Robert Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos Open Up Their TV FUNHOUSE to Mr. Beaks!!
Published at: July 28, 2008, 11:53 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
It's four in the afternoon on Thursday at Comic Con, and the G4 booth is besieged by nerds bearing boners for ATTACK OF THE SHOW co-host Olivia Munn. She's pretty cute, but I'm much more interested in the frizzy-haired dude to her left who's half-heartedly trying to stay out of frame as he rains down invective on a three-deep ring of costumed geeks via a cigar-chomping Rottweiler puppet named Triumph.
I've always wanted to watch Robert Smigel operate Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, and he's not disappointing. Then again, he's worked this crowd before, most notably back in 2002, when Triumph paid a visit to the ATTACK OF THE CLONES line outside of Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theater for LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN. This convention center is one big target, and Smigel's leisurely nailing the bull's eye with one so-broad-it's-funny put-down after another ("There are so many virgins here, it's enough to make a terrorist jealous!").
Usually, the gathering of nerds is reason enough to bring Triumph out, but the man working the puppet actually has some merchandise to peddle this time. It's hard to believe, but, after years of insistent entreaties from me and maybe four other guys, Robert Smigel's TV FUNHOUSE has finally hit DVD! And if you're wondering how that's different from "Saturday TV Funhouse", just remember that this is the series in which a bunch of crudely manufactured animal puppets once mistook a man's spinal fluid for "Christmas cheer". It was, in short, everything WAR AND REMEMBRANCE should've been.
Though it only ran for eight episodes, the show apparently acquired enough of a cult following to merit a panel/retrospective at this year's Comic Con. When I found out Smigel would be in attendance, I started firing off emails to find out if I could pin him, and co-conspirator Dino Stamatopoulos, down for an interview. It was all incredibly last second, but Comedy Central's Renata Luczak made it happen, and for that I am forever in her debt.
The below transcript represents about ninety-percent of our discussion. Unfortunately, some of the riffing (particularly the stuff done in doggy voice) was lost to laughter. If I'd had more time, I would've definitely made a point of getting Dino more involved (his Adult Swim series, MORAL OREL, is returning for a third, and sadly final, season on August 17th). But I'm happy I at least resolved a few lingering questions I've had about Smigel's brilliant contributions to LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN (I can't believe "Rotten Fruit Theater" wasn't his). Hopefully, there will be another time. Until then, here's twenty-three minutes with two of the best comedy writers on the fucking planet.
Beaks: It was fun watching you work Triumph down on the floor. As a friend of mine said earlier, I don't know if they make a bigger barrel of fish.
Robert Smigel: (Laughing) Other than the line at the STAR WARS opening. When we did that the first time, we were like, "Is this too easy?" The answer was "Yes," but we just tried to come up with the funniest jokes possible.
Beaks: It's kind of like batting practice for you, isn't it?
Smigel: It's batting practice in terms of the quality of the straight men. That's the real reason [the STAR WARS line] is the funniest Triumph bit. You're laughing before Triumph even opens his mouth. The people are so ridiculous. And they also had a good sense of humor. Usually, the people I approach are either unaware of Triumph, or celebrities who are just tolerating it and not really happy to be there. But these were fans. It was like when I met Don Rickles; they were fans who watched Conan and were big fans of the show. Some people were actually lining up to talk to Triumph. I was just shocked. I'd never had an experience like that where I would make a joke [as Triumph] and everyone would just laugh. "Yay! I'm a loser!"
Beaks: I'm relieved that TV FUNHOUSE is on DVD because now I can confirm that it was indeed on the air at some point. I didn't imagine it in a haze of smoke.
Dino Stamatopoulos: Me, too!
Smigel: (Stoner voice) Dude. I can't believe we wrote it, man.
Beaks: It's the mix of live animals with puppet animals that gets me.
Smigel: It's the most inventive thing I've ever come up with in comedy. It's embarrassing.
Dino: Was it born when you got those puppets? Was it the turkey thing on Conan?
Smigel: The first time I thought of anything like that was... we had a writers' meeting, and Dave Reynolds had an idea that there would be a petting zoo. Conan would have a petting zoo off to the side so that the audiences' children could be there. And then I remember wanting to have a puppet goat competing with the live goats for food. He'd talk and give the live goats a lot of shit. But we never did it. The first time we ever intermixed was in a sketch that Dino created, which was the "Kiss-Ass Turkey". This is really going back. You've got to be a super nerd to remember.
Dino: An old nerd.
Beaks: I can go back to "Rotten Fruit Theater".
Smigel: That was Louis C.K.'s. That was early on. But ["Kiss-Ass Turkey"] was a pretty popular bit.
Dino: It was usually every Thanksgiving.
Smigel: It was this turkey that would kiss Conan's ass. During the monologue, he'd laugh too hard at the jokes.
