Robert Smigel blew off dental school and moved to Chicago, the home of the Second City Theatre, because he loved sketch comedy and wanted to make it his job. Within two years he was the lead writer of a theater revue (All You Can Eat and the Temple of Dooom) that was a hit and got him hired at Saturday Night Live.
When I met him I was a student of sketch in Chicago and writing my own craziness with numerous groups. Robert liked my notions, we hit it off, I moved into the theater crash-pad he shared with other fringy actor types, and we started planning a show we would write together. He was hired at SNL before we got too far. Two years later I joined the staff there and got my ass kicked around the block. Robert, however, did fantastically well, writing many of the most memorable sketches of the Downey Jr. through Carvey through Sandler years: The “Cliffhanger” sketch that ended the ’85-’86 season, William Shatner’s “Get a life!” nerd-fest sketch, “The McLaughlin Group,” “Cluckin’ Chicken,” “Da Bears Fans,” and “Schmitt's Gay Beer.” Beyond the legendary sketches, there are countless super-funny unheralded pieces that would make a boxed set of best-ofs. I was there when he wrote many of these and it was intimidating to observe.
The best sketches are great concepts, funny on their own, that also provide the opportunity for hilarious performances. Robert combined these two qualities in every sketch, and he did it very well. He worked hard, had an amazing ability to concentrate, even after a night of no sleep. He simply had skills far beyond those of the other newcomers who arrived at the show when I did and equal to those of many seasoned veterans. How the fuck did he do that? I would wonder to myself as he wrote one perfect piece after another.
I was in the Believer’s offices in San Francisco a year ago and they asked me if there was anyone I’d like to interview. I immediately thought of Robert. Though he’s better known now for his cartoons and his work as the first head writer of Late Night with Conan O’Brien (where he created Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog), I wanted to focus on sketch writing. We agreed we’d get to it at the first opportunity. Many months later, Robert was doing a panel at San Diego Comic-Con to promote the DVD of TV Funhouse, his animations from SNL, so I took the train to San Diego and we rode back to L.A. that evening in the backseat of a Town Car with a tape recorder. Luckily, there were traffic problems, so we had almost enough time to explore “the question.”
BOB ODENKIRK: You’re defending SNL there, and how hard it is, and it is very hard to do, just on the face of it. People ask, and comedy writers especially ask, “How come the show isn’t better?” I look at SNL as a sporting match, and the question is: “How come the game isn’t better?” The contest is: You take this cast, they’re the team, and they compete each week against not being funny. And every time they’re funny they score a point. So every week you’re watching to see if they score a few points. And if they score, like, three goddamn points, they fucking won, you know? But it’s a shame that it’s set up as nothing but this contest, because I think the preparation could be overseen better, and the show could do more than just score a point or two each week. That’s my grand theory of SNL … But I would add that after years of watching, never directly, just out of the corner of my eye, I’ve concluded that I might be wrong and Lorne [Michaels] might have it exactly right.
But we’ll never find out, will we? Sorry, world.
ROBERT SMIGEL: I’m defending SNL’s writing, yes. I don’t blame the writers for the compromises they have to make, as far as addressing topicality, which the show lives on, and the time crunch. I was, however, always someone who did want us to work on the off-weeks a little more, devote chunks of time to writing and honing nontopical and character sketches. Everyone talks about how hard the show is, but I always thought if there were more sketches in the bank, the actual production week would be less stressful and dramatic.
That aside, there are other factors that make it overly easy to take shots at. SNL is pretty much the only comedy show on TV that’s not sweetened with fake laughs. Even great sitcoms with live audiences sweeten. Talk shows don’t, but at least the host gets his laughs by commenting on jokes bombing. Compounding this, remember that SNL doesn’t see itself as having a strong, single comedy viewpoint, the way your show or Kids in the Hall did, or Conan’s does. It was thrilling to have that opportunity at Conan, to start with a specific style and commit to it. But SNL, and Lorne has said this, is designed to appeal just enough to everyone, so that the widest possible audience tunes in, each for the three or four bits they’ll like best. So the way they see it, you think they only score three points because of your taste in comedy. It’s kind of like if you liked everything, they’re not doing their job, because it means someone else—your polar opposite—must have hated everything, and won’t come back.
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