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Robert Smigel's "T.V. Funhouse."

Robert Smigel (SMY-gull) is a writer and creator of animated comic episodes for Saturday Night Live, including “X-Presidents” and “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” His newest effort is the new Comedy Central series “TV Funhouse,” described as a broken kid’s show for adults. The Funhouse combines real animals, puppet animals, short films and animation (Wednesday nights at 10:30). Smigel has also written a new comic book based on the X-presidents filmed shorts (called “X-Presidents”/Villard Books). Smigel wrote for SNL from 1985-1993, and he was the original headwriter and producer of Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

45:34

Other segments from the episode on December 19, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 19, 2000: Interview with Robert Smigel; Review of the book "The Rough Guide to World Music."

Transcript

DATE December 19, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Robert Smigel talks about his new show "TV Funhouse"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Robert Smigel is the creator of several cartoons that are featured on
"Saturday Night Live:" "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," the "X-Presidents" and "Fun
With Real Audio." He also created the puppet, Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog
for "Late Night With Conan O'Brian. Smigel does the voice of Triumph, as well
as the voices of President Clinton, Al Gore and others in Conan's Clutch Cargo
sketches. Smigel was the first head writer of the show. Now he's co-created
a show on Comedy Central called "TV Funhouse." It's a parody of a kid show but
it's strictly for adults. The host, Doug, is played by comic Doug Dale. His
friends on the show are an assortment of animal puppets called the Anipals.
Each week, Doug has an idea for a themed show like a cowboy show, a Hawaiian
show or a Christmas show. But the Anipals are always too grumpy and lecherous
to have any interest in Doug's ideas. Here's the opening of the first episode
with Doug and his animal friends. Doug is dressed in a cowboy outfit and a
10-gallon hat.

(Soundbite of "TV Funhouse" courtesy of Comedy Central)
000
DOUG (Host): Howdy partners. Welcome to Western Day, here on "TV Funhouse."
We're going to behave like wild Westerners. Hey, let's go give the Anipals
their cowboy outfits. How do you do Anipals? You all set for a western day?

Anipal: Hey, Doug.

Anipal: Hey, Doug.

Anipal: Hey, Doug, what's up?

DOUG: Nothing. I just reckon it's high time you varmints put on these cowboy
hats.

Anipal: Maybe later.

Anipal: Yeah.

Anipal: Not in the mood, Doug.

Anipal: Varmints?

DOUG: I got my cowboy hat on.

Anipal: Great. Why don't you shove it up your (CENSORED).

DOUG: Whoa, that was harsh.

Anipal: Can we get the hell out of here, please.

Anipal: Doug, I apologize. Listen, Chickie's wife's on the rag again.

GROSS: Robert Smigel, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL (Comic Writer): Thank you very much.

55
GROSS: OUTSIDE OF DOUG, WHO IS THE HUMAN HOST OF "TV FUNHOUSE," THE
CHARACTERS ARE ALL ANIMALS. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY ANIMALS IN IT?

Mr. SMIGEL: That really was a spinoff of what I do on "Conan," with Triumph,
The Insult Comic Dog. This dog who started out as a vehicle with which to
proverbially poop on guests like John Tesh and David Hasselhoff who come out
and are just begging for it. And then evolved into a puppet that interacts
with live animals in various ways. By various, I mean lewd. Generally, lewd.
And he became very popular in Comedy Central. I was looking for an
interstitial segment with which to, you know, in between cartoons and short
films, and this is was what we came up with. You know, Stan Mitopolis(ph) and
I sort of developed this menagerie, this crass menagerie, as TV Guide called
it.

start here?

202 GROSS: LET'S TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE ANIMALS WHO YOU HAVE.

Mr. SMIGEL: OK.

GROSS: ONE OF MY FAVORITES IS THIS MANGY DOG WHO IS ALWAYS CHASING HIS TAIL.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, that's my favorite character, actually. He is based on a
real dog. His name is Xabu and that was the real dog's name. And I even made
the puppet look exactly like the dog. It was my wife's dog. It was a German
Shepard mix and I believe part wolf and they took him to an obedience school
and after two sessions, the teacher said, `You know what? He's a beautiful
dog and you should just enjoy him. He's beautiful. Take him home.' He was
that stupid. And one of the reasons my wife and I get along so well is
because we can both laugh for a half hour just watching a dog that stupid
chase its tail which is what we used to do.

300 The dog had this incredible rage,
it seemed, towards his tail. But there's just--there are few things funnier
than watching a really dumb animal, passionately, go after his tail. He had
this way of chasing it and I guess, I've seen this with other dogs but not to
this effect where he could go 90 miles an hour in a circle and then just stop
on a dime, and completely freeze, and then go 90 miles back on a dime as if he
was trying to--he didn't look like he was catching his breath. He actually
looked like he thought he would trick his tail this way. You know, `I'll turn
and turn and turn and then stop. And the tail will have no idea what's going
on. He'll be totally frozen, you know. And then, boom, I'm back at the
tail.' Of course, it never worked.

