Into ‘TV Funhouse’ With One Comically Twisted Mind


You know those snuff-tin-shaped novelties that, when turned over, let loose with a cow’s moo or a cat’s meow? Robert Smigel does. They crack him up.

With a flick of his wrist, he pretends to invert such a toy, then provides his own “mooooooo” and bursts out laughing.

“I’m very easily amused.”

However, not by Big Mouth Billy Bass, the battery-powered singing fish. A bit twee, in Smigel’s view. “He’s trying too hard.”


Such pronouncements shed light on the comic sensibility of this writer, producer and sometime performer. As if Smigel’s vision weren’t manifest for any TV viewer: With short films and comedy bits on “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” (does the Ambiguously Gay Duo, X-Presidents or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ring a bell?), he has introduced his own line of novelty items.

Now, he has thrown open the doors of “TV Funhouse,” fully equipped with Smigellian silliness, for an eight-week run on Comedy Central. Outrageous, tacky and often hilarious, it premiered Dec. 5 and can be seen Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.

The premise: a twisted 1950s children’s show. It features Doug (Doug Dale), a geeky, wide-eyed host, and his “Anipals,” a menagerie of animal puppets co-existing with the real kind. (For instance, in one sketch a yowling puppet cat gives birth to a litter of real kittens. Plus a puppy. Hmmmmm.)

Animated shorts include “Wonderman,” a superhero whose only mission is to line up dates for his randy alter ego, and “The Baby, the Immigrant and the Guy on Mushrooms,” each of whom reacts to everything he sees by cooing, “Ahhhhhh,” though for widely varying reasons.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of writing things that maybe I couldn’t have written when I was 10 years old, but which remind me of things that made me laugh when I was 10 years old,” says Smigel.

Or maybe 5? This is a guy who, a few minutes earlier, was huddled with his longtime partner, Dino Stamatopoulos, choosing from several candidates the best piece of artificial dog poop.


That issue settled, Smigel has retreated to his office with a reporter. But he keeps an eye on the TV with its live pictures from the studio: puppet roosters and real roosters are now rehearsing a cockfighting sketch.

Harboring Dreams of Real and Fake Creatures

Smigel, a cheery fellow of 40 with wire-rim eyeglasses and a tangle of curly hair, flashes a grin of fulfillment at the screen. Even in the early days of “Late Night,” which he helped launch as its head writer, he harbored dreams of partnering real and fake creatures for comedic effect.

“I wanted to have a petting zoo backstage at ‘Conan,’ with a perfectly realistic-looking goat puppet among the real goats,” Smigel recalls.

“To me, what’s so funny about it is, half of the actors in the scene have no idea why it’s so funny--or even any idea what they’re part of.”

Adding to the absurdity is the fact that the animals--with their above-the-fray detachment, their blithe disregard for this or any TV show--are the only participants to hang on to their dignity. Their puppet counterparts become the butt of the humor.

“Look at that guy,” says Smigel as he points at the screen: A pecking, strutting rooster pays no mind to its ranting puppet co-star. “It’s like the animals are bad actors. But you can’t blame them for being bad actors. They have their own priorities.”


Smigel, meanwhile, has his. A crush of them.

“It’s just ridiculously grueling,” he says of his series. “I’m executive producer. Also head writer, basically. I’m also a puppeteer crouching under a stage, sticking my arm up a dog’s [behind], with the other arm under the dog’s chin, trying to make him look like he’s chasing his tail while I scream at the top of my lungs.”

Still, “TV Funhouse” is a cakewalk compared with Smigel’s fling with mainstream prime time: As producer of ABC’s “The Dana Carvey Show” in 1996, he battled unsavvy sponsors and a less-than-approving network. The weekly half-hour show lasted just two months.

Ever since, he says, “I’ve tried to carve out a niche in the protected area of late-night and cable, and write what I really think is funny.”

There, he’s happy. And, happily, he suffers no shortage of material.

“Comedy writers get a bad rap,” Smigel says. “What they do isn’t a function of angst or anger or a need to be loved. Writing comedy isn’t a talent or disease. It’s just a condition: We find lots of things funny!”

And all the funnier if they moo.