Rob Riggle is a rising star in comedy: the Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant colonel was a featured player on “Saturday Night Live” for one year (2004-05) and a “Daily Show” correspondent from 2006-08 before landing scene-stealing roles in several comedies, most notably as a taser-happy cop in The Hangover. He left “The Daily Show” after signing a talent holding deal with CBS that led to a recurring role on “Gary Unmarried” and the starring role in “Home Game,” a comedy pilot that didn’t get picked up this spring.
Presently, Riggle is in New Orleans filming 21 Jump Street (in which he’ll play a villain against Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum), and he can also be seen this summer in Larry Crowne and Adult Swim’s “NTSF:SD:SUV.” He took a few minutes last Thursday to talk about his career and promote the AXE Dirtcathlon, a web series he’s hosting for the relaunch of the shower gel’s brand.
NOTE: The interview has been edited for length and clarity, mostly to disguise the fact that I’m incredibly awkward on the phone, have poor interviewing skills, and often can’t muster subject-verb agreement when speaking. For example, here’s the unedited transcript of how the conversation started:
[There’s a beep signifying that the PR guy has connected Rob and me via conference call.]
PR Guy: Hey Rob, you there?
Riggle: Yeah, I’m here.
PR Guy: Matt?
Warming Glow: Hey.
WG: Oh! Sorry, I was expecting more of an introduction.
Riggle: (laughs) It’s Rob.
PR Guy: Sorry about that Matt, you’re on the phone with Rob Riggle.
WG: Thanks. Sorry.
See? This is why I conduct interviews so rarely. Well, that and the restraining orders.
From here on out, my questions are in bold and Riggle’s responses are in regular typeface. Notes appear in italics (and often).
We begin by discussing Riggle’s Marine Corps career, which I find remarkable because I know a lot of Marine officers, and I know a lot of creative people, and the intersection of those two groups is small enough to make the Venn diagram look like a figure-8. But Riggle, who already had a pilot’s license when he graduated from Kansas with a degree in Theater & Film, didn’t want to follow the standard career trajectory for actors.
Theater and film majors become waiters. So I was going to be a waiter or a bartender, OR I could be a second lieutenant and fly planes for the Marine Corps, and maybe be the next Top Gun. To a 22-year-old, that sounded pretty good, so I went that way.
Riggle made it through Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API) in Pensacola, Florida and Primary Flight Training in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was headed back to Florida to train to become a helicopter pilot when the gravity of the eight-year flight contract — “which seemed like a lifetime to me at the time” — sank in.
I always wanted to try to do comedy and acting, and if I put on those wings, in all reality, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t get to try comedy and acting. So I stopped flying for the Marines, and they made me a ground officer [a contract to be a Marine ground officer is only four years], sent me to Defense Information School and made me a Public Affairs Officer.
I assume that Riggle’s explanation has been scrubbed for civilian ears over the last 15 years. It’s expensive and time-consuming to train pilots, and pilot instructors get PISSED when capable students drop out.
I imagine there were a lot of Marine pilots at flight school displeased with your decision.
Oh yeah, yeah. Everybody. And they couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. It wasn’t their life, it was mine, and I had to make my own decisions. And I’d never made a decision that big in my life, and I’d never quit anything in my life, and that didn’t sit very well with me.
But I said to myself — I even wrote it down in the back of this book I had at the time — “If I leave flight school, if I quit something for the first time in my life, then it’s gotta count for something.” And so I wrote down exactly what I was going to accomplish if I quit flight school, and the first thing I wrote was, “I’m gonna get on ‘Saturday Night Live’.” And almost ten years to the day – Almost! Ten years. To. The. Day – I got on “Saturday Night Live.”
That’s pretty cool. Did you call up your former superior officers and say “IN YOUR FACE!”?
(laughs) No. I didn’t. I didn’t gloat, I was just grateful that I was able to do what I wanted to do.
Anyway, I fulfilled my ground contract, and then I ended up extending on active duty for another three years, and my last three years of active duty [1997-2000] were in New York. So while I was in New York, I was doing Marine Corps stuff during the day, and at night I was doing comedy. That’s how I got started with the Upright Citizens Brigade.
That kinda blows my mind. I’m not sure if most people understand how incongruous that seems, because in my experience, though some of the funniest people I know are Marines, I find that Marine officers as whole tend to be very dry and not very humorous people.