359 GROSS: SO THAT'S YOUR VOICE THAT THE DOG DOES?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, I have this stubborn insistence on making all the dog
sound like eastern European immigrants, you know. And some of the--I've
noticed that some people have criticized, you know. They've watched the show
and they've said, `Why do all the dogs sound like Triumph, you know? Why do
they have the same accent? It's lame. Can't he come up with another voice?'
Well, yeah, I could. You know, I realize there are more accents in the world
than eastern European but in my head, that's how dogs talk.

434 They have, for
years, since I was 10 years old I used to, you know, give dogs that voice when
I would look at dogs. I think it's because my grandparents are
eastern--they're Russian immigrants and I grew up with that voice, you know, I
grew up with that voice in my family for years and I think I make an
unconscious connection in this--let me finish the thought because it could
sound rude--but between dogs and immigrants just off the boat. Because they
both have a certain element of wide-eyed wonder, as if to say like, `Oh, look
at all of this. I cannot believe this.' And, you know, eventually European
immigrants catch up and become jaded but dogs never do. That's why I can
laugh at dogs forever.

532 GROSS: THE DOG THAT CHASES HIS TAIL, IT'S KIND OF LIKE A ROAD RUNNER CARTOON WHERE THE DOG IS ROAD RUNNER AND HIS TAIL IS WILE E. COYOTE OR VICE VERSA.

Mr. SMIGEL: No, the dog is Wile E. Coyote. It's absolutely an homage, you
know, beyond the initial idea. Yeah, in the first episode the dog buys
products from the ACME Corporation. And in the first episode he buys a tail
catcher and, you know, it's meant to deceive the tail. It's a little hole and
it says Tail Massager. `Come on over here, tail. Look at this. Tail
massager. Wow, it's for 12-inch tails just like you.' And then in a later
episode he actually dresses up as a tail to seduce the tail. So you see a
giant tail attached to the tiny little tail and Xabu's face is just sticking
out, `Hey, taily boy, come on over here.' In future episodes I want Xabu to
just become just impassioned and obsessed with, you know, making everyone in
on--like as if it's a Kennedy conspiracy thing, where he's got photographs to
prove that the tail is, you know, is a criminal and he hires a detective to
go after the tail.

700 GROSS: THERE'S ALSO A VERY LECHEROUS CHICKEN.

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, a lot of the animals are lecherous.

GROSS: That's true, they're all lecherous, yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. I'm trying to, you know, delineate the characters somehow
and take the lechery out of some of the show. In the pilot episode a lot of
them go to a Tijuana whore house and, basically, trade off on a pair of live
Chihuahuas. You know, so the chicken is a very neurotic character. He's a
rooster, actually. He's a rooster and he's the most high-strung character
whose personality just lends him to confrontation more than any of the others.
The guys go off to Mexico and Chickie's instinct is to just--you know, he has
a drink or two and he just wants to bust heads. And he catches sight of a
cockfight and so he goes in and challenges a live rooster. So you get that
puppet vs. animal violence as well as puppet vs. animal sex. You know,
there's a lot more to the show than puppets having sex with live animals,
there's also puppets fighting live animals. The rooster didn't really fight
the puppet, we faked it.

800 GROSS: THERE ARE REAL ANIMALS MIXED IN WITH THE PUPPETS.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: LIKE THERE'S A PUPPET DRIVING A CAR AND THERE'S A REAL DOG IN THE CAR
TOO.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: OR THE PUPPETS ARE AT A COCKFIGHT AN IN THE AUDIENCE THERE IS A REAL DOG.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right. We use a lot of real dogs. Yeah.

GROSS: OR THERE'S A PUPPET CAT WHO GIVES BIRTH TO REAL KITTENS.

Mr. SMIGEL: Real live kittens, mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: WHAT'S THE INTEREST TO YOU IN MIXING REAL ANIMALS WITH PUPPET ANIMALS?

Mr. SMIGEL: I love the idea that you can manipulate live animals into a
really funny bit and they have no idea why it's funny, why they're there.
That just adds a layer of joy to the whole experience to me. And, you know,
we make it very clear and make a real point of not making the animals actually
do anything. Like in the cockfight, for example, there's a bunch of animals
in the audience but if you look in the background, a lot of them are asleep,
even though we have cheering noises. A lot of them are just lying down, have
no interest in what's going on. And on one hand, there's like a practical
joke element that we're playing on the live animals. We're making them appear
to be doing things but, on the other hand, they are having--I also enjoy the
joke the animals are having on the show by expressing no interest in what's
going on even though we're presumably trying to make them appear to be
extras. They're above it. They have better things to think about than
pretending to enjoy a cockfight.

