You may not know his name, but you certainly know his work. If you’re a fan of Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler or Saturday Night Live, you’ve laughed at one of his jokes. Here’s a guy who Bob Odenkirk credits with teaching him how to write sketch comedy. Who Louis C.K. co-wrote an episode of his FX series Louie with, based on an incident from Smigel’s own life. He was the first head writer of Late Night w/ Conan O’Brien, and a standout on one of the greatest writing staffs of all time, for The Dana Carvey Show. Heck, the projects he hasn’t gotten made, like a musical movie based on the SNL sketch “Hans and Franz,” still sound better than most of the stuff out there. Before you catch him on tonight’s brand new episode of Portlandia, check out just a few of the things Robert Smigel has done to make you laugh.
10. Gyros Sketch From SNL
You like-ah the Juice? Then you’ll remember this sketch, featuring Smigel as one of the overeager Gyro slingers who love customer feedback. While Smigel popped up in a variety of sketches during his time on SNL, he made his name as a standout writer. He was first hired to join the writing staff in 1985, during a disastrous season that saw nearly every other writer fired. He would survive the bloodletting, and become one of the most idiosyncratic and distinct writers in the show’s history.
9. The Trekkies sketch from SNL
One of the most famous sketches Smigel penned saw William Shatner telling a roomful of Trekkies to move out of their parents’ basements. The iconic scene, which Shatner would call “equal parts comedy and catharsis,” would prove so popular that the actor behind Captain Kirk would go on to write both a book and make a documentary called, appropriately, “Get a Life!”
8. Da Superfans from SNL
You might remember Smigel as one fourth of “da” Superfans, uber Chicago sports nuts who talked about Ditka almost as much as they suffered heart attacks. Smigel first wrote the sketch when he was performing in the Happy Happy Good Show, a live Chicago comedy show that he starred in with fellow SNL scribes Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien during the 1988 writers strike. Premiering on SNL in 1991, during a week in which the Giants were scheduled to play the Bears, the Superfans would go on to become one of the most popular recurring sketches in the show’s history.
7. Impersonating Clinton, Bush, and many more on Late Night with Conan O’Brien
As head writer in the early days of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Smigel got to put his stamp on the show in its infancy. One of his longest running bits was “Via Satellite,” in which Smigel’s lips would be superimposed on top of the picture of some notable person, and he’d run roughshod over them. From Bill Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, these insane impressions undercut a whole era of politics and pop culture.
6. Night of Too Many Stars
While Smigel has climbed to the top of the comedy heap, his life isn’t without its complications. He and his wife are parents to a child with autism, and as a result he’s become highly involved in charity work surrounding the disorder, even serving on the board of New York Collaborates for Autism. Smigel’s activism has also led him to oversee the “Night of Too Many Stars” telethon, in which he gathers all of his showbiz friends — from Jon Stewart and Paul Rudd to Katy Perry and Amy Schumer — and puts on a show, all to raise money for autism-related education and support.
5. World leaders And Their Baths from The Dana Carvey Show
Speaking of fireworks, The Dana Carvey Show shone so brightly that it burned out after only seven episodes on ABC back in 1996. Smigel was brought in by head writer Louis C.K., who oversaw a staff that included such future superstars as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Kaufman and Jon Glaser. Much like his days on SNL, Smigel used the short-lived show as an opportunity to pop up in the occasional sketch or two, like the one above in which he showed us the softer side of one of our favorite dictators.
4. Wonderman from TV Funhouse
Back in 2000, Comedy Central gave Smigel a showcase for his warped sensibility with TV Funhouse, a spin-off of his popular SNL segment that featured cartoons and live-action Pee-wee’s Playhouse-style bits. Hilarious and boundary-pushing, the show struggled to find an audience and was canceled after one season. But it gave us some memorable sketches, including Wonderman, a Superman spoof featuring a superhero who fights crime in the name of truth, justice and getting his secret identity laid.
3. Lookwell pilot starring Adam West
Perhaps the most famous pilot to never make it to series, Lookwell starred Adam West as a washed-up TV detective who decides to start solving cases in real life. Smigel created the show with friend and fellow SNL writer Conan O’Brien, and the cast includes In the Bedroom director Todd Field as West’s reluctant sidekick. Shot single camera in the style of contemporary shows like The Office and Arrested Development, the pilot was ahead of its time when it was made back in 1991. Lookwell did air once as a special, but as O’Brien joked, “[it] was the second-lowest rated television show of all time. It’s tied with a test pattern they show in Nova Scotia.” Word of mouth led to bootleg copies being circulated in the VHS era, and it eventually turned up on YouTube where it finally found an audience of cult comedy fans. And maybe that’s what was always supposed to happen, because years later Smigel and O’Brien admitted they had no idea what they were going to do for the second episode, much less an entire season.
2. Saturday TV Funhouse
No matter where Smigel has gone, he’s always found a way to color outside the lines. On SNL that meant his long-running and bitingly absurd “Saturday TV Funhouse” cartoons. The segments varied widely, parodying everything from Rankin/Bass Claymation specials to Disney movies to Saturday morning cartoons. One of the most popular bits from Funhouse was “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” a recurring sketch about a crime fighting duo who seemed a bit too close. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
1. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
And then there is Smigel’s most popular creation, a cheap dog puppet with a cigar who will happily insult you to your face or hump your leg. His first appearance was way back in 1997, on a Late Night remote piece from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The character has since gone on to host a variety of shows and specials. Famous for his distinct accent, which Triumph insists is just how dogs sound, he has spent the better part of the last three decades insulting everyone from celebrities to politicians to 35-year-old Star Wars fans/virgins. Most recently he hosted Triumph’s Election Special 2016 for Hulu, in which he taught a bunch of millennials what a microaggression really sounds likes.