Dino: We tried to do it for other holidays - Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Arbor Day - and it really didn't work as well. (Laughs)
Smigel: Is that why we did it? We probably did it for Christmas, like the second year I was there.
Dino: It was an IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE parody.
Smigel: That was the first time we intermixed real turkeys with puppet turkeys. Then I remember when Dino and I were talking about doing this clown show, the pilot for TV FUNHOUSE. I was researching all these old shows from television. Doug Dale, who ended up hosting, was a real TV geek, and he had footage of a show from Chicago called GIGGLESNORT HOTEL.
Dino: Oh, yeah! And B.J. & DIRTY DRAGON.
Smigel: This was back in the 1970s. He had a puppet, and he wasn't being funny. This was educational. A puppet was showing a kid what a puppy looks like. I just was amused, once again, to see a live animal talking with a puppet animal. (Pause. Catches his mistake.) Or not talking. I'm sorry. That didn't happen. (Laughs) That's when we started coming up with ideas for our TV FUNHOUSE show. But, very coincidentally, Triumph started that same month [on Conan] in February of '97. I'm a Triumph nerd, so I know all the facts about Triumph. (Nerd voice) "February of 1997 was his first appearance. The guests were Siskel & Ebert, but they didn't stay, so Triumph just referred to them." Then Matthew Broderick was the guest, and that was where Triumph shared a hot dog with a live animal. That just built to Triumph having sex with live animals, and the rest is embarrassing.
Smigel: I'm very proud and embarrassed.
Beaks: I just got the DVD, but I was able to listen to a few of the commentaries, and I liked what Dino had to say about all of your dog characters sounding like Russian immigrants.
Smigel: It was so irritating. I remember when the show got on the air. I would read the web because, you know, I don't trust the feedback of my friends; I can't be happy unless people are saying it sucks on some level.
Dino: Then you must be a very happy man.
Smigel: I'm very, very happy. Because I read the web. Your site especially. "First!!!"
Beaks: I just came back to the site, and now that I can post my own stories, I realized that I can be first on every single article. Perhaps I could eliminate that for good.
Smigel: (Laughing) But it's good. It's become a real outlet for rage.
Dino: I think there's less murder now.
Smigel: Yes, people are just trashing each other. Flaming has replaced murder. Thank goodness. But, yes, people would just complain "Why are all the dogs just a rip-off of Triumph!?" Nobody could just imagine the possibility that maybe, conceptually, I thought it was funny to just create an arbitrary definition of a dog's voice, that they all had Russian accents. My family was Russian, and... (distracted by two people walking by in bunny suits) oh, look at these two. (To me, like I'm the expert) Do you know what those are? Are those furries?
Beaks: I think so.
Smigel: But are those actual sexual-fetish furries? Like beyond the mainstream of regular furries?
Dino: I bet that right arm is not even real, and he's just masturbating inside.
(Lots of laughing. It's especially awful since they're talking to a lady and her child.)
Smigel: Or the tale is where his arm is.
(There's a load of crosstalk. Smigel and Dino quickly escalate the seemingly innocent tableau into an abomination against god.)
Smigel: Okay. Where were we.
Dino: (Laughing) We were talking about puppets having sex.
Beaks: Right. And about how dogs sound like Russian immigrants.
Smigel: My family was Russian on my mom's side. They used to talk to me in a playful voice, so I associated it with the way people talk to kids about animals. There's also this subliminal thing in my head where I see the wide-eyed wonder in dogs, and it reminds me of Eastern European immigrants who've just come over to Ellis Island. They're looking at New York City, and going, "Oh, look at that! America!" That's basically what a dog does.
Dino: And you would talk to your animals with that voice.
Smigel: All the time. My wife Michelle bought me the first puppets. I don't think the first puppet she bought was Triumph, who's a Rottweiler. But I immediately put it on my hand, and... well, I used to talk through my real dog before I was married. I had a dog when I was a teenager... it was my sister's mostly. A Bichon. Very froofy. And that's where I really started [doing the dog's voice]. It was like having a third person in the room. She'd have an opinion on everything. And I did it again with... our Wheaten Terrier, who was also froofy enough and cute enough to (doing the voice) "talk in the same high voice and have an opinion!" We'd be driving in the car, and Wheaty would talk, too. It was really weird, but my wife had no problem with it; she even started doing it herself. When Wheaty died, I obviously stopped doing the voice, and it was like--
Dino: You didn't do the ghost of Wheaty?
Smigel: I do the ghost of Wheaty when we visit her grave.
Dino: (Laughing hysterically) Really!?
Smigel: Yes. I buried Wheaty. And as we're driving to [her grave], I go, (quivery, high-pitched Russian voice) "They're coming!"
Dino: (Loving this, and now pitching in with his own quivery high-pitched dog voice) "Live every moment to its fullest!" (Laughing) It's like OUR TOWN for dogs.
