Robert Smigel is an American comedian, writer, producer and creator best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, where he was a writer during the show's second heyday of 1986 to 1993 and later created, wrote and directed the TV Funhouse segments. Smigel also worked on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, where he was the show's first head writer, and where he created and performed in the Syncro-Vox "Celebrity Lips" segments and as his most famous character, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Robert Smigel was born February 7, 1960 in New York, New York. His father Dr. Irwin Smigel was one of the country's leading cosmetic dentists and the inventor of tooth bonding. His mother Lucia Smigel, the daughter of Russian (by way of Shanghai, China) immigrants, later became President and CEO of Super Smile, the corporation which patented and sold Irwin's advances. As parents, they were overprotective, and Smigel attended the private Franklin School up the street from his home. Young Smigel was fascinated by cartoons, TV shows and comedians. He learned to draw and to do impressions at a very young age and claimed as his first comedy influence a collection of Peanuts cartoons he received when he was seven. Other childhood influences included Looney Tunes cartoons, Red Skelton and Mr. Ed.
With no idea what he wanted to do, Smigel tried to follow in his father's footsteps. He worked hard in high school to attend a good college, but in the pre-dental program at Cornell University, he had difficulties. He moved to New York University, first in the communications college, then again in the pre-dental program, but found no more success either there or in summer sessions for organic chemistry at Hunter College. At NYU, Smigel entered a student stand-up comedy contest. Although his act was derivative of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, and he ran long (an unforgivable sin amongst new comedians), he won the contest and found comedy as his calling.
At age 22, he moved to Chicago and joined the comedy troupe All You Can Eat. There, he met and Michelle Saks, a lighting woman for the theater. The two were later married. Three years after Smigel's move, Al Franken and Tom Davis came to town to shoot the film One More Saturday Night. They saw one of Smigel's shows and were impressed with his work. As they had just been made producers of Saturday Night Live, they tapped Smigel for the writing staff. Smigel's first season of SNL was difficult and stressful. It was the eleventh season, in which producer and creator Lorne Michaels returned to the show after a five-season absence. The cast (including Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall) was young and inexperienced, and only Jon Lovitz was a stand-out. The writing staff—Smigel included—were in constant fear for their jobs.
In that first season, few of Smigel's sketches aired, but one of the few which did caused tension and resentment amongst the cast. He was responsible for arguably the most famous, the most infamous and the last sketch of the season, in the episode co-hosted by Anjelica Huston and Billy Martin. Earlier in the episode, having been taunted by Lovitz as Satan, Martin succumbs to his alcoholism and gets drunk, so Michaels kicks him off the set. In the final sketch, the cast meets in the locker room to congratulate each other on having completed the season and to prepare for the final goodbye on stage. As they meet, a disgruntled Martin returns with a can of gasoline and lights fire to the studio outside the locker room. Michaels runs into the locker room and runs out a few seconds later with Lovitz. "Wait for me in the car," Michaels says. "I'll explain everything later." Michaels then orders the writing staff into the burning locker room. He pauses a moment, then has a crisis of conscience and runs into the locker room himself. A title card reads: "Who will survive?" As the credits roll, each cast and crew member's name has a question mark after it. Although Smigel later claimed the sketch was meant as a parody of the cliffhanger season endings which had just begun to be popular by 1986, it seemed to the cast and writing crew as though Smigel had written a flippant sketch about the probability that they would all (except Lovitz) be fired over the summer.
In fact, most of them were gone by the time the twelfth season began. Of the cast, only Lovitz, Nora Dunn and Weekend Update anchor Dennis Miller returned. Smigel was amongst the few writers to survive, although he continued to fear he would be fired throughout the season. He never was. That season began what later became known as the "SNL Renaissance." New cast members Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks proved successful, and the writing staff soon included such names as Conan O'Brien, Bob Odenkirk and Christine Zander. Amongst those writers, Smigel was a stand-out. His sketches received more airtime, and some—such as the infamous "Get a Life" sketch starring William Shatner—are still considered classics. In addition, Smigel created such characters and sketches as The McLaughlin Group parodies and Bill Swerski's Superfans, in which Smigel had a rare on-screen recurring appearance as Superfan Carl Wollarski.
