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Friday, October 21st, 2011

A Prerecorded Sit-Down with Robert Smigel Unearths the Lost Triumph Movie and Other Assorted Gems

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

In addition to their giant archive of stuff, the Paley Center frequently conducts a number of panels and programs, which are generally recorded, and then added to that giant archive. One such awesome event that you can go in and relive is a conversation from November 9th, 2006 between Spy Magazine's Kurt Andersen and the great Robert Smigel.

As most of these events do, it begins with a montage of clips from some of Smigel’s most famous work. Then Kurt begins his introduction, only to be heckled by a familiar voice from the crowd, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. He makes fun of the crowd, the Paley Center, Kurt Andersen, Blackwolf the Dragon Slayer (remember him from the Episode I remote from Late Night? He was in the audience in full costume that night.) until finally the puppet is removed and the conversation begins.

There are several key ingredients to this panel that make it worth watching to the folks who are fans of modern comedy. The first is the fact that Robert Smigel is kind of the touchstone for so much of the funny stuff of the nineties, be it Late Night with Conan, TV Funhouse, the Dana Carvey Show, SNL, etc. And if you happen to enjoy watching any of those programs, there are plenty of fascinating insider stories sprinkled throughout the conversation for you to drool over. He talks about the fact that when he and Conan began working together to plan his original show, they looked at a lot of tapes of the old Steve Allen/Jack Parr Tonight shows with the intention of bringing a retro feel to their own. (Unfortunately the set designers did not agree with this direction.) Plus, since this is from 2006, you get to hear a conversation about Saturday Night Live devolve into a hilarious impression of the writers from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in which Smigel stands up, begin pounding his hand into his fist, shouting "don't you get it?!  We have to write it because it's important to say it!"

What's that? You're not really all that interested in watching a version of the Charlie Rose show minus the Charlie Rose? Okay, well, wait until you hear about the clips he brought to show the crowd that night. The first is a Saturday TV Funhouse featuring a few ads supposedly rejected by the GOP, filled with stuff like a Hillary Clinton alien popping out of someone's stomach and the like. However, this version includes a fake ad that was cut out of the tv version in which a twitchy Michael J Fox slowly transforms into Osama bin Laden. (This was made shortly after Rush Limbaugh found himself in hot water for making fun of Fox's Parkinsons disease.)

Smigel also shows footage from the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog movie that no one ever told us about. He explains that it never came to fruition due to a lack of money and the Borat movie coming out and kind of stealing it’s thunder. In it, Triumph goes to the 2004 DNC convention and has run-ins with Bill O'Reiley, Michael Moore and a particularly great moment in which a frightening looking kook rants into Triumph's fake microphone, which is then gradually taken away and replaced with an enormous white phallus, as the rant continues.

For me, the clip I was most excited to see was a snippet from the original unaired pilot for TV Funhouse, originally created for Fox (the network, not Michael J.). In it, Smigel plays a drunken version of Bozo the Clown who hosts the show for a live studio audience of children and clearly uncomfortable adults. Together they sing a song that begins "If you're Jewish and you know it clap your hands!" as the appropriate members of the audience clap along. We also see the introduction to a segment in which a child is selected from the crowd to play a game on stage "with the help of the magical arrows." The camera whizzes around the crowd as arrows on either side of the screen blink until the image finally settles on one young girl. She stands up excitedly at the same moment that the text "NOT YOU" appears beneath her and the camera whizzes away again.

At the end of each article I close with the simple question, “but is it still funny,“ which becomes a stranger question when posed to this particular item. First of all, it’s not that old, so the “still” part kind of throws me off. Secondly, it kind of depends on how you feel about Robert Smigel’s body of work. If you didn’t really care for The Dana Carvey Show, this probably isn’t the best use of your time, though you’ll still find something to laugh at here. But, if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll probably sit back, smile and nod your head in agreement when Smigel waxes poetic on the creation of Triumph, saying “puppet talks to guest is funny, but puppet bangs live animal equals a whole new frontier.”

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • BC

    Where is the link?

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    Great article, thanks for posting it. I love that you're the head writer of your website. I wish I could be the head writer of mine but I don't write enough on it.
    Also, I caught a typo. It's Bill O'Reilly.

  • that guy

    Very recently watched a few first-and-second season episodes of Late Night with Conan O'Brien at the museum of radio and TV in Beverly Hills.
    It was fascinating to see Conan still honing his on-screen persona while doing a large amount of very funny and at the time, innovative comedy. The interviews were sort of hit or miss as they tend to be on talk shows, though the show as a whole was far more entertaining and funnier than reviews at the time would have you believe.
    Among the interview highlights was Adam West doing his best Adam West shtick and even bringing up the failed pilot he did with Conan and Smigel; and a pre-fame Jenny McCarthy.
    I was laughing hard but thankfully, no one came to "shush" me even if it's a museum.
    Oh, and I can't believe there was a triumph movie planned; now i'll have to go back to see the Smigel interview.

    • that guy

      btw, regarding the Jenny McCarthy interview, she wasn't a particularly fascinating guest, but it was interesting to see her on the cusp of fame and Conan made it very entertaining.
      Then, as now, he has an underrated talent for bringing out the best in even mediocre interview subjects.