951 - FLOAT
GROSS: My guest is Robert Smigel. He co-created the Comedy Central "TV
Funhouse." It's a parody of kid shows but it's strictly for adults. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Smigel and he's the creator and co-executive
producer of the new Comedy Channel series "TV Funhouse." He's also the creator
of some of the cartoons on "Saturday Night Live" including "The Ambiguously
Gay Duo" and "X-Presidents." There's, by the way also, a new "X-Presidents"
comic book.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yes.

1052
GROSS: ONE OF THE THINGS I THINK YOU'RE DOING ON "TV FUNHOUSE" WITH ALL YOUR USE OF THE ANIPALS, THE PUPPET ANIMALS, IS HAVING THEM DO THE KIND OF THINGS THAT ANIMALS REALLY DO IN PUBLIC BUT THAT PEOPLE ONLY DO BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. SUCH AS...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ...HAVING SEX, DEFECATING.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: I MEAN, I KNOW LIKE, AS A KID, THERE'S THINGS YOU LEARN THAT PEOPLE
DON'T DO IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE, PERIOD.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: BUT YOU SEE ANIMALS DOING IT ALL THE TIME IN THE STREET.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: AND IT'S VERY CONFUSING SOMETIMES AS A KID. LIKE HOW COME THEY LET
ANIMALS DO THAT IN THE STREET?

Mr. SMIGEL: I know. We can learn a lot from animals. That's the whole
point.

GROSS: WELL, THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE BOOKS THAT YOUR PARENTS GIVE YOU, SO YOU CAN LEARN A LOT FROM ANIMALS.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. And now this is an adult show that's trying to have
animals teach people how to behave properly. No, there is something--you
know, it's fun doing a show that has characters that don't have the ambitions
that humans do. And that can talk casually about things like pooping on the
street or having sex as if it's just a regular animal need, you know. I try
to explain to people that when I write about sex or I write about defecation,
that, you know, I'm going to look like an idiot trying to explain why I think
this stuff is funny beyond, you know...

GROSS: CHEAP, CRUDE LAUGHS.

Mr. SMIGEL: ...going for cheap laughs, yeah. I mean to me it's all about
the way our dignity is compromised. You know, sex has always cracked me up
because it makes people do crazy things, you know, like working out. I mean
can you imagine--anyway. But, you know, that's the funniest thing about it.
That we are--you know,

1258 I remember years ago, we were at "Saturday Night Live"
and I was hanging out with Conan O'Brian, who, you know, I met there as
writer, and Rob Lowe was hosting and so everybody was passing around the Rob
Lowe sex tape and it was just, you know, something that you don't get to see
that often is just a real-life porn like that. And, you know, just a lot of
it was really boring and--but all of this fuss was being made over something
that was, you know, quite common. And I don't know, I just remember Conan
laughing and just saying, `We're just all animals, it's hilarious.' 1338 And so
that really is the heart of it, you know. So to write about characters and
have them just casually debate, `Aw, come on, are you crazy? Licking is much
better than sniffing. You're out of your mind.' `Well, what about vomiting?'
`Well, vomiting's good but, you know, it's not the same.'

1355 GROSS: DID YOU HAVE A LOT OF PETS WHEN YOU WERE A KID?

Mr. SMIGEL: I had a cat when I was four years old. My parents gave me a cat
and the cat just sat on the foot of my bed and did nothing all day long. Just
grew and sort of developed that mashed-potato body that cats get. Just sort
of spread on the carpet as the years went by. But I just adored it. It had
no interest in anything but I just like, `Oh, pretty kitty.' I just loved it.
Loved it like nothing else. And then later on, after the cat died, my sister,
who didn't really like the cat, suddenly--I've noticed this too. It's the
sibling who didn't like the animal that suddenly get's all emotional about the
animal when it dies and wants to replace it immediately. And that's what
happened. And then we got a little tiny Bichon. And all I could do all day
was talk to the Bichon, in it's own voice and it was very similar to Triumph's
voice, just a higher pitch, you know, because it was such a fruphy little
thing. And it was just very spoiled, `I want to eat now please.'

1510 GROSS: DID YOU TALK TO IT A LOT?

Mr. SMIGEL: I used to drive my sister crazy. Just, you know, she would like
walk into the room and would say hi and the dog would run up to her and I
would be like, `Hello, hello, I've waited all day for you, Wendy. Where
the hell have you been?'

1533 GROSS: DID YOU HAVE PUPPETS AS A KID?

Mr. SMIGEL: No, I didn't have puppets. I used to draw cartoons though. I
was a crazed cartoon--I worshipped Charles Shultz and, you know, and I wanted
to be a cartoonist when I was like, you know, six years old. But, you know,
over time, you just lose confidence and interest in perusing a career in
anything but what your father does. At least, that's what happened for me. I
just never thought I could make a living doing anything creative. Sort of
backed...