By the nineteenth season in 1993, the SNL Renaissance had ended. Zander, O'Brien and Odenkirk were gone (although Odenkirk returned that season). Carvey, Dunn, Hooks, Lovitz, Miller and Victoria Jackson had also left, and only Hartman, Kevin Nealon and Season Fourteen's addition Mike Myers would stay. The era of Carvey/Hartman/Hooks/Lovitz was over, and the era of Chris Farley/Adam Sandler/David Spade had begun. Although Smigel would contribute occasional sketches to SNL and would develop a friendship and working relationship with Sandler, he, too, was open to new opportunities.
His chance came that year, when O'Brien replaced David Letterman as host of the 12:30 NBC late night talk show spot. Smigel became head writer on the new show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien. His two years in that position were, again, stressful and disappointing. Critics panned the show, and audiences ignored it. Smigel later faulted himself for not understanding the nature of late night talk shows and for placing too much emphasis on shock comedy and avoiding comparisons to Letterman (which were nonetheless made) than to warming the audience up to the newcomer O'Brien. Smigel also later expressed surprise O'Brien wasn't yanked off the air and replaced with another host. In 1995, Smigel left the position.
His next television effort was also disappointing. In 1996, Carvey was given his own primetime sketch show on ABC, The Dana Carvey Show. Smigel wrote, executive produced and helped develop the show and co-wrote with Louis C.K. the first sketch, which ended with President Bill Clinton breast-feeding kittens. Despite contributions from writers and performers such as Smigel, Carvey, C.K., Steve Carell, Dave Chappelle, Stephen Colbert and Charlie Kaufman, and a prime timeslot between Home Improvement and NYPD Blue, the series was a disaster, and it lasted only seven episodes. Smigel later blamed himself for not having understood the family-oriented Home Improvement lead-in. He also complained ABC had overruled his and Carvey's requests for a parental advisory.
Despite the setbacks, Smigel found himself in a rare, enviable position amongst TV writers. He was now credited as staff writer on two hit shows: SNL and Late Night (which was turning audiences and critics around under the command of the new head writer, Jon Glaser), but Smigel rarely attended staff writer meetings for either show. Instead, he stayed at home and contributed only when inspiration struck and knew most of his ideas would be used.
Two such contributions became his most famous works on each of the two shows. Beginning with the premiere episode of the twenty-second season of SNL, Smigel wrote, produced and directed a set of cartoon shorts as regular segments, called TV Funhouse. The sketches, often parodies of the 1960s and '70s cartoons of Smigel's childhood, were amongst the most popular sketches on the show for the next ten seasons. Even the harshest critics of 1990s SNL often praised the TV Funhouse as the show's brightest spot, and Smigel launched a Comedy Central spin-off, TV Funhouse, a parody of children's puppet shows which lasted for eight episodes in 2000.
Seven months before TV Funhouse's debut, in February 1996, Smigel wrote Late Night a sketch about the famous Westminster Dog Show, in which the winning dogs showcased their talents—singing, dancing, stand-up comedy, etc. On February 13, 1997, Smigel wrote a second version of this sketch. This time, Smigel himself voiced one of the dogs—a cigar-smoking insult comic in the style of Don Rickles or Jack E. Leonard, who spoke with the Eastern European accent of Smigel's mother's relatives. The Insult Comic Dog was a hit and soon began recurring appearances. Although the initial joke was a parody of an outdated style of comedy, when the dog unleashed his venom on such celebrity guests as John Tesh, David Hasselhoff and Fabio, the insult comedy took on a life of its own. The segments were favorites on the talk show highlight series Talk Soup, where host John Henson dubbed the dog "Triumph" (from the dog's first appearance, in which he was billed under the name of an actual winner of the 1997 Westminster Dog Show, "Triumph, Honor of Whitehall").
As Triumph was becoming a pop culture phenomenon, Smigel had a crisis in his personal life. In 1998, he and Michelle gave birth to a son, Daniel. Months later, Daniel was diagnosed as autistic. The difficulty of raising and educating an autistic child led to a crusade. Smigel put together the fundraising telethon Night of Too Many Stars in 2003 on NBC to raise funding for and awareness of autism education. He produced a second telethon for Comedy Central three years later. As of October 2006, the telethons have raised over $4 million for the cause.
