The creative force behind the animated "TV Funhouse" short films and the foul-mouthed puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Robert Smigel may have been one of the more beloved, yet least publicly recognized comic talents of his day. Smigel's comedic career began as a part of an improvisation group co-created with Bob Odenkirk, prior to being recruited to join the ranks of the writing staff at "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). During his time at "SNL," he was responsible for several memorable recurring sketches, and created lasting friendships with cast member Adam Sandler and fellow series writer Conan O'Brien. When O'Brien was tapped to fill the very large shoes left behind by David Letterman, Smigel followed him as head writer on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC, 1993-2009), later jumping ship to write for the ill-fated "The Dana Carvey Show" (ABC, 1995-96). It was on these programs that Smigel unleashed the inspired madness of creations like the acid-tongued Triumph and "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" segments, respectively. Even as Triumph and "TV Funhouse" became de facto cottage industries for Smigel - "Funhouse" eventually became a recurring installment on "SNL" - he also found time to clown with Sandler in several films, including "Happy Gilmore" (1996) and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" (2007). Although operating primarily behind the scenes - or at the end of a hand puppet - Smigel's subversive brand of humor was at the forefront of the period's comedic wave whether audiences knew him by name or not.
Born on Feb. 7, 1960, Robert M. Smigel was raised in Manhattan in a very traditional Jewish family. His father was a preeminent dentist - Irwin Smigel, D.D.S. invented the process of tooth bonding - and after graduating from the exclusive Franklin School, he enrolled in the pre-dentistry program at Cornell University. Having second thoughts about his chosen career path, Smigel transferred to New York University, where he earned a degree in communications. While there he entered a stand-up comedy competition held on campus, which he won. Smigel was encouraged enough to take a leap of faith, promptly relocating to Chicago where he studied improvisation at The Players Workshop, an improv school closely affiliated with the city's famed Second City group. There he met fellow student Bob Odenkirk - later of "Mr. Show" (HBO, 1995-99) fame - and the two formed their own comedy troupe, billed as All You Can Eat. A few years later, while performing on stage, Smigel was noticed by veteran "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) writers Al Franken and Tom Davis. They were impressed enough to put in a good word with executive producer Lorne Michaels to bring Smigel onboard the long-running comedy show's writing staff, which he did for seven years, beginning with the 1985 season.
Initially working as an apprentice, Smigel nevertheless made a strong impression quickly; he was responsible for the Star Trek convention sketch where host William Shatner played himself, making fun of obsessed Trekkies and insisting to them that "it's just a TV show," and that they should all "get a life!" Other popular bits during his tenure included the recurring "Bill Swerski's Superfans" - featuring a beer-guzzling group of Chicago natives espousing the virtues of their beloved home team, "Da Bears" - one of the few sketches Smigel also performed in. During a break from "SNL," Smigel returned to Chicago, where he teamed with fellow up-and-comers Bob Odenkirk and Conan O'Brien on a theater production called "The Happy Happy Good Show." When he returned to NYC in 1988, Odenkirk and O'Brien came with him as the newest additions to the "SNL" writing pool. Over the next several years, Smigel went on to collaborate with "SNL" cast member Adam Sandler on many now classic sketches, and the two soon formed a lasting friendship. It would be personal and professional relationships, such as the one with Hollywood heavyweight Sandler and future prince of late night, O'Brien, which would shape Smigel's career to a large extent in the decade to come.
In the early 1990s, Smigel's friend and fellow comedy writer Conan O'Brien was selected to host his own late night talk show on NBC, courtesy of his old "SNL" boss, Lorne Michaels, who pushed for the unknown O'Brien to take over for the departed David Letterman on the network's talk show, "Late Night." Smigel was hired as head writer, where he was tasked with making the then extremely nervous writer-turned-overnight TV host with very little performance experience stand out in a field of talk show icons. From day one, Smigel set the absurd and innovative tone for the show. He was responsible for such bits as "The Year 2000," in which O'Brien and others cryptically predicted a ridiculous future while holding flashlights under their chins. The bit originated during Smigel's and O'Brien's stage days in Chicago, and became so popular on the show that it was featured well past the actual year 2000. In 1995, Smigel left the staff of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC, 1993-2009) and moved over to write for "The Dana Carvey Show" (ABC, 1995-96). Despite its dizzyingly short life and low ratings, it was on that show that Smigel first introduced what would become one of his signature comic creations, "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." The animated shorts were modeled right down to the sound effects after Saturday morning cartoons such as "Super Friends" (ABC, 1973-76) and "Jonny Quest" (ABC, 1964-65), which capitalized on a growing trend of Generation Xers to both wax nostalgic and poke fun at icons of its childhood, a keystone element in Smigel's unique brand of comedy.
Still frequently contributing to "Conan" as a guest performer, Smigel continued to create memorable comic bits. Taking the well-worn art of impressions of public figures in a strange new direction, Smigel appropriated a cost-cutting trick from the cult-classic cartoon series "Clutch Cargo" (syndicated, 1959-1961), and superimposed moving mouths onto still images using a method known as "Synchro-Vox" - in this case, photos of presidents and pop stars instead of animated characters. The result - which featured Smigel's over-the-top vocal impressions combined with otherwise static images - was an audience favorite and continued to be a regular feature on "Late Night." Smigel's next creation, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, would bring him even more notoriety. Inspired by several latex animal puppets his wife brought home from a thrift store, Smigel quickly established the brash, profane persona of what would become Triumph, and brought the obnoxious, canine Borsch-belt comedian character onto "Late Night," where he memorably poked fun at unwary guests. Soon Triumph was out on the street, making fun of celebrities at red-carpet affairs, ribbing Lord of the Rings fanboys and appearing at events such as the MTV Video Music Awards, where he once brought rapper Eminem - who was clearly not in on the joke - to near violence.
Known primarily for his behind the scenes contributions, Smigel also made small cameos in numerous films, usually with his good friend Adam Sandler in such crowd pleasers as "Billy Madison" (1995), "Happy Gilmore" (1996), and "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002). As busy as he was, he never stopped contributing to "SNL," and eventually his animated shorts - dubbed "TV Funhouse" - became a regular installment on the show. The hugely popular, ongoing series of cartoon sketches often featured the "Ambiguously Gay Duo," "The New Adventures of Mr. T," and other bizarre creations inspired by old Saturday morning television, usually with a wildly subversive twist. The concept was even spun into a series - "TV Funhouse" (Comedy Central, 2000-01) - consisting of a mixture of animation interspersed with live action segments featuring a cast of animal puppets - the "Anipals" - who inevitably ditched well-meaning host Bob in order to pursue less kid-friendly pursuits, such as visiting a Tijuana bordello. The show lasted just eight episodes, but continued to be a popular fixture on "SNL" nonetheless. Smigel also utilized his voice talents on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" (Cartoon Network, 1994-2004) and "Crank Yankers" (Comedy Central, 2001-07). He reteamed with Sandler for cameos in the comedies "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" (2007) and "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" (2008), the latter of which he co-wrote with the film's star. As the father of a child with autism, Smigel spearheaded a project of personal importance as a writer, producer, and performer on the biannual benefit special first televised in 2006, "Night of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Concert of Autism Education" (Comedy Central, 2010).