'Toon Man

Robert Smigel is the hottest animator you've never heard of

Robert Smigel, denizen of late-night TV and member of the new creative royalty of animation for adults--a white-hot humor elite that includes the masterminds of South Park and King of the Hill--is set to receive the Dallas Video Festival's Ernie Kovacs award this year for his pioneering work in TV comedy.

The 38-year-old veteran writer, producer, and co-animator from Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Conan O'Brien will be honored with, in part, a compilation of clips from his TV work. But over the last couple of weeks, Smigel has had to assemble a video collection for a project he wishes hadn't been necessary: a memorial tribute to his late friend and sometime writing and performing partner Chris Farley. His tribute aired on Saturday Night Live February 21. "I was really under the gun putting this thing together, because I'm working on other projects, plus my wife and I just had a baby," Smigel says with a sigh. "But we all worked really hard on it, because we wanted to let Chris' family know that we thought he was a great guy too."

You may never have heard Robert Smigel's name, although if you're a committed SNL viewer, you saw him opposite Farley as one of the trio of Chicago Bears fans in that wildly popular sports sketch from the early '90s. "Those characters were a hit around the country," Smigel notes. "But we were practically gods in Chicago." His biggest contributions have been behind the camera, whether as an intermittent writer on Saturday Night Live since 1985; the head writer and resident vocal impressionist ("I prefer to call myself an 'imprecisionist'") of Late Night With Conan O'Brien; and the head writer, executive producer, and occasional performer on all eight episodes of the legendarily tasteless, often hilarious Dana Carvey Show.

Since only die-hard Carvey fans are familiar with Smigel's contributions to that variety show, everyone else is probably still asking: Who the hell is Robert Smigel? Let's identify him--as Lorne Michaels has in interviews--as the latest savior of the painfully erratic Saturday Night Live, when, in 1996, his "TV Funhouse" segment premiered "Fun with Real Audio" and revived "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" from its one appearance on Dana Carvey.

Both are cartoons, drawn by animator J.J. Sedelmaier and written, produced, and directed by Smigel. "Fun with Real Audio" is a conceptually simple but technically complex bit of mischief that takes audio segments from real-life interviews with and speeches by public figures, and synchronizes them with animation inspired by Smigel's merciless imagination. "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" may be the gayest bit of TV animation a straight man has ever created, in which two strapping, suspiciously chummy superheroes named Gary and Ace ride to the rescue in their phallus-shaped car, touch each other's behinds as a mutual reward for vanquishing evil, and, when confronted by the nosy machinations of their arch-nemesis Big Head, often mysteriously wind up in each other's arms.

The audacity of these two word-of-mouth TV hits triggered yet another Saturday Night Live resurrection--once again, people were talking at the office on Monday morning about what they'd watched. The anarchic silliness of the bits has always been part of Smigel's take-no-prisoners, Mad Magazine-esque combination of mimicry and mockery. But Smigel didn't hit his stride until ABC's Taco Bell-sponsored The Dana Carvey Show--and found the network arbiters of taste snapping at his heels from the very first segment of the premiere episode.

"The night before our first show aired, we were the biggest heroes at ABC," Smigel says with a laugh. "Everybody said they loved our stuff. Then when we started our premiere episode with a sketch whose punch line was President Clinton breast-feeding different animals, nobody wanted to claim us. The phones at ABC and Taco Bell lit up with hundreds of angry calls. Remember, we followed the very 'family-friendly' Home Improvement, which was a huge programming mistake. And, I think, we were arrogant in misjudging our audience, pushing too much too soon. That was the year ABC had taken a nosedive from first in the ratings toward third, so the powers that be were extra nervous about keeping their jobs."

Smigel returned to his old stomping ground, late-night TV, which he says is "much freer, just because there's less competition and a smaller audience watching."

"'Fun With Real Audio' began as the flip side of a segment we still do on Late Night With Conan O'Brien," Smigels says. "It's called 'Clutch Cargo' or 'The Lips,' but it's where we project a still photograph of a famous person on a screen and superimpose my lips over it. And then I'll do an impression of that person, but with a twist: When I do Clinton, I always make him sound like a sort of 'Arkansas Springsteen' rather than just a statesman with a drawl. Those sketches are a practical joke on someone's picture, on an image. And then I thought, why not play a joke on someone's voice?"

In "Fun With Real Audio," every celebrity becomes the embodiment of their worst press. Politicians, TV journalists, and movie stars are transformed into a menagerie of spotlight-dazzled ids colliding into each other like bumper cars: You can watch TV evangelist Robert Schuller punch Jesus for interrupting his money pleas, or Barbara Walters stripping for O.J. pal Robert Kardashian, or Bill Clinton sending a prison-matronish Hillary Clinton into outer space between soundbites at a state-of-the-union address.

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