1607 GROSS: AND YOUR FATHER WAS A DENTIST.

Mr. SMIGEL: My father is a dentist. He's a very successful dentist and I
went to dental school. I applied to dental school and went through a whole
agonizing predental program. And I just knew that I couldn't handle it all
the way through but I just didn't believe that I could really do anything else
that would be as--I felt like he has a very good practice and this is a great
opportunity and who am I to, you know, to not take advantage of this. And so
I, you know, went through the process than I, fortunately, failed organic
chemistry and so I actually was rejected and had to look for something else to
do.

1700 GROSS: THERE'S SOME VERY FUNNY CARTOONS ON "TV FUNHOUSE." I WANT YOU TO DESCRIBE THE PREMISE OF "WONDERMAN."(PH)

Mr. SMIGEL: "Wonderman" is a classic superhero who has an alter ego whose
name is Henry Moore(ph). And, basically, we follow the adventures of
Wonderman trying to help his alias have sex with women who are impressed with
Wonderman. 'Cause Wonderman, of course, has to maintain the, you know,
`I'm-married-to-crime-fighting,' attitude. But, at the same time, he needs to
have sex and I never understood why Superman didn't use this technique for
Clark Kent. It would have been so simple for him to just explain to Lois Lane
that Clark Kent's really cool and then he could have had it just both ways.

175- GROSS: WELL, IN WONDERMAN AND IN YOUR ANIMATION "THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO," YOU SEEM TO REALLY KNOW THAT SEX IS THE SUBTEXT OF SO MUCH POP CULTURE, EVEN THE STUFF FOR KIDS. LIKE EVEN THE SUPERHERO STUFF, THE WAY THEY'RE DRESSED, A LOT OF THEIR FEATS OF STRENGTH, A LOT OF THE KIND OF RESCUING WHICH IS ALMOST LIKE S&M IMAGERY, RIGHT?

Mr. SMIGEL: I guess so.

GROSS: SO MUCH OF IT IS ABOUT SEX, YEAH.

Mr. SMIGEL: I guess so. You know, that's another new one for me. I'm
amazed how, you know, I seem to write a lot about sex but I'm always surprised
by what people read into stuff and then when I think about it, it's usually
true. Like even with "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," it's based on something that
never really occurred to me for years which was this homo-eroticism of the
"Batman and Robin" cartoon.

I remember doing a Superman special, the 50th anniversary that Lorne Michaels
had, you know, been asked to produce and I remember Lorne Michaels telling me,
`Oh, well, of course, Batman and Robin have that underlying gay thing.' And I
just sort of played along like, `Oh yeah, right, right.' But my heart was
broken, `What? What are you talking about?' I mean, I don't know. I was 26
years old and I just--`Why does there have to be sex in "Batman and Robin."'
You know, and years later those movies started getting gayer and gayer and
they started sprouting nipples and, you know, there'd be tight shots of their
rear ends and their crotchital areas. And, you know, by now I understood what
they were going for but my feeling was, `Why can't we just leave Batman and
Robin alone? You know, they do good work. Just let them do their thing. We
don't have to speculate on--what they do is their business, whether it's with
each other or, you know, Kim Basinger.' It just doesn't matter. And so that's
where that cartoon came from.

1955 But then the irony was that I thought gay people would love the cartoon for
that reason. Like, `Yes, you're right, people are obsessed with sexuality.
Why can't they just let things be?' But it turns out like that every gay
friend I have loves that cartoon because they watch the imagery and they're
like, `Yeah, of course, their gay. That's right, they're gay. You nailed
them.' They're just as obsessed with sexuality as everyone else.

2029 – END OF FIRST HALF
GROSS: Robert Smigel co-created the new Comedy Central series "TV Funhouse."
It's shown Wednesdays at 10:30 and is repeated Fridays at 1 AM and Sundays at
11:30 PM. Smigel will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Robert Smigel. He co-created the new show "TV Funhouse" on Comedy
Central. It's a lewd parody of kid shows and it's strictly for adults. He
also created the puppet Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog for "Late Night With
Conan O'Brien." And he created several animated series for "Saturday Night
Live" including "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" and the "X-Presidents." He has a
new "X-Presidents" comic book.

2330 NOW THERE'S AN "X-PRESIDENTS" CARTOON THAT HAS
JUST BEEN PUBLISHED SO LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT "X-PRESIDENTS."

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL (Comic Writer): Yeah.

GROSS: THE PREMISE OF THIS IS THAT THE FOUR EX-PRESIDENTS FORD, REAGAN,
CARTER AND BUSH HAVE BEEN STRUCK BY HURRICANE-POWERED RADIOACTIVE LIGHTNING AT A CELEBRITY GOLF TOURNAMENT...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...which gave them extraordinary superpowers. And they use these
superpowers to save people from Earthlings and from aliens. Let's hear a
short clip from "X-Presidents" in which the X-Presidents are using those
extraordinary superpowers.

