Reflecting on the Career and Influence of Robert Smigel at the Museum of Television and RadioBy: Jeffrey Bergstrom
Robert Smigel's appearance at the Museum of Television and Radio last night exceeded expectations; the level of revelation the discussion unleashed was incredible. The show was slated to begin at 6:30pm sharp, but due to heavy traffic, Mr. Smigel arrived 30 minutes late. To keep the natives from getting too restless, museum coordinators decided to show an extensive comp reel of some of Robert's greatest hits. The reel was probably the best way to start the evening, as it revealed how Smigel is the brains behind SNL and Conan's most famous sketches and characters. It contained SNL bits such as Shatner at a Trekkie convention, Phil Hartman's portrayal as a bi-polar Ronald Reagan, the infamous Schmitt's Gay ad (the version with the Van Halen soundtrack, not aired on SNL), the Ambiguously Gay Duo, the Ex-Presidents, the Fun with Real Audio shorts, Adventures of Mr. T., Christmastime for the Jews, Smigel's more famous Conan and Triumph moments, and culminated with a viewing of the TV Funhouse pilot in its entirety.
After the clips, discussion moderator Kurt Anderson approached the podium to give opening remarks, however, he was savagely cut short by a heckler in the back of the auditorium. The heckler, it turned out, was none other than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog--a surprise to everyone in the house. The puppet eventually made his way--Smigel in tow--to the podium for an interview of his own.
Between the clips already shown and Triumph's unexpected appearance, the crowd was loosened up and ready for a discussion. To start, Mr. Smigel briefly presented a series of Republican campaign ads he made for SNL and discussed how decency is tackled there. According to Robert, Lorne Michaels has always been an advocate for his work and pushes a lot of his stuff through the censors and decency boards at NBC.
Some great gems of insight popped up throughout the discussion. When Conan takes over for Jay Leno on the Tonight show, Mr. Smigel claimed he will under no circumstances leave New York for LA to join him. He doesn't care what this means for his future with Conan; nothing could get him to relocate to LA. He even mildly apologized in advance to his fans for this firm and unwavering decision.
When the topic of Triumph came up, he noted that the puppet was actually a gift and that the first thing he ever did with it was chase his wife around the house and sniff her ass--a fitting foreshadowing for the role that puppet would soon play. Somewhat astonishingly, we learned that most of the Triumph on-the-street segments aren't as improvised as people think. For example, he knew exactly what kind of people he'd be dealing with when he went to the Star Wars premiere at the Zigfield Theater. It was just a matter of sitting down with a writer in advance, coming up with the jokes, and then finding people who would be the perfect victims for these already made jokes. Another shocking piece of information was the fact that every episode of TV Funhouse went at least $200,000 over budget and that even with this irresponsible spending, Comedy Central still supported the show 100%.
Throughout the discussion they played a lot of clips, many of which have not been aired. Clips shown included Conspiracy Theory Rock, a justifiably unaired Michael Jackson cartoon from SNL, Triumph at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, part of a clown show pilot which Smigel pitched to Fox, and a clip of the TV Funhouse gang in Las Vegas. The show closed with a segment from The Dana Carvey Show; a clip which, according to Smigel, killed any future the show might have had.