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.
"The Ambiguously Gay Duo," on the other hand, passes the Janus test of great satire, ribbing two different audiences simultaneously: those who find gay subtext everywhere they look, and those who swear they don't see it even when the most ludicrously obvious evidence is staring back at them. Robert Smigel admits he may be more in the latter camp.
"We did that as a reaction to people talking about how Batman and Robin were boyfriends," Smigel says. "Personally, I never saw that in the TV series. But Joel Schumacher's movie Batman Forever was filled with homoerotic imagery. I guess I never wanted to think about that stuff while I was watching superheroes fight crime. But whether you're the biggest homophobe on the planet or the most tolerant straight person, it seems like everyone's interested in who's gay these days. We want to play that guessing game. And just the speculation that, say, George Clooney might be gay makes everyone giggle like schoolgirls."
Robert Smigel made his reputation as a writer of live-action TV sketch comedy, but his current success as an animator is, ironically, much closer to his roots as a 'toon-hungry kid growing up in New York.
"My parents set me in front of the TV when I was three, and I think I finally got up around puberty," he says with a laugh. "And TV animation, both the visuals and the writing, was always my biggest influence. But I was pretty particular about my cartoons--for instance, early on I hated Mickey Mouse and Goofy. They were both happy in a way that seemed stupid, phony. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were much more my speed, not just the fast-moving images but the anarchy of it. Disney characters always seemed like they were trying to fit into the world, while Warner Brothers characters were always challenging the world."
His comedy idol? Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts in their print, TV, and movie screen incarnations. "A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced," Smigel says. "And you know I'm serious when I say that, because I'm Jewish. The range of subjects that show covers in 22 minutes, and the way it treats each one with humor and sadness at the same time, is amazing. These were kids with adult feelings; they knew what a lonely place the world could be, but they had the determination to keep going."
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Smigel used an audio snippet from his favorite half-hour of American TV in a recent "Fun With Real Audio" segment. After Jesus returns to earth, he stumbles upon Linus Van Pelt delivering his spine-tingling Biblical recitation on "the true meaning of Christmas" under a spotlight. Under Smigel's direction, the animated Jesus lets a tear fall during Linus' presentation. This was a purely comic move on Smigel's part: the son of God crying over a Peanuts cartoon?
"I was in the [Saturday Night Live] studio when they showed it to the audience," Smigel recalls. "And nobody laughed at that scene. I thought at first maybe they were offended, but I talked to some people afterward, and they said they loved A Charlie Brown Christmas since they were kids, too. They were moved by it. That was not what I expected."
Robert Smigel will accept the Ernie Kovacs Award on Friday, March 6, at 7 p.m. in the Electronic Theater.