2409 (SOUNDBITE FROM "X-PRESIDENTS")

Evil Foe: The X-Presidents.

Former President BUSH: Read my lips, you're toast.

Former President REAGAN: There you go again.

Evil Foe: Robots, intercept, quickly.

Former President CARTER: I have lusted in my heart to kick your ass.

Former President FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Evil Foe: You stupid Earthling. You shall pay for this blunder.

GROSS: HAVE YOU HEARD FROM ANY OF THE EX-PRESIDENTS WHO YOU'VE INCLUDED IN THIS SKETCH?

Mr. SMIGEL: Gerald Ford wants a better catch phrase. He's like--but the
poor guy, that's all he can ever come up with. The other ones--they've got
such catchy ones and all he can say is, `There is no Soviet domination of
Eastern Europe.' No, none have them have ever bothered to call and I'm very
surprised and disappointed that they have better things to do than talk to me.
The only thing I've ever heard is that Gerald Ford was asked about it and he
said he's asleep way before that show ever comes on the air, which I believe.

2520 I'm very grateful that they're all still alive, frankly. NOT REAGEN

GROSS: Will Bill Clinton soon be included as an X-President?

Mr. SMIGEL: He'll be trying. He'll be trying to be included but he wasn't
at the golf tournament. Yeah, we might do an "X-Presidents" in January where
Bill Clinton tries to join. The great thing about him is that he would have a
great--you know, the ones that have catch phrases are the easiest to write for
and Bill Clinton has a number of great catch phrases that would make great
Clint Eastwood kick-ass things like, (In Clinton voice) `You punk. You're
going to feel my pain.' Or he'd say, `I'm going to build a bridge to'--well,
they're all going to sound too filthy on NPR.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SMIGEL: I'm sorry. But--and George W., if he ever becomes an
X-President, you know, I think his whole candidacy was built on catch phrases.
So, you know, uniting, dividing, I mean, there's a lot you can do with him,
someday.

2629
GROSS: NOW AMONG THE THINGS THAT YOU HAVE DONE, YOU DO SOME OF THE CLUTCH CARGO WRITING AND SOME OF THE VOICES AS WELL, I THINK...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...YOU DO SOME OF THE VOICES, TOO, ON "CONAN O'BRIEN."

Mr. SMIGEL: I do most of the voices. Yeah, I don't do a lot of the writing
anymore. You know, I did when I started the show with Conan and the other
writers but now I just go on there, you know, to do these voices, generally,
which is a lot of fun to be a performer instead of a writer and be able to
walk in and critique other people's writing for a change, you know.

GROSS: WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE CLUTCH CARGO SKETCHES DURING THE ELECTION AFTERMATH?

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, God.

GROSS: THERE WAS A FUNNY GORE ONE WHERE HE'S TALKING ABOUT WHERE HE'S GETTING VERY OVEREXCITED.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, well, he does that a lot. (In Gore voice) `This is
terribly exciting. This entire event has been an absolute thrill.' Well, he
was getting--at the very end, after he finally conceded, he gave a very
sarcastic, (In Gore voice) `Hasn't this just been a terribly exciting and
informative experience? The American public has--the wheels of democracy have
worked once again and the American people have gotten their wish, all 49
percent of them. They have spoken and we've learned all kinds of great things
like the winner does not necessarily get to go into the office. And we've
learned great words like fiasco and we've all learned how to despise the
elderly and'--yeah, it was that kind of thing.

GROSS: HOW DID YOU GET GORE'S VOICE? THAT'S PRETTY GOOD.

Mr. SMIGEL: Thank you very much. I sort of--well, you know, I would watch
him and I would actually talk to Dana Carvey about it because he was trying to
work on a Gore and a Bush and that kind of thing. And one thing he said is
that a lot of us noticed that he has a little bit of a (In Gore voice) `lisp.
We don't know where it comes from but he has a tiny lisp that sounds a little
fay.' And Dana described him as like a gay Forrest Gump. That's where his
impression came from. But that actually helped me subconsciously. Dana has
this way of like creating a rebus sort of school of coming up with impressions
like he says that George Bush is John Wayne combined with Mr. Rogers. And
somehow it combines into (in Bush voice) `Not gonna do it.' It's like a
gentle John Wayne or something.

2918 GROSS: WHEN YOU ARE DOING POLITICAL SATIRE, DO YOU WANT TO BE WHAT SOME COMICS DESCRIBE AS A, QUOTE, `EQUAL OPPORTUNITY OFFENDER,' OR DO YOU REALLY WANT TO GO WITH POLITICAL POINT OF VIEW AND BASICALLY, THROUGH YOUR HUMOR, MAKE A POINT ABOUT WHERE YOU STAND AND WHAT YOU THINK?

