A few weeks ago, writer/comic/director/producer/puppeteer Robert Smigel emailed me, trying to get some insight as to why no one was covering his new Fox comedy sketch show, Let’s Be Real. To which I quickly did a Google search for “Robert Smigel new show” before responding, to save myself the embarrassment of admitting I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Let’s back up a bit. I’ve known Smigel professionally since 2011 when I interviewed him for Vanity Fair about his scrapped script for a Green Lantern movie (if you can find this script floating around out there, it’s very funny; also, I’m doing exactly what Smigel hates: complementing him on work he did 15 years ago). One of the first two things I learned about Smigel is (a) he’s very passionate about his work and wears his heart on his sleeve and (b) Smigel does not have a publicist. So if there’s something he disagrees with in a piece you are doing on him, instead of a publicist, you might get a phone call from Smigel at 8 a.m. in the morning (which, yes, may have happened to me). And if you’ve ever seen Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in action, you do not want to have any kind of actual argument with Smigel because he’s too savvy and quick witted and you will definitely lose.
Let’s back up one more time. Back in 1996 Smigel – who had just come off writing for SNL and then as head writer for Late Night with Conan O‘Brien – was the co-creator and an executive producer of The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch comedy show that was absolutely stacked with future famous people like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Charlie Kaufman, just to name a few. (I will use this moment to point out that back in 2011 I wrote an oral history of The Dana Carvey Show for GQ and, to this day, is still one of my favorite things I’ve worked on. Oh, also, when this piece published, it had been 15 years since The Dana Carvey Show went off the air.)
The moment Smigel knew The Dana Carvey Show was in trouble was when ABC gave them a lead-in of Tim Allen’s Home Improvement – a wildly successful sitcom that was the definition of a “family show,” which ended its episode that evening and, the next thing viewers saw, was Dana Carvey dressed as Bill Clinton with eight nipples, breastfeeding babies and puppies. The audience from Home Improvement did not like what they saw. All of this is mentioned because, well, do you want to take one guess who Smigel’s lead in was for his current show, Let’s Be Real? If you guessed Tim Allen’s family comedy Last Man Standing, you would be correct. Smigel sighs, “When I heard that Tim Allen’s show was going to be in front of mine, again, I was like, ‘God is a funny guy.’”
Let’s make no bones about it, Let’s Get Real is a weird show. And very political. With a combination of puppets playing famous celebrities and politicians, who interact with human actors, it feels like something you’d stumble upon late at night in college, drunk or stoned or both, and then watch it for hours. It certainly has an Adult Swim vibe to the whole thing, but yet it airs on Fox. No no, not FX. It airs on Fox the actual broadcast network. In primetime. You remember networks right? Those places that air procedural television shows like NCIS, or reality shows? Not usually a show with with a puppet Donald Trump trying to sell all the stuff he stole from the White House on his way out on Antiques Roadshow.
Now, to understand why Smigel is, let’s say, a little disappointed, you have to understand why this show exists in the first place. And it’s a little complicated. So I’ll try to explain it the best I can and keep it as simple as possible: Disney bought Fox from NewsCorp. One of the few things Disney did not get was the Fox broadcast network, because there are laws preventing one corporation from owning more than one network and Disney already owns ABC. But Disney did buy Fox Studios, the production company that made most of the shows that air on the Fox network, which is why Disney now owns The Simpsons, yet it still airs, for the time being, on Fox. If Disney and Newscorp, the still owner of Fox the network, can’t come to an agreement on a deal to still keep airing these shows, Fox will have very little programming of their own. So, Fox the network approached Smigel to develop Let’s Be Real, a concept that was already in development before Smigel signed on.
