Messing with Smigel

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Talk about your high-concept lowbrow humor.

In the big-budget action-comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (which arrives in theaters Friday), Adam Sandler portrays the titular Zohan, an ultra-lethal Israeli counterterrorist operative who tires of his part in his country’s war on terror, fakes his own death and comes to New York in pursuit of his dreams: He really wants to be a hairdresser.

Equal parts Casanova and killing machine, he’s loved by women and feared by men -- a guy with a terrible mullet who brushes his teeth with hummus, can catch bullets with his nostrils and dispatches Palestinian terrorists while wearing Daisy Duke cutoff shorts. As well, the character seems to have a thing for overweight and elderly ladies. And Zohan’s customers queue up the block not only for his acrobatic dye jobs and perms but also for the complimentary roll in the hay (his salon’s utility room standing in for a boudoir) that he delivers after each coif.

For all his crude and vivid contradictions, the character is the brainchild of an impressive comic triumvirate: Sandler (whose movies have combined to gross more than $2 billion worldwide), comedy mogul Judd Apatow (writer-director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and producer of such hits as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up”) and the less famous but nonetheless beloved “comedian’s comedian” Robert Smigel, who also executive produced “Zohan” and appears in a cameo as a hard-haggling Israeli electronics store employee.


Over tea in a swanky New York hotel, Smigel explained the division of labor.

“Adam came up with the idea for this movie totally independently six years ago,” Smigel said. “Judd was mostly involved with an early first draft. He did a lot of research on the Mossad and he showed me some Clint Eastwood movies -- this guy coming into town and being taken in by the locals and being very quiet. And I kind of injected the whole electronics store element and the idea of Israelis being horny.”

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Smigel’s cultishly popular cultural offerings might: He writes and performs on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” responsible for one of its funniest recurring bits, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog -- a potty-mouthed canine hand puppet with a Borscht Belt accent and a hilarious habit of verbally demolishing the talk show host’s guests. Smigel has also been a writer for “Saturday Night Live” since 1985, winning two Emmys for his work on the show and producing its animated “TV Funhouse” segments (among the best known is “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” about a couple of Batman and Robin-esque superheroes whose sexuality is constantly questioned while they fight crime). Comedy Central will release a two-DVD set of the short-lived “TV Funhouse” series in July.

Dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, the New York native, 48, gives off the rumpled air of someone accustomed to making his presence most acutely felt from behind the camera. He befriended Sandler when the two worked together on “SNL” in 1990 and has done uncredited script polishes on a number of the comedian’s movies over the years. Fittingly enough, their first sketch on the show was called “The Sabra Shopping Network” -- a vivid imagining of an Israeli version of QVC (in which all prices are negotiable but bargains are hard to drive).

“He’s one of my best friends,” Smigel said of Sandler. “I always thought he was one of the most brilliant people I worked with at ‘SNL.’ Very subversive. Because he would always come off like a dumb guy, not just to the audience but to the staff on the show. People were dismissing what he was doing as sketch comedy but he was deconstructing it, breaking down sketch comedy in a cynical but friendly way.”

As executive producer on “Zohan,” however, Smigel stuck to his priorities. Job one, of course, was to be funny. But the writer-producer-actor -- whose humor derives its power from being broad and scatological and anything but politically correct -- made it a point to avoid dehumanizing Zohan’s Palestinian nemeses.

In one scene in which Zohan is dodging grenades and punching terrorists through walls, a turban-wearing character comments, “Oh, so we’re the bad guys?” And as Zohan kicks him off a balcony onto a pile of ammunition boxes, the terrorist asserts: “It’s more complicated than that.”

“We wanted to convey that Zohan’s had these fights a million times with these guys to the point where they can have crazy philosophical arguments while they’re having crazy action moves,” Smigel said. “I didn’t want to take one side or the other, or for the movie to have an answer to the Middle East crisis. If there is a message, it’s that hate is an institutional thing that’s learned.”

He paused for a moment before finishing his thought: “But it wouldn’t be funny if absolutely nobody was offended.”