Robert Smigel

triumph

Robert Smigel [smy-guhl] (b. 1960) is an American actor, humorist, comedian and writer known for his ‘Saturday Night Live’ ‘TV Funhouse’ cartoon shorts and as the puppeteer and voice behind ‘Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.’

Smigel was born in New York City. His father is Dr. Irwin Smigel, DDS, ‘The Father of Cosmetic Dentistry,’ and the founder and president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics. Robert attended Cornell, studying pre-dental and graduated from NYU in 1983 with a degree in communications. He developed his comedic talent at The Players Workshop in Chicago, where he studied improvisation with Josephine Forsberg. Fellow students included Bob Odenkirk. Smigel was also a member of the Chicago comedy troupe ‘All You Can Eat’ in the early 1980s.

Smigel first established himself as a major player on ‘Saturday Night Live’ by joining the writing staff when Lorne Michaels returned as executive producer for the 1985–1986 season. Smigel was hired after then-SNL producers Al Franken and Tom Davis saw him in a Chicago sketch show. The season proved to be a disappointment with critics, in the ratings, and with Brandon Tartikoff (who was planning to have SNL canceled by the last episode of season 11 due to its sliding ratings). Michaels fired most of the cast and writers, retaining the few standouts (Smigel being one of them), and hired new ones for upcoming season. This is when Smigel began to write more memorable sketches, including one where host William Shatner urged worshipful attendees at a Star Trek convention to ‘get a life.’ Smigel rarely appeared on screen; although, he was credited as a feature player in the early 1990s and has played a recurring character in the Bill Swerski’s Superfans sketches.

While on a writers’ strike from following the 1987–88 season, Smigel wrote for an improvisational comedy revue in Chicago with fellow SNL writers Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien called ‘Happy Happy Good Show.’ He also co-wrote ‘Lookwell’ with Conan O’Brien, a pilot for NBC which never went to series, but it has become a cult hit and has screened live at ‘The Other Network,’ a festival of unaired TV pilots produced by Un-Cabaret (an LA-based alternative comedy company), featuring live and taped intros by Smigel. Smigel later became the first head writer at ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien,’ where he created numerous successful comedy bits, including one where he performed only the lips of public figures which were superimposed on photos of the actual people. (This technique was pioneered on the ‘Clutch Cargo’ cartoon series as a cost-saving measure, and was known as Syncro-Vox.)

In 1996, Smigel wrote and performed on the short-lived ‘Dana Carvey Show,’ a primetime sketch comedy program on ABC. Despite its premature end, the show provided Smigel the opportunity to debut his first cartoon, ‘The Ambiguously Gay Duo.’ Upon the show’s cancellation, Smigel continued developing more cartoon ideas the following summer and would begin airing them on SNL under the ‘TV Funhouse’ banner. Smigel would later claim, ‘My whole career came out of the impulse to do cartoons on ‘The Dana Carvey Show.”

Smigel’s most famous creation, however, would be the foul-mouthed puppet Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, who mercilessly mocks celebrities and others in the style of a Borscht Belt comedian. This character debuted on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ in 1997 and would continue to make appearances on the show, as well as others, for many years to come.

Smigel continued to establish himself on SNL by producing infamous, provocative, short animated segments for ‘TV Funhouse,’ which usually satirized public figures and popular culture. It spawned a TV show on Comedy Central featuring a mix of puppets, animation, and short sketches, although only eight episodes were aired (during the winter of 2000 – 2001). Smigel occasionally appears in films (usually alongside SNL veterans such as Adam Sandler). According to interviews, he helped punch up the scripts for ‘Little Nicky’ and ‘The Wedding Singer.’ Smigel acted alongside fellow SNL writer Bob Odenkirk in ‘Wayne’s World 2’ as a nerd backstage at an Aerosmith concert. His contributions were uncredited.

Smigel, along with Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, wrote the script for the 2008 film ‘You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.’ In the film he played Yosi, an Israeli electronics salesman. Smigel is also one of the executive producers of the film which is a first for him despite his frequent collaborations with Sandler. Presently living in New York, he was the co-writer and executive producer of the 2012 film ‘Hotel Transylvania.’

Smigel has a wife, Michelle, and has a child with autism. They serve on the board of New York Collaborates for Autism (NYCA), a non-profit organization founded in 2003 to address the needs of individuals and families who are living with autism.

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