Smigel: "You spent all this money on this fucking grave... and you only come once a year!"
Dino: "I broke through the nothingness to tell you don't waste your money!"
Smigel: "Please wipe the shit off my stem. Now that I'm dead, I'm offended by shit. It's ironic. You can't possibly understand!"
Beaks: Speaking of shit, didn't Dino have a mishap with a goose on the set of TV FUNHOUSE?
Dino: It was a duck, I think. Maybe I called it a goose, and that's how the whole thing started.
Smigel: That's like calling a Japanese person Chinese.
Dino: I really think the duck did it on purpose. I saw his one eye looking down, and then the other eye extended, and... Jesus! Tommy Blacha always re-tells the story, but he makes it cleaner. He says it shit all over my face, but it actually shit in my mouth. But he did tell me something I forgot. I put a plastic bag over my head to do the rest of the scene - like lightning was going to strike twice - and the director said, "Um, I can hear some crinkling?" And I was so indignant, I was like, "Good! I'm glad you can hear the crinkling! You're going to hear it the whole fucking shot, you dick!" Like he made us do this. (Laughs)
Smigel: It's not like we couldn't re-dub. We re-dubbed half the time anyway to get rid of sound effects. A lot of the puppeteers would masturbate under the stage.
Dino: It was like Comic Con!
Smigel: Dino had a great bit about puppeteers that we never did. Tell him about that bit. We would've gotten to it for sure.
Dino: If there was a host, like a clown, who'd say, "Now, let's join our puppet friends!" Then you zoom in to his face. "But really, we're going to look down below and watch the puppeteers when the puppet (punch line lost to crosstalk 'cuz Smigel just had to finish the joke with Dino)." And it'd be guys who look like me. Dirty and obese...
Smigel: Gray beards...
Dino: ...talking in high voices.
Smigel: Although, that's actually a reality now. AVENUE Q. Have you heard about that?
Dino: You see the puppeteers.
Smigel: You see the puppeteers. And, apparently, all the critics agreed not to complain about it. (Laughter) That's what we were going to do: pan down, and you'd just see arms.
Beaks: TV FUNHOUSE also has parodies of those shorts we used to watch on SESAME STREET, which were designed to teach kids about really basic shit during their formative years. I have a nephew who's five now, and while I was watching the DVD, I found myself wondering would happen if I showed him the policeman sketch. I wonder how badly that would skew the way he perceives the world.
Dino: The only one that would help him would be the mnemonics. (If you've never seen the show, there's a fake filmstrip where kids learn how to memorize, say, the order of animal classification - Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species - with catchy sayings like "Please Come Over For Gay Sex".)
Smigel: My god, I wish I'd had that. It'd make memorization fun. I mean, they're fun for kids, but if they did it our way, it would've been an obsession. (Laughs) It's actually something we should patent. We could create an entire series of DVDs to teach parents "Have it be fun!"
Dino: Well, John Cleese went into infomercials or whatever. Informative videos.
Smigel: But that was like... the product is not funny. He's just easing the pain. But this is a real product. It would actually be fun to teach kids to be naughty and responsible at the same time.
Dino: Anything else we could patent?
Smigel: Nothing else. But this is enough. Come on, we've got to do this.
Dino: It's just that was your idea.
Smigel: No, it was together. Like "Clutch Cargo".
Beaks: There's shared credit on the "Clutch Cargo" stuff?
Smigel: Dino's from Chicago. He grew up watching CLUTCH CARGO, and brought up the idea of doing something with it. And I had wanted to do something with celebrity interviews, so the ideas just came together.
Beaks: I hate to get real nerdy, but before those "Clutch Cargo" interviews, like during Conan's very first week on LATE NIGHT, you had an addled Ronald Reagan calling in every night to congratulate him. It was one of the funniest and meanest--
Smigel: Wait a minute! Nobody knew that he had Alzheimer's at that point!
Beaks: Didn't they?
Smigel: No! The entire nation had been making fun of him for ten years for being senile. All I was doing was taking a very hack-y joke, and making it absurd and over the top. That's the only reason it was funny: not because we were saying he was senile; the way we were doing it made it funny. "Oobily, jubily, bibbity, bobbity..."
Smigel: Yes, "floogle" found its way in there. (Laughing) The sickest part of it that I'll admit - and I've probably never admitted this before - is when he announced that he had Alzheimer's... it was very classy and touching, the letter that he wrote. I'll have to give it to him. He had a way of handling tragic situations. He wrote his own speech about the Challenger. Did you know that? Remember that famous speech he made after the Challenger disaster? He wrote that speech himself. Peggy Noonan told [Stephen] Colbert that. It was a quote that he lifted, but he lifted it himself - unless she's spinning the legend.
Beaks: That's what I'm wondering.
