dana Carvey Show kind of went through that. Every network wanted Dana at that time, and we went with ABC. A month later, they were sold to Disney. That couldn't have helped. The president breastfeeding was probably the worst decision I've ever been involved in.
O: That was the first thing on the show, wasn't it?
RS: Yeah, it was Louis C.K.'s idea. We had an idea already with Clinton where he was going to start giggling uncontrollably at the potential Republican opposition that year, which was a simple and ingratiating enough way to start a television show, and introduce a Clinton impression. Then Louis suggested this breastfeeding thing. I foolishly got very excited about it, and Louis even said, "You know what's great about this? We'll be able to really draw a line in the sand for people." Like, "Are you with us, or aren't you?" For some insane reason, just a purely naïve moment of thinking about nothing but making myself laugh, I agreed with him. That's like the last thing you want to do. You want to do the opposite. You want to sucker as many people into it as you can early on, and then chip away and hopefully hold on to those people because you've developed trust.
And I was so stupid: I didn't even watch Home Improvement. I should've taken a second to watch five minutes of it. I'd heard about it: I'd heard Tim Allen had done coke and gone to jail, and that Pam Anderson was on the first season. I thought, "This has some sort of adult male demographic going on. That'll work." Then, about five shows into it, after a horrendous ratings drop-off, with every week getting worse and worse, I finally tuned in to Home Improvement. I was absolutely mortified. Not just for myself, but for the audience to whom I'd subjected The Dana Carvey Show. I watched it and said, "Wow, this is a show that kids stay up to watch with their parents. That's why it's a hit, because parents and kids can watch it together." And then they look at our show. In fairness, we wanted a parental warning. I'm all in favor of information. Back when Frank Zappa was mocking Tipper Gore, I never saw any problem in providing information for parents. Dana was a parent—I wasn't at the time—and we went to ABC and tried to get one, and they wouldn't let us do it because they said the advertising rates would drop. We asked them, "Can't we have it? NYPD Blue is right after us. That's a big hit." They said, "Yeah, it's a big hit, but it would be a hell of a lot better and make a lot more money if we didn't have that warning. So you're not going to have it."
O: How did you come up with the idea to put all the elements of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog together?
RS: It was something that I'd played with in improv sets when I was in Chicago. I did stuff with puppets, and I kind of had that concept, but I didn't have that puppet or the whole "poop on" thing going. It was a series of accidents. My wife found some puppets in a cutesy furniture shop that sold them on the side. There were a number of dogs and other species that looked incredibly detailed and realistic. She knew how funny I would find them, because I love to anthropomorphize. She brought these home, and I really was as excited as I'd been since I got a Linus doll when I was 7. I immediately started talking in the voice and sniffing her ass. It takes a special woman to be with such an idiot. She found all of this very amusing, in that kind of laugh-at/laugh-with way that we were going for at the time.
The first thing I thought of as far as using it on the show was this one bit. Letterman had moved to CBS, and he was doing this real high-energy shit. One time, he released Westminster dogs into the studio. I thought, "This is another perfect way of parodying real TV: making our own stuff up instead of doing the reality stuff." Like the "Actual Items" bit we do, where we pretend that it's small-town news that we've culled, but our stuff is all fake and impossibly over-the-top. In this case, I set up a bit where Conan said, "We've got the Westminster Dog Show in town, and the animals just get more and more talented every year, and we've brought some out to show us their talents. Here's the first one, a winner in the terrier category." Then we'd have this puppet stage, and a dog puppet would pop out, and there'd be a series of dog puppets that would sing, like, the theme from The Bodyguard, or do a Jack Nicholson impression, or light their own farts.