Mr. SMIGEL: Throughout this election, I thought it was--you know, I think
the closer elections, I notice that the writers get more partisan and more
passionate about, you know, imposing their point of view on the audience and I
don't think the audience really wants that from comedians. You know, maybe
from certain kinds of people, you know, who present themselves that way and
that's their act. Like, someone like Al Franken, you know, who everybody
likes despite the fact that he's clearly one way, because he just doesn't make
any bones about it. Well, I don't know that everybody likes him. I'm sure,
he has enemies but, you know, a sketch show like "Saturday Night Live" or
"Conan," I really think the audience doesn't want to feel like they're being
manipulated. It was odd because during this campaign, I noticed that there
was a lot of tension at "Saturday Night Live," you know, more than I'd
probably ever seen throughout, you know, a presidential election. Things
always heat up when there is an election but this time there were like two
factions that seemed to be at odds with each other.

GROSS: What were they?

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, I mean, generally, the show--when I was there, when I was
staff writer there, years ago, it was Al Franken and Jim Downey who were kind
of in charge of the political stuff, you know. I would occasionally write
something very silly that would somehow get on. You know, but my takes were
usually silly ideas like Ronald Reagan is the genius behind the whole--you
know, during the Iran-Contra scandal, when it was all about what did the
president know and what didn't he know. You know, I had this idea for a
sketch where Reagan was just the genius behind everything because I was sick
of Reagan as idiot sketches. And then later on, there was like a Ross Perot
that I snuck in somehow where he's like driving in a car with Admiral
Stockdale after the debate and he like dumps him in the middle of a field and
takes off. Sort of more sillier premises but Downey and Franken were the guys
who really wrote, you know, the sort of think pieces all through those years.
And they were balanced because one was more left-of-center and one was more
right-of-center. And they were very careful to be even handed.

But in their absence, I think the show has swung far more to the left, you
know. And even though I was an avid Gore supporter and, you know, I would
probably classify myself as a liberal, I didn't enjoy seeing heavy-handed
stuff rammed down my throat and I don't think it really--you know, I don't
think that's what "SNL" or sketch shows are for. You know, but then during
the election, there was like a faction of writers who were actually, you know,
vehemently for Bush. And, you know, you would see these weird pieces on the
show that, suddenly out of nowhere, they were like attack pieces on Al Gore.
And some of them were funny and some of them weren't. And it was all borne
out of this, you know, determination on both sides to, you know, affect the
election. And I just hope that the next election isn't that close because it
has a bad effect on comedy. Just, you know, that's not what people want to
see. Even though "Saturday Night Live" had a very good run with these two
guys--I mean, they're both hilarious performers, Darrell Hammond and Will
Ferrell, you know--it just was kind of--it got kind of ugly sometimes.

GROSS: SO WERE THERE LIKE POLITICAL FIGHTS BACKSTAGE, BEHIND THE SCENES IN
THE WRITING ROOMS?

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, you know, people are pretty busy over there just trying to
get 90 minutes of television on the air. But, you know--yeah, there was some
tension between writers from what I could--you know, I basically show up with
my animal beastiality cartoon or something. `Hi, guys, how's it going? Yeah,
I'm doing "Sex in the Country" this week.'

GROSS: YEAH, THAT WAS A FUNNY ONE.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, I'm glad you liked it. A lot of people were like
horrified by it. You have to know the show.

GROSS: RIGHT.

Mr. SMIGEL: That was one time where the sex stuff, you know, really angered
people.

3430 – FLOATER
GROSS: My guest is Robert Smigel. He created the "Saturday Night Live"
animations "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" and "X-Presidents." He has a new
"X-Presidents" comic book. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Smigel. He co-created "TV Funhouse," a new show on
Comedy Central that's a lewd parody of kids' shows and is strictly for adults.

3522 SOME OF THE EPISODES OF "TV FUNHOUSE" HAVE THESE PARODIES OF THOSE OLD 950S PERSONAL-HYGIENE FILMS, WHERE, YOU KNOW, YOU'RE TAUGHT LIKE HOW TO BEHAVE AT DINNER, HOW TO BEHAVE IN CLASS, HOW TO GO ON YOUR FIRST DATE.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. Right.

GROSS: AND YOU'RE DISCOURAGED FROM DOING ANYTHING SEXUAL, ALONE OR WITH OTHERS. I HAVE AN EXCERPT HERE OF ONE OF YOUR PERSONAL-HYGIENE FILM—OR EDUCATIONAL TRAINING FILM PARODIES. THIS IS ABOUT PNEUMONIC DEVICES AND PNEUMONIC DEVICES ARE THOSE LITTLE WORD GAMES YOU CAN MAKE UP TO HELP YOU MEMORIZE SOMETHING YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO MEMORIZE. SO LET'S HEAR THIS EXCERPT.

