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'Fun House' as Mirror of the Times

April 27, 2006 By:
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The unambiguously great trio of Robert Smigel
Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, the protean and ready for prime-time player Robert Smigel ponders which is harder - Eastertime for the Jews or "Christmastime for the Jews"?

Well, he says, kibitzing that he may be too crabby - in a non-treif manner of speaking - to comment comically having been matzahed-out of his mind, "it is [harder] this year, because Passover coincides with [Easter]. But seriously - now I sound like Henny Youngman - 'Take my chocolate matzah - please!' "

Take his comedy - pleasing millions of viewers as a "Saturday Night Live" contributor. The smart Smigel, whose cartoon "Christmastime" was a dart-like dreidel spin on the holiday in which "the streets are deserted, and that's big news/It's Christmastime for the Jews," brings the best of his frolicking "Fun House" hits to the "Saturday Night Live" spot this weekend on NBC.

Home is where the hilarity is - it's on "SNL" that his AWOL humor has targeted the bold-face and the beautiful with such animated bits as the X-Presidents, the Ambiguously Gay Duo and, yes, "Christmastime for the Jews."

Deck the halls with vows of unholy: The voice - and hand - behind Triumph the Comic Insult Dog of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" infamy, is a triumph of political incorrectness over propriety.

Props to "Fun House," mirror to the times, as it yanks the welcome mat out from those with dirty feet and dirty minds. Smigel smites them all; an equal-opportunity animator.

This Saturday night's mix of mishugas is live from New York - and lively from past bits made infamous by a native New Yorker who first discovered the importance of bite at home: his father, a dentist, invented the tooth-bonding process.

Bound for greatness as a kid-cum-kidder? "I was the strange one in the family," laughs Smigel, recalling affectionately being raised by "Jewish parents who were loving and supportive; I went to school two blocks from the house so I wouldn't be killed."

He kills now; who wouldn't be reeled in by the real-looking Ambiguously Gay Duo, superheros who look so pretty in pink that it would make Molly Ringwald blush - if they hadn't stolen her blusher.

These are the two that Batman and Robin can only dream about alone in their bat cave. Indeed, Smigel's fabulous duo ("dynamic duo" was already appropriated) Ace and Gary - voiceovers provided by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell - are hosts for Saturday night's lithe cast.

As heroic and color-coordinated as this twosome is, keeping it gay wasn't giddy enough when it came to this year's Oscars. Doesn't Smigel think that had the Ambiguously Gay Duo been more straightforward in their support, "Brokeback Mountain" would have broken out of the loser's stall Oscar night?

"I worked feverishly to avoid connecting" the two, hoping to "spare [the public] one more 'Broken Mountain' " joke.

Spare? He strikes while it's hot. "Fun House" is, in part, so much fun for its on-target topicality. "People have come to appreciate that the animation is very content-oriented and are willing to accept the cheesiness of the characters," he deadpans.

Cheese and crack-em-up: "I started out as a staff writer [at SNL] in 1985, so I guess they're giving me this special because they've given up on me leaving."

Leave them laughing: Though Smigel's never heard from the real ex-presidents, he does feel their pain. In fact, targeting the current administration requires bending the bow and arrow quickly. By the time a Bush bash is penciled in, "he's already on to the next screw-up."

But the X-Presidents are now retired - although one can't imagine Smigel as the retiring kind. Fast and funny, he's not one to offer mere lip service to a topic - albeit he does provide "The Lips" service to Conan's cutting-edge show as a clutch hitter.

As a peanut, Smigel was more Snoopy than Charlie Brown, always wanting to be a cartoonist, drawing Peanuts characters and the Flintstones as a kid.

Those illustrations went from gee-whiz "G" to a more powerful "PG-13" long after his own Bar Mitzvah. In later years, Smigel was more apt to think of drawing on his talent imagining Wilma and Fred and their pet - having nothing to do with Dino.

Sex on the drawing board can be more tame than on the dining room table. "No one wants to see George and Barbara Bush having sex in three-dimensions," but as a cartoon, Smigel cops to enjoying the image.

Sex and the cel - not a hard sell, especially in these free-for-all times. But politics as unusual? It's news to him, and a fun source of figuring out how it all fits into animation.

Sometimes, Smigel's take on topics makes news itself.

As in the time, he recalls, "when years ago as a sketch writer with Conan," on "SNL," they did a piece "in which 'penis' was uttered 60 times - this was 1988."

The tipoff that it was controversial came when the skit was the focus of an article in The New York Times trashing the breakout of what it called trash TV.

If Smigel exposed himself as a member of the priapic avant-garde, not everyone was guarded with their praise for him. Indeed, Smigel's father - and fan - had his own read on the news.

"He's the funniest," says the writer admirably of his dad the dentist, adding this following case of oral history: The story breaks in the paper, "and my father holds up The New York Times," and exclaims proudly: "Look - Page 1! This penis thing - that's my son!"

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