IN COMEDY, TIMING IS KEY. JUST ASK ROBERT SMIGEL. LAST year, as executive producer and writer on ABC’s The Dana Carvey Show, he created (with animator J.J. Sedelmaier) “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” a risqué cartoon segment about two hunks who drive a phallus-shaped supermobile and slap each other’s rumps for a job well done. When it became clear, though, that viewers of family-friendly Home Improvement, which aired just before Carvey, were not amused, ABC pulled the plug. “It was one of the most amazing bad matches in TV history,” says Smigel.
But what rankled in prime time has won raves on late night. The “Duo,” along with the equally outrageous “Fun with Real Audio”—animated shorts in which actual dialogue from shows like 20/20 and Today is mouthed by misbehaving cartoon likenesses of the shows’ stars (in one, former O.J. pal Robert Kardashian fends off advances from a lusty, stripped-to-her-bra Barbara Walters)—have become audience favorites on Saturday Night Live. “Robert Smigel has added the best thing that has happened to us this season,” says SNL’s executive producer Lorne Michaels.
As a kid growing up in New York City, Smigel, 37, dreamed of becoming a comedian and a cartoonist. “I was obsessed with Peanuts,” he says. “Charles Schulz is still my ultimate idol.” After a stab at stand-up, he joined SNL in ’85, creating sketches like “Da Bears” and “Cluckin’ Chicken” before leaving in ’93 to help launch Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “You meet a lot of people who are pretty funny,” O’Brien. “Robert is the real thing.” As for Carvey, though short-lived, the show did let Smigel live out his childhood fantasy—combining his humor with cartoons. “Anything I used to do when I was 10 that I can do on TV now,” he says, “makes me really happy.”