He Puts the Fun in 'Funhouse'

By Douglas J. Rowe

Robert Smigel doesn't want to give away what the animated segment on tonight's season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" will be about, but offers a hint: "It's President Clinton-oriented."

Smigel may be the funniest guy on television nobody knows.

On the venerable "SNL," which begins its 24th season Saturday, he writes the show's hilarious animated shorts -- drawn by J.J. Sedelmaier -- under the umbrella title of "TV Funhouse." They include "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," a Batman-and-Robin-like tandem whose friends and foes wonder about their sexuality; "X-Presidents," with Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush as superheroes "struck by a hurricane-powered dose of radiation while appearing at a celebrity golf tournament ... rendering them all the more extraordinary"; and "Fun With Real Audio," which typically juxtaposes actual sound bites with incongruous images.

Smigel is also the "lips" of President Clinton on "Late Night With Conan O' Brien" as well as the voice of Triumph the Insult-Comic Dog, a Don Rickles-like canine hand puppet.

Even if they're weird gimmicks, Smigel says his creations serve as sturdy vehicles for fertile material. Which brings him back to Clinton. Smigel says he figures his quartet of "X-Presidents" won't become a quintet in the next year.

"I'm not too worried about Clinton joining forces with those guys anytime soon," he says, then chuckles: "He'd just mess it up."

For a while Smigel was doing the Clinton lips on "Conan" every few weeks, sometimes only monthly. These days, he's doing the bit once or twice a week.

"Now it's taking up almost as much time as the cartoons on 'Saturday Night Live' which is the job I actually get a real salary for doing," he says.

Smigel enjoys doing Clinton because it gives him a chance to act totally out of character. "I'm usually this shuffling, mumbling guy who just sort of thinks a lot around the office, giggles to himself, and frightens people on the street."

The 38-year-old Smigel, who spent eight years on the "SNL" writing staff until he became the first head writer and a producer for "Conan," says he was daunted by the prospect of imitating Clinton when he first did it on O'Brien's second show five years ago. What made it worse was the excellent Clinton impersonation by his late friend Phil Hartman, which Smigel admired.

Still he successfully performed his already planned surreal and over-the-top impression of Clinton -- "a Bruce Springsteen-from-the-South Hardy Boy."

A New York native, Smigel lives in a Greenwich Village penthouse apartment with his wife, Michelle, and their 7-month-old son, Daniel.

He thought about following his father into dentistry, attending a pre-dental program at Cornell University for two years before switching to communications at New York University. After winning a stand-up comic contest, he joined a comedy troupe in Chicago, where then "SNL" staffers Al Franken and Tom Davis saw the group and hired him as a writer for the show.

Smigel helped O'Brien get his show started, but after two years, he says, it began to wear on him.

When he proposed the animated segment to "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels, a deal was quickly made. And now he's beginning his third season of the cartoon gig.

With the success of "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" and "South Park," Smigel knows he's benefiting from the fact that cartoons for grown-ups are bigger than ever. And he thinks it could have happened sooner -- if networks had been willing to take the chance.

"I think everybody's sort of behind the curve. I think it's something that could have worked years ago," he says.

"I remember the audience response for Mr. Bill (in the early years of 'SNL') was unlike any other part of the show. As popular as other parts were, I'll never forget how people reacted to Mr. Bill and that whole visceral chopping of a kiddie icon. It seems like people have been ready for this thing for years."

Source: Associated Press

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