Saturday Night’s Children: Robert Smigel (1991-1993)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Though he’s best known as the voice behind the raunchy puppet and former Conan regular Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Robert Smigel is responsible for many of SNL’s best sketches and pretaped shorts during his impressive run as writer from 1985-2008. Between the Chicagoan Bill Swerski’s Superfans, TV Funhouse segments like The Ambiguously Gay Duo, and commercial parodies like “Schmitt’s Gay,” Smigel brought a fresh batch of non-topical sketch concepts that helped dig SNL out of its mid-eighties rut. He may be best remembered as a writer, but Smigel also made a handful of guest appearances and spent two seasons as a featured player.
From an early age, it seemed that Smigel would follow the career path of his father Dr. Irwin Smigel, founder and president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics AKA “The Father of Modern Aesthetic Dentistry.” The young Smigel initially studied pre-dental at Cornell before transferring back home to NYU to study communications, but it wasn’t until he won an NYU standup comedy show – and got some encouragement from then-current SNL cast member Tim Kazurinsky at a Comic Strip performance – that Smigel decided to move to Chicago to study improv.
After two years at The Players Workshop in the early eighties, Smigel met his future collaborator Bob Odenkirk and worked as head writer for the successful revue “All You Can Eat and the Temple of Doom.” It was at one of his Chicago shows where Smigel’s talent was discovered by SNL’s own Al Franken and Tom Davis, and they recommended him for a writer spot to Lorne Michaels. Smigel told The A.V. Club of his hiring:
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. … 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.
At the end of his first season as a writer, Smigel had the awkward opportunity to pen the now-infamous “Who Will Survive?” cliffhanger sketch for the season 11 finale, where the entire cast – save for season breakout Jon Lovitz – gets trapped in a dressing room fire by Lorne Michaels. “I got a lot of shit for that from people in the cast,” Smigel said in the same interview. “They didn’t talk to me that week.” Ill feelings or not, Smigel’s sketch was spot-on; Michaels soon fired the majority of the cast and writers to make way for a complete staff overhaul; Smigel was one of the few asked back the following season.
After a rocky first year, Smigel contributed one classic sketch after another, from the Trekkie convention “Get A Life!” sketch starring William Shatner to the heart attack-prone Superfans to the “unrehearsed, hastily assembled program” “The McLaughlin Group.” While he made a handful of cameos as a writer, Smigel was officially credited as a featured player between 1991-1993 and had three recurring characters: Carol Wollarski of the Superfans, Weekend Update “non-expert” Hank Fielding, and one of the Greek counter employees in the “Hub’s Gyro” sketches with Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and Rob Schneider. His one impression was Alan Dershowitz, criminal appellate lawyer to Patty Hearst and Jim Bakker, in a sketch set at the premiere of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. Dana Carvey played Woody Allen, Rob Schneider as Soon-Yi Previn, and Jan Hooks as Dershowitz’s client Mia Farrow.
In the late nineties, Smigel also wrote for the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, where he worked with future comedy stars like Louis C.K., Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Charlie Kaufman and found his true comedy writing love in animated shorts under the moniker TV Funhouse. After creating the first Ambiguously Gay Duo segment with Colbert, Smigel carried his TV Funhouse work over to SNL, where he oversaw writing and production of 102 segments over a fifteen-year span, most recently the Jon Hamm/Jimmy Fallon live-action take on the Gay Duo, with cameos from original voices Colbert and Carell as the villains. Other hit segments included “The X-Presidents” and “Fun with Real Audio.”
Aside from his steady accomplishments on SNL and The Dana Carvey Show, Smigel also served as the first head writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where he worked from 1993-2000 and appeared many times, either as the cigar-smoking Rottweiler puppet Triumph or through his trademark “Clutch Cargo” celebrity interviews, where O’Brien interviewed still images of celebrities with Smigel’s mouth superimposed over them like a video puppet (a filming technique called Syncro-Vox). Triumph in particular was such a hit with audiences that he got his own solo album with 2003’s Come Poop with Me.
Smigel has appeared in many films by his SNL collaborators including Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World 2), and Adam Sandler (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Little Nicky, Punch-Drunk Love, etc.), not to mention the briefly-lived TV Funhouse Comedy Central series from 2001-2001, recurring roles on Crank Yankers from 2003-2007, and a small part as a Motherboy member on Arrested Development in 2005. Equally impressive to Smigel’s long list of writing and producing credits are his many projects that never made it to fruition, from the 1991 NBC pilot Lookwell (written and produced with Conan O’Brien and starring Adam West) to almost-made SNL movies for Hans and Franz (with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached) and the Swerski Superfans. Whether or not any given Smigel work made it to film or TV or whether he got much screen time as an SNL cast member makes little difference; he’s one of the most respected, hardworking, and on-point sketch comedy writers out there, and an integral part to SNL’s branching out to the viral video era.