It was a perfectly successful bit that we did once a year, and by 1997 or so, I was not a regular part of the show. So I called up Jon Glaser, who was the head writer at that time, and asked him if he was going to do that bit this year. I wanted to do the Insult Comic thing for it, and now I had this phrase in my head, "for me to poop on," and I thought it would be funny if the dog was incapable of saying much else but that. That's how the bit started. What's interesting about it is that it's kind of evolved. The first three times we did it, that's all it was, really. Every joke was about being a dog, and they weren't even jokes. "You're so ugly I wouldn't even sniff your ass" kind of stuff. And I said "for me to poop on" a lot, and that was the point. It was about laughing at the character. It was a big conceptual joke, and that's all it was ever meant to be. But it was such a success, and we were having so much fun with it. It was like "Clip Of The Week" on Talk Soup every time. The guy from Talk Soup actually named him Triumph; we didn't even bother to name him. I would just pick dog-show names out of a Westminster program, and put them up as the dog was performing, to heighten the seriousness of the moment. In this case, I had randomly chosen "Triumph, Honor Of Whitehall," which was a real Westminster dog, and John Henson started calling him Triumph, because he always showed the clips. I thought, "Okay, I like that," because I was sick of having Conan say, "Here's this Insult Comic Dog!"
In order to keep the character going, we started to focus in on who the guest was; originally, it didn't matter who they were, because the joke was all on Triumph. We had people like Matthew Broderick on the show, and Triumph would poop on him, even though that's not the first person you would think of as a poop target. We started focusing in on the Fabios and the John Teshes and the David Hasselhoffs, people who would provide a rich volume of insult comedy. You're not just laughing at the puppet anymore. Now the puppet is kind of providing a service for the show. Conan will have a really cheesy guest on, and the puppet is the one person who's allowed to say what everyone has been thinking. It became this cathartic device.
There were elements remaining that allowed you to laugh at Triumph: the long takes to the camera, which I always thought were very funny. Especially with a puppet, because a puppet can't blink. No one can do a long take better than a puppet. The cigar is falling out of his mouth. And there were still jokes that had to do with being a dog. But there was this other use for the character, and that sort of snowballed over the years as he started going on these remote segments. I think that was part of the problem in Quebec, because the audience was so attuned to laughing with Triumph. That particular bit was actually designed to be a joke on Triumph, but the Toronto audience took it a different way. I don't think they had the venom for Quebec that people attached to their response. Minutes earlier, they had booed just as lustily at the Seattle Space Needle, a giant version that came out and had a race with Toronto's CN Tower, with these two idiots in building suits running after each other. The audience was playing a role. They knew they were supposed to boo Quebec—it was part of the game. People who are less familiar with the show saw what they saw, and they were entitled to see it that way. It was unfortunate that we couldn't provide a context and a history of the character.
O: He's Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. You can't really be surprised when he insults people in a comic way.
RS: Yeah, and a lot of people made that argument: "Come on, it's a fucking dog puppet. And it says 'Insult Comic Dog' on it when it's introduced." That's all true. But when I researched the issue a little further, and read about how people in Quebec were, as recently as the '50s, not only discouraged from speaking French, but the phrase used was "Speak White." So it's hard to completely laugh it off. It's just a case of strangers not knowing each other's history quite well enough. The irony was that that was a bit where it was trying to be a little more conceptual, where the joke was more on Triumph. We entered into it looking at it that way, like, "Triumph is going to go up to a place where no one understands English, and the jokes don't matter, really. He's going to make lame jokes about how French people smell, or how they're obnoxious, or whatever. The point is that he's going to struggle, and that's where the laughter is going to be. Then he's going to bring an interpreter into the scene, and that'll be a really funny payoff." It was funny, in that context, but the pendulum had shifted so far from laughing at Triumph to laughing with him. You can see it all on the DVD.
O: Triumph does seem like a controversy magnet.
