‘SNL’ Animation Allowed Robert Smigel to Be ‘A Rebel in A Sweater’
Comedy writer and performer Robert Smigel has a lot of respect for alternative comedy programs like Mr. Show, “but it’s a different challenge to survive and get laughs on mainstream TV while still being hip and smart,” he told Mike Sacks in And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft. “It’s a lot more difficult to be a rebel in a sweater.”
Growing up as a huge fan of mainstream comedy show Saturday Night Live, being a rebel in a sweater was Smigel’s challenge once he became one of the show’s writers. “It’s incredibly satisfying to slip something strange into the mainstream and have it work.” He’d seen other comics do it on SNL — Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, to name two. Smigel was smart enough to figure out his own way to get away with subversive material — and that was to animate it.
Why cartoons? “There are certain images that are just easier to swallow in cartoon form,” he told Sacks, using his Cluckin’ Chicken commercial parody as an example.
“It was about an extremely happy cartoon chicken who explains in great detail how he will soon be butchered and then eaten and then digested in a customer’s gastrointestinal tract,” Smigel explained. “If he wasn’t animated with googly eyes — if it was just a guy in a suit — it probably would have been much more disturbing.”
Want more examples? Smigel points to his X-Presidents series of TV Funhouse cartoons, featuring former U.S. leaders as superheroes.
One episode, for example, might depict George H.W. Bush getting busy with his wife Barbara in a sex swing. “There’s no way on earth that I could have gotten away with that with actors,” he says. “I’m still a little shocked that I got away with it at all, quite frankly.”
That same principle likely applies to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, the comic puppet that Smigel voices. If Smigel himself showed up at a political convention and started insulting people, he might get a punch in the nose for his trouble. But the savage remarks are somehow easier to swallow when they’re coming from a rubber dog chomping on a cigar.
After Triumph became a hit, “I realized that he could provide a kind of cathartic reaction for the audience when Conan (O’Brien) had goofy guests on the show — like John Tesh or David Hasselhoff or William Shatner,” Smigel says. “Here was this ridiculous puppet who could say what everyone else might have been thinking.”
The lesson: It’s easier to be a rebel when kiddie show characters are telling the jokes.