3605 – PERSONAL HYGIENE PARODY (Soundbite of "TV Funhouse")

Announcer: Memorization: it's the hardest part of school and probably life.
But remembering facts can be easy and fun too, with a little help from
something called pneumonics. You probably used a pneumonic without knowing
it. For example, to remember the notes for reading music, you might use the
pneumonic, `Every good boy deserves fudge.' Starting to get it? It's fairly
easy to remember our friends, north, south, east and west. But in case you
are having trouble, all you have to think of is `No Spaniard enjoys washing.'
Easy, isn't it? Biology is nothing but tedious memorization, but pneumonics
can make it easy. The complicated order of animal classification, phylum,
class, order, family, genus, species are easier to remember as `Please come
over for gay sex.' Now you'll never forget it. Look out, biology.

3705 GROSS: OH, THAT'S REALLY SO FUNNY AND I WISH OUR LISTENERS COULD ACTUALLY SEE THE FILM BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE THE REAL THING. IT'S SHOT IN BLACK AND WHITE, EVERYBODY LOOKS VERY 1950S, THERE ARE PUZZLED STUDENTS SCRATCHING THEIR HEAD IN BIOLOGY CLASS. DID YOU SIT THROUGH THESE FILMS WHEN YOU WERE IN SCHOOL OR WERE YOU PAST THE ERA OF THESE MOVIES?

Mr. SMIGEL: I was a little bit past that era, you know, but I love anything
that's--you know, I'm one of those people who loves kitsch and things that are
rooted in innocence. So, you know, yeah, I grew up more in the '70s. But,
you know, even back then you would see these things rerun and you were aware
of them, so I still got a kick out of that stuff. And pneumonic devices,
specifically, are something that I became intimately familiar with in college
and I just found them contemptible because they basically encapsulated what I
hated about being a pre-med student, or pre-dental student, which was that,
you know, I would take these courses like, you know, organic chemistry and the
approach to teaching them had nothing to with education. It had everything to
do with weeding out the best students so it used to drive me crazy.

GROSS: Now you actually have a kid who's, I think, around two.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Are you worried that he will end up, at a young age, seeing some of
your adult versions of kid shows?

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, I've talked to Dana Carvey about that kind of thing
because, you know, he has kids that are about six and eight. And he just said
he was very good at shielding them from everything that he did for years and
years. You know, you have a lot of control over what your kid sees if you
choose to. And so that's what I intend to do, is to protect him from me as
best I can. And then I figure by the time he's eight, this kind of thing is
exactly what he's going to be interested in, you know, seeing, despite his
parents' wishes. So maybe it will be more effective that I'm the source of
the--you know, if I'm the one telling him, `No, this isn't right for you,' and
I'm like the source of what he's trying to see, it might even--you know,
hopefully it might be even more effective.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Smigel. He's the creator of the new Comedy Central
show "TV Funhouse," which is an adult version, a very adult version of a kid's
show.

Now I want to ask you about Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog...

Mr. SMIGEL: OK.

GROSS: ...which you've done on "Conan." Now the real funny thing, as I'm
sure our audience knows, is that pets.com came up with a sock puppet dog and
Triumph made fun of the pets.com dog. Then pets.com sued Triumph...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which, I guess means suing you. And so here you are, you've done
like "X-Presidents" and stuff and you don't even hear from the ex-presidents.
But your lawsuit came from two puppets having their go at each other.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. Well, in fairness, you know, I sort of initiated that
confrontation to some degree, because I was disturbed by those commercials.
I wasn't initially disturbed. I noticed them and they were very similar to
something I had done on "Conan," you know, about six months earlier, where
Triumph went to Westminster and was interacting with dogs and it really
didn't bother me. But then a lot of people from the "Conan" show started
asking me about it and it bothered a lot of people at the show. And then the
commercials became more and more popular and people were like--I would go to
the show to do Triumph or to do the lips bit and it was a constant--it became
like a cacophony of--`You should sue. What's going on. This is crazy.' You
know, and there was this issue of concern that the pets.com thing was at the
Super Bowl. You know, I mean, they were spending all this money on
commercials and in much higher visibility places than late-night television.
There was a concern that people would start to think that Triumph was ripping
off the pets.com puppet. So, you know, I sent a letter to pets.com that, you
know, expressed--I had some lawyer do it and I don't even remember exactly how
the letter was written but this guy wrote a letter for me. You know, I didn't
threaten--I didn't sue or anything but, you know, it was one of those serious
legal letters. And then they sort of responded in an amicable way. But in
the interim, like, people were beginning to notice that the dog was a rip-off
and the Jon Stewart show actually invited Triumph on the "Daily Show" to
make fun of the pets.com sock puppet. So I couldn't resist the offer and then
it turned into a defamation lawsuit because this puppet had criticized this
other puppet.