Since the 1986 cliffhanger SNL sketch, Smigel has often faced controversy. "Conspiracy Theory Rock," a TV Funhouse short which aired as part of the live east coast broadcast of the March 14, 1998 episode of SNL, was cut from later time zones and all subsequent re-airings because it was said to have defamed NBC's parent company, General Electric. Triumph also had famous run-ins with rapper Eminem, fans of pop star Michael Jackson outside the Santa Monica courthouse in which Jackson was being tried for child molestation, even the Canadian Parliament. Despite these incidents, Smigel has claimed on several occasions he does not welcome controversy, nor does he intend for celebrities and others to take offense at his humor.
Smigel continues to write for Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O'Brien and other comedy shows. He lives in New York with Michelle and Daniel.
|The Dana Carvey Show||Ensemble Member||1996||1|
|TV Funhouse||Host / Ensemble Member||2000||1|
Guest Starring Roles
|Saturday Night Live||Featured Player||17x19 - Tom Hanks/Bruce Springsteen||May 9, 1992|
|Saturday Night Live||Featured Player||17x20 - Woody Harrelson/Vanessa Williams||May 16, 1992|
|Saturday Night Live||Featured Player||18x06 - Michael Keaton/Morrissey||November 14, 1992|
|LateLine||Pearce Dummy||2x01 - Pearce on Conan||January 6, 1999|
|Crank Yankers||Agent Tierney||2x16 - Episode 216||October 21, 2003|
|Crank Yankers||Samir||2x19 - Episode 219||November 11, 2003|
|Space Ghost Coast to Coast||Triumph the Insult Comic Dog||8x05 - Dreams||January 11, 2004|
|The Gong Show with Dave Attell||Triumph the Insult Comic Dog||1x02 - Episode 102||July 24, 2008|
Talk Show Appearances
|Late Night with Conan O'Brien||Show 1368||January 10, 2001|
|Howard Stern||January 23, 2004|
|The O'Reilly Factor||August 10, 2004|
|Howard Stern||October 27, 2004|
|Howard Stern||March 11, 2005|
|Late Night with Conan O'Brien||Show 2218||April 28, 2006|
Notable Film Roles
|Saturday Night Live||1985 –2008||Staff Writer||11||12||13||14||15||16||17||18||19||20||21||22||23||24||25||26||27||28||29||30||31||32||33|
|Late Night with Conan O'Brien||1993 –2000||Staff Writer||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|The Dana Carvey Show||1996||Staff Writer||1|
|TV Funhouse||2000||Staff Writer||1|
Specials and Made-for-TV Movies Written
|15th Anniversary Special||September 24, 1989||Saturday Night Live|
|25th Anniversary Special||September 26, 1999||Saturday Night Live|
|Night of Too Many Stars||May 31, 2003|
|Saturday Night Live||1990 –1992||Co-Producer||16||17|
|The Dana Carvey Show||1996||Executive Producer||1|
|TV Funhouse||2000||Executive Producer||1|
Specials and Made-for-TV Movies Produced
|Night of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Benefit for Autism Education||Executive Producer||October 15, 2006|
Awards and Accolades
(13 Nominations/2 Wins)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1986-87)
- Won: Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1988-89)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1989-90)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1990-91)
- Nominated: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1991-92)
- Nominated: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Variety or Music Program (1992-93)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program (1996-97)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (1999-2000)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2000-01)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2001-02)
- Won: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2001-02)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2002-03)
- Nominated: Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2003-04)
WGA TV Awards
(9 Nominations/5 Wins)
- Nominated: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (1998)
- Won: Comedy/Variety - Music, Awards, Tributes - Specials - Any Length (2000)
- Won: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2001)
- Nominated: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2001)
- Won: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2002)
- Nominated: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2002)
- Nominated: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2003)
- Won: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2004)
- Won: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2005)
- With Bob Odenkirk and Conan O'Brien, co-wrote a Chicago comedy revue called The Happy Happy Good Show during a WGA writers' strike in 1998.
- With Conan O'Brien, wrote one of the most legendary pilots never to be sold: A sitcom starring Adam West called Lookwell, about a former TV detective who becomes a real-life one.