How a Writer’s Strike Birthed Saturday Night Live’s Famous ‘Da Bears’ Sketch
Out of the thousands and thousands of jokes that have been written for Saturday Night Live, few are more iconic and economical than these two simple words: “Da Bears.” Perhaps, then, it isn’t a coincidence that we have a writer’s strike to thank for this catchphrase and the sketch that spawned it, in which a bunch of portly Chicago Bears fans discuss how handily their team could defeat the New York Giants under various scenarios, like if the Bears were all 14 inches tall or if coach Mike Ditka had to play the entire game by himself. Whether the Bears win or not is never up for debate.
The sketch was the brainchild of Robert Smigel of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame, who also plays the leftmost Superfan in the clip above. The roots of the idea go back to the early 1980s when Smigel moved to Chicago to start a career in comedy and noticed a prevalence of heavyset fans with walrus mustaches and aviator glasses at sporting events. The words “Da Bears” began forming in his mind, but he had no idea for an actual sketch and only mentioned these characters to an improv class buddy named Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk, who grew up in suburban Chicago, made the crucial suggestion of lengthening the sound of the “s” at the end for added authenticity.
Smigel joined SNL as a writer in 1985, with Odenkirk following suit in 1987 (which is why he had the "honor" of being there the time Steven Seagal "hosted"). Although working on SNL is a famously stressful job, Smigel and Odenkirk suddenly found themselves with a whole lot of free time in 1988, when the Writers Guild of America went into the longest strike in its history. To keep themselves entertained, Smigel and Odenkirk went back to Chicago with some friends and put together a little improv show called Happy Happy Good Show. The only existing footage of it depicts Odenkirk performing something that can only generously be called a sketch with some SNL rookie they let tag along by the name of Conan O’Brien.
Freed of the pressure that comes with having an actual audience, Smigel finally used his “Da Bears” guys in a very loose sketch that consisted of the characters shooting the shit while sitting on lawn chairs. When they took Happy Happy Good Show to Los Angeles, Smigel cut the sketch, figuring that no one outside of Chicago could possibly understand what was supposed to be funny about it. But then, when Chicago native Joe Mantegna hosted SNL in 1991, Odenkirk convinced a reluctant Smigel to pitch the sketch to him. You can listen to Smigel’s impression of Bob Odenkirk saying, “Robert, we gotta try it! Come on, I’m telling you! It’ll be funny!” at 2:35 below:
Odenkirk was also the one who proposed making the characters the hosts of a local sports show (based on an existing Chicago one), which provided a more interesting setting than a bunch of lawn chairs. Once Odenkirk had worn Smigel down, he wrote the sketch with Phil Hartman in mind for one of the characters, but head writer Jim Downey recast it as Smigel himself because he had the most authentic fake Chicago accent.
Once again, Smigel underestimated his creation by assuming the sketch was a one-time deal. They ended up reviving it about two dozen times between further SNL sketches, TV ads and appearances during actual sporting events. At one point, Smigel and Odenkirk even wrote a movie about the characters, which, based on the batting average of SNL film adaptations, had more chances of sucking than not (even Coach Ditka probably couldn’t have made it a winner). Still, there’s no doubt that it would have broken audience records (and possibly theater seats) in Chicago.