“This was a project that was presented to me. I didn’t go to them with this idea,” explains Smigel. “This was something that they were trying to develop on their own and they actually went as far as a pilot presentation that they made, and then they didn’t like it. My manager called me and said, ‘They’d love for you to consider developing this.’ And I watched it and I didn’t like it at all. I thought, well, this isn’t any fun. I’d rather watch Saturday Night Live. I didn’t even want to talk about it, but then I had a conversation with the production company and as we were having the conversation. I was just being very honest, telling them why I just had no desire to do this and I never really enjoyed Spitting Image for the same reason. It was just, it felt cold. As I’m talking to them, I’m saying, well, maybe if humans interacted with the puppets, then there might be some dynamic that’s interesting? I was talking about doing real life remotes. Instead of Triumph, you have Kanye West go to a Trump rally, kind of like that.”
But the thing is, now, he’s pretty proud of what he and his team have put together. He spends a good portion of our time talking about how funny his writers are and how good the voice-work has been. Reading into what he’s saying, it sounds more like, whether you like it or don’t like it, he’d be happy just for you to give it a chance. Barring that, I think he’d settle for you just knowing it exists.
“Even my mother didn’t watch the last show because they moved it to a different time and she had no idea,” says Smigel, who has a way of making even defeat a funny punchline. “But, no, no friends of mine knew about it. It was just one of those things. I tried. Like, Howard Stern had been asking for Triumph for a few months, so I timed it for this. And then Marc Maron is somebody who I met like eight years ago and asked me to be on his show, but that’s about all the publicity we got.”
More than anything he wanted to know why critics ignored it completely. Knowing something about that, and I know from the outside looking in, this might look like a job where writers and critics can just seek stuff out. But, for better or for worse, there are just so many shows right now. So, without a publicist emailing asking, “Hey, want to interview Robert Smigel about his new political comedy show?,” (to which I suspect quite a few people would have said yes), well, no one really has the time to go looking for it.
I did point out that a couple of weeks ago former president Barack Obama was on Conan O‘Brien’s podcast and, out of the blue, mentioned how much he loves Triumph. Smigel laughs, and make no mistake, he loved the compliment, but says, “That was not planned. I give Fox no credit. I give Fox PR no credit for that one. Then Obama screwed up because he was supposed to say, ‘And now he’s doing a show called Let’s Be Real.’”
Again, acting as his own publicist, he then asks me if an exclusive unseen sketch involving Marjorie Taylor Greene would help. I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but I told him it can’t hurt. Well, I guess unless it’s pro Marjorie Taylor Greene. (It is not.) So he sent me this:
So this is why all of this is a little strange, but also shows what a unique personality Smigel is: As mentioned, he has no publicist. And usually a person in Smigel’s position, with the help of a publicist, will do press before a series airs, not after it completes its run and got not great ratings.
“I wrote to you because I don’t want to have this conversation with you at The Bell House in Brooklyn, in front of 150 people in 15 years, where people tell me it was ahead of its time or some shit that I don’t even agree with,” Smigel laments. “I just wanted to try to nip the 15 year tribute in the bud.”
And when you look at Smigel’s career, he really does have a habit of that happening. “Yeah, I’m trying to avoid the whole: he only makes flops that we love years later. I was trying to avoid that for this one, just because I’m getting older, and I don’t know how many more flops I have in me. That I can keep playing that game. So I kind of like people to know about this because I tried to finish good.”
(I’m as guilty as anyone. When Smigel was on Marc Maron’s podcast he told a story of a never-aired SNL sketch called “Animal Pranks” and one of the pranks was “a turtle that thinks he’s going to meet Burt Reynolds, but the prank is, instead, it’s not Burt Reynolds but a Burt Reynolds impersonator.” Of course I told Smigel that, when I heard that, it made me laugh out loud on the street, to both Smigel’s delight and chagrin at the same time.)
I then ask Smigel, out of anything, what he wanted to accomplish by reaching out to me to talk about Let’s Be Real, a show that already aired and, in his words, nobody watched. What, more than anything, does he want people to take away from all of this. Smigel pauses, laughs a little bit, then says, “Well, it’s still on Hulu.”
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