Smigel: Like a good soldier at the end. She is a little cuckoo. But anyway... when this happened, I was really moved and felt terrible for him. But then five seconds later, I was like "Guess we can't do that bit anymore." (Laughs)
Dino: An Ain't It Cool News "exclusive"!
Smigel: Just don't steal the patent!
Beaks: I've been wanting to know about that Reagan bit for some time.
Smigel: Yeah, we never did it again, and we never re-ran an episode that had that bit in it. That bit just disappeared immediately.
Beaks: I need to get a copy of that bit. I just want it for my own private use.
Dino: We should give Bob your questions. You'd be a good moderator.
Smigel: (Triumph) "For me to poop on!" Sorry. I had to do that.
Beaks: No, no. Now I get to go tell everyone I was insulted by Triumph.
Smigel: Yeah, and you'll get flamed a hundred times. "What a hack! That fucking guy's still doing that shit!? Tell him to hang it up!"
Beaks: Or they'll say I'm kissing your ass.
Dino: Yeah, if the website ever gives us a good review...
Beaks: Oh, they love you guys.
Dino: Well, they love him.
Beaks: They love you, too. They just don't know how to express it.
Dino: MORAL OREL is not a runaway hit, but whatever.
Beaks: At eight episodes, TV FUNHOUSE is kind of perfect in its brevity.
Dino: Originally, it was ten. But then Robert said "This is exhausting. Let's make it eight."
Smigel: Well, my son had just been diagnosed with autism, so there was a lot going on in my life. And the show was so much harder than I imagined, than anyone imagined because of the difficulty of getting animals to even not do anything. I mean, these weren't the Berosini orangutans up there; the whole joke was that they weren't doing anything, that they were delivering hilarious comedy and being completely unaware of it. To me... I love animal acts because I'm imagining the suffering that's going on and how wrong it is. That's what makes me laugh: the desperation in the dog's face to please and get a treat. But anyway... (Laughing) where was I?
Beaks: (Laughing) But did you have any ideas for how to take TV FUNHOUSE into a second season? Do you think you could've sustained it?
Dino: Yes. If you listen to the commentaries, Robert actually reads outlines from the second season.
Smigel: Here's the thing: the show could not have sustained if we had just kept writing shows like that first season. The characters were very one-dimensional; the show was all about ideas and what kind of funny things we'd like to see - all conceptual, and very little character stuff. Toward the very end, we were like, "Oh, maybe these guys should be a little different from each other." So, toward the end of the season, you start to see a little bit of difference. Whiskers is the smart one. Fogey is the weak one who has an addiction to eating his own poop. And the duck... his whole character description was that he enjoys Peking Duck.
Dino: Chickie was just me.
Smigel: Chickie was actually three-dimensional all along. Chickie was the "Kiss-Ass Turkey" voice--
Dino: I don't do voices, really.
Smigel: He just does attitude. And we're doing a new show, me and Greg Cohen, about cartoon animals. We're pitching it around the networks now, and I want Dino to be in it again and be a rooster.
Dino: Oh, it's still alive? Cha-ching!
Smigel: There are some networks that seem very interested. But I don't know. Meetings are always good.
Dino: No. No. I have a lot of bad ones.
Beaks: Dino, you also wrote on my new favorite prematurely canceled show, LUCKY LOUIE.
Smigel: That was a great show.
Dino: It was just misunderstood.
Smigel: Well, he made a big mistake. He did a "Carvey" to his own show. [THE DANA CARVEY SHOW] was ruined by the first sketch - which was actually Louie's idea. (Laughs) It was Clinton breast-feeding animals. Louis kind of psyched me into it. He was like, "We're gonna draw a line in the sand!"
Dino: Wow, good Louis imitation.
Smigel: Thank you, I've been working on it. But Louis had two shows to give the critics, and the second show he gave them was the one about him and his wife trying to recreate her orgasm by fucking throughout the entire show. It was the worst thing he could've given the critics. It's a show he should've saved for later; it had very little character stuff in it. He had so many great episodes, and I think it just threw off the audience and the critics. And I'm sure Louis in his mind was like, "Oh, we've taken it so far! Let's show that episode to everybody!"
Dino: I just feel like HBO canceled it because they didn't like the look of it.
Smigel: Swear to god, if it had gotten better reviews, HBO... more than any other network, those pay stations, they live on reviews. Reception is a big part of it. And when an HBO show gets shitty reviews, that's like the one place where that matters. I think he dug himself a huge hole, unfortunately.
I hate to end this interview so abruptly (with Smigel diagnosing the failure of a fellow comic's television series), but I was well over my allotted time by this point. As I was leaving, I asked Smigel about the possibility of a DANA CARVEY SHOW DVD release. He wasn't sure if that was in the offing, but it's apparently available on Hulu.
For now, be content that TV FUNHOUSE has finally returned to us.