GROSS: Your puppet, Triumph, criticized the pets.com puppet?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, and, you know...

GROSS: So how did the lawsuit end?

Mr. SMIGEL: I don't think it is--I don't know what's happening. I mean,
pets.com dissolved in all this. I sort of handed it over to NBC very quickly
and I really didn't want to think about it. And I didn't talk to the press
about it when it all came out because, to me, it wasn't interesting publicity,
to be this guy in the middle of a lawsuit. It didn't have a lot of charm for
me to, you know, to suddenly look like Pat Cooper or something. (In Pat
Cooper voice) `I'm mad about this. He's ripping me off.' You know, I mean,
that's what I was doing on the Jon Stewart show, was like turning Triumph
into Pat Cooper. Triumph went on to the Jon Stewart show and he was like,
`Everyone rips off Triumph. You know, it's not just the sock puppet, that
Kermit the Frog ripped me off.' And then we like showed a doctored photo of
Kermit. And you know, `Howdy-Doody ripped me off,' and they showed a
Howdy-Doody puppet having sex with a live dog. `Even Harry Connick Jr., you
know,' then there's a picture of Harry Connick Jr. with a dog. `He called it
an homage but, you know, that's what he always says.'

So I was just kidding around, you know, for that thing but that's when, you
know, they sued me. And I don't know, I thought it was sort of an
intimidation lawsuit since I was just a comedy writer. But then NBC got
involved because it's basically their character and that was really the end of
the lawsuit. I mean, I don't think they really pursued it with the same vigor
once NBC was involved. And the thing kind of petered out, just like the
company, I guess.

GROSS: Well, Robert Smigel, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. SMIGEL: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Smigel co-created the new Comedy Central series "TV Funhouse."
It's shown Wednesdays at 10:30 and is repeated Fridays at 1 AM and Sundays at
11:30 PM. Smigel also has a new "X-Presidents" comic book.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews "The Rough Guide to World Music." This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Book "The Rough Guide to World Music"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Pulling together a book that covers all aspects of any kind of music is
daunting. The many authors of "The Rough Guide to World Music" have tried to
get a grip on all the music outside of Western classical. Why? Because it's
there. Music critic Milo Miles has a review.

Mr. MILO MILES (Music Critic, Writer): Assembling a comprehensive
encyclopedia of world music is like trying to dig through a steel wall with a
toothpick. It's an insane task, bound to fall short and drive everybody
involved crazy. But with international media more developed than ever, it's a
job that actually seems doable these days.

The first edition of "The Rough Guide to World Music" was promising but felt
rushed and fragmentary. It would be perverse to resist the new two-volume
edition, however. This is a very soccer-fanatic, Encyclopedia Britannica-type
undertaking. The first volume covers Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The
second does Latin and North America, the Caribbean, India, Asia and the
Pacific. "The Rough Guide," of course, touches on countries from Uzbekistan
to Melanesia and includes record guides for each. But it also profiles a
smart selection of key performers, often with interviews and it gets down nice
details, like the history of instruments, record stores around the world and
on the Internet and lists of annual music festivals. Plus, you can find out
tidbits, like why Romanians distrust folk music.

"The Rough Guide to World Music" provides more than 1,400 pages of information
that is just clearer and more useful than the competition. If you're
interested in the music of just one foreign country, this book is the
recommended way to branch out.

There are problems. "The Rough Guide to World Music" is simply not a
transcendent work in itself. If you have more than 100 contributors with 100
points of view, you have, essentially, no viewpoint. A single guiding
sensibility, no matter how much it leaves out, can become a companion in a way
that a collective study guide cannot. You never know what assumptions will
underpin a country's description. Sometimes rock-related performers are
included, sometimes not. Sometimes you get the rough guide to the Britney
Spears and Backstreet Boys of the world.

Also, the sheer overwhelmingness of it all might be reduced if classical and
folk traditions were in separate volumes. And, finally, the book shows a
peculiar fixation with geography, no doubt related to its roots as a tourist
helper. For example, the pop-dance style know as Bongra began in England and
is still based there but it is clearly an offshoot of Indian, not British
music, so why put the main discussion in the section with England? Likewise,
the group Zap Mama may live in Belgium but few who know their pan-African
style would look for them under Belgium. So if you're looking to buy albums
instead of plane tickets, the guide can be confusing.

Speaking of albums, "The Rough Guide" does a decent job with the conflict
between best-ever and best-available. How can I complain that the authors
don't mention enough out-of-print classics when they've already directed me to
exiting new albums from Australia, India and Greece, places I needed help.
Hey, "The Rough Guide to World Music" may be a tour bus between covers but it
will get you where you need to go.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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