It depends on who you hang out with. I found a couple guys that I thought were really funny, and I enjoyed hanging out with them. And also to your point, I found a lot of them to be very dry and humorless and wouldn’t know a joke if it was strangling them.
In my tank battalion, I’d make a self-deprecating comment and people would just look at me like, “What the f*ck is wrong with you?”
Well, you know as well as anybody that the military is a microcosm of society.
So you get great guys, you get smart guys, and then you get idiots. You get what you get in society. I found a couple guys that I liked, and that’s all I needed.
The recent Funny or Die sketch you did as the SEAL who killed bin Laden reminded me of one of my favorite “Daily Show” segments, when you went to Berkeley to cover the reaction to the Marine recruiting station. I was wondering how much the Marine background shapes your comic sensibility.
I don’t think it shapes it at all, to be honest with you. I mean maybe for a character study, if I’m playing some sort of authority figure, then I can draw from that a little bit. But with my size and my presence, I think people want to make me an authority figure. And also people know I was in the military, so if there’s a military thing, they go, “Hey you wanna do it?” and I’m like, [resigned] “Yes.”
Your physicality and presence seem to be big parts of your roles in The Hangover and your pilot, “Home Game,” where you play a jock [former NFL lineman Mark Schelereth].
I don’t mean to bring up sore spots, but “Home Game” did not get picked up.
No, it did not. It’s not that sore of a spot – it’s par for the course; it’s really not uncommon. What’s uncommon is getting picked up. I think George Clooney did, what? Nine pilots? I have numerous friends who have done many, many pilots. It’s just the course of doing business. Sometimes they get picked up – rarely they get picked up – and more often than not, they don’t.
Do you still have the deal with CBS? Will future TV projects still come down that pipeline?
I don’t know about CBS. I’ve tried two passes with CBS now, and neither one went, so I’m looking right now to see what’s out there. I’ve got a couple interesting things that might be happening, but I can’t talk about them now.
So we’ll see. I’m pretty optimistic and pretty happy about it, so we’ll see what unfolds in the next couple weeks.
Can you say who the people you might be working with will be?
Not yet. I can’t talk about anything yet, but I will say that there are some things out there that I’m excited about, and we’ll see what happens. I don’t believe anything until it actually happens, until it’s over and done, and it’s been aired. Then I believe it. This business is… It’s not like the Marines. In the Marines, you say what you mean, you mean what you say; you say you’re gonna do something, you do it. Showbiz isn’t quite like that. So I don’t believe anything until it’s all done.
But right now I’m shooting a movie down in New Orleans, that’s where I’m currently talking to you from this morning, on the film 21 Jump Street with Jonah Hill. It’s great, it’s been a total blast. Jonah is hilarious; Channing Tatum – very funny guy. Just a lot of really good people. And then I have some other movie projects coming up in the fall if they come through. Literally, in the next two or three weeks, I’ll have a real good idea of what my life is going to look like in the future.
Riggle then runs down the rest of his films coming out: Larry Crowne with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts (he filmed a few scenes with Hanks, which he described as “surreal and awesome”); Everybody Loves Whales with John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore; and The Lorax, an animated Dr. Seuss film for which he voices a character.
…So there’s some fun things going on.
You’re staying busy.
[extremely loud sirens]
Sorry, I live next to a fire station.
Oh, are you in New York?
Yeah, I live in Brooklyn.
I lived in New York for ten years. I lived next door to a fire station as well.
Where were you at?
When I lived next to the fire station, it was up on 75th and Second, Manhattan.
Oh, nice. Upper East Side.
The fire station was between Second and Third on 75th, and it was a walk-up – thank God it was only the second floor – but my window was right by the street, it was a little studio, and the sirens… they would just blast that thing at all hours. And when they were backing the truck in at night, and they had the lights on, it would light up my apartment like a disco.
(laughs) I don’t think it’s a big deal during the day, but at night I’m cognizant of it. Like, “Jesus Christ, how many fires are in this city? I don’t see that many!”
Yeah, I empathize with you.
Get more info about Riggle from his website and Twitter feed. “NTSF:SD:SUV” debuts July 21st on Cartoon Network. And check out AXE Dirtcathlon for a chance to win a trip to Spain. I mean, it probably won’t happen, but I gotta scratch some backs here.