RS: It's odd, because I'm never happy when something like this happens. Other people are happy for me, and I'm confused. Like when we did the [MTV] Video Music Awards, and Eminem freaked out because he didn't know who this fucking puppet was, and he thought it was something Moby had fashioned. People asked me later, "Were you worried that you were gonna get killed, man?" No, I wasn't worried. It was like being in a WWE match. These guys are all posing, in their own way. I was only worried about getting in my jokes. I had jokes for Eminem that I wanted to say, and I wanted to have them heard. I wasn't the least bit scared of any kind of confrontation. One of the rappers, I think it was Proof, knocked the sheet of jokes out of my hand, and he had a smile on his face. He knew it was kind of a show. And afterward, I was upset, like, "Fuck, they cut away. It wasn't funny. I didn't get to say anything funny to Eminem." That was all I cared about. People were congratulating me at this MTV party: "Dude, that was the best thing. That's what everybody's gonna talk about." I was like, "I don't know, maybe, but it wasn't funny." I'm not here to be John Hinckley, or even Stuttering John. I usually feel pretty bad when someone's pissed at me. And I felt bad for Eminem, because a lot of people said he had no sense of humor and he looked like an idiot. I didn't think it was fair, because Triumph never assaults people like that, normally.
We always ask people if they want to talk to Triumph first. The year before, with Jennifer Lopez, that was a last-second thing. I asked her during the commercial break, "Can I make a joke? Can I say this? I got this puppet here, what do you say?" She's like, "What's the joke about?" "Oh, you know, he'll ask if he can sniff your ass, you know, whatever." She's like, "Not another ass joke." I said, "It's all I've got." I tried to play up how pathetic I was, which is not too hard if you're a 42-year-old guy crouched on your knees in the aisle of an awards show with a puppet on your hand. You do evoke sympathy. But she knew what she was getting into, and she played it perfectly. It turned out to be a really funny bit, whereas we couldn't get to Eminem in advance. I asked MTV's people about it, and they're like, "Come on, it's Eminem! He's got a great sense of humor, he's gonna love it!" It was a good lesson.
O: What do you think is the best way to deal with Triumph?
RS: Laugh. Just laugh at what Triumph says as if it doesn't hurt your feelings. You'll come off as a good sport, and it'll save you the trouble of coming up with a good quip as a response, because you're too busy laughing. Everybody's happy. The audience still laughs when Triumph's victims laugh. Sometimes I have to cut it out, because it's too much, like when I went to Bon Jovi's concert. The band kind of initiated that—Richie Sambora in particular was a huge Triumph fan, so we did this big remote where we went to a concert and interviewed Bon Jovi, and they just laughed too hard at everything I said. I had to edit it so it looked like they weren't so happy. There had to be a little bit of tension.
O: Is there a fine line between having that tension and going overboard?
RS: If they're completely into it, and they're trying to top Triumph, and their jokes aren't particularly funny, that doesn't quite work. Sometimes you have to play with the editing to heighten the stress element.
O: One particularly odd moment on the Triumph DVD is the section with Benjamin Curtis, the Dell Guy, who comes onstage drunk, then refuses to leave. He really seemed to not get it on a number of levels.
RS: You have to understand that there were many reasons for that. Not only was he the Dell Guy, but he had the added benefit of being completely wasted. He didn't know where he was, much less what Triumph was saying. That's why I included that on the DVD, again, because this is television Babylon. This is fascinating. Some of it's funny, and some of it, you just can't believe the guy showed up this drunk and this helpless in the face of Triumph.
O: There was a weird Rupert Pupkin element to it, where he didn't seem to realize that his fame was fleeting.
RS: [Laughs.] It happens to a lot of people in show business, though. I think you'd be surprised how easy it is to overinflate the importance of your own sphere of show business, or comedy, or whatever it is you do, because when people approach you, they talk about it. For the Dell Guy, he probably walked in there thinking, "Everybody's wondering what I do and when I'm coming back," you know? He starts talking about how he's an actor now, and how he's at NYU, and asks if we're all anxiously awaiting the Dell Guy's next move. People have their rude awakenings in different ways. Sometimes it takes a rubber puppet, I guess.