'I Was the Class Comedy Bully'

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Q: What's the concept behind "TV Funhouse"?

A: What I originally envisioned was doing a parody of "Bozo's Circus," which ran in the Midwest for years — still runs. It's really just, you know, I started combining puppets and live animals on the Conan show, most famously with Triumph the dog, and this is just an attempt to see how stupid that technique can get. It's an experiment. Right after "The Dana Carvey Show," I really had the idea to do something like this, and I got to do some of it on "Saturday Night Live," but I wanted to do more than 10 cartoons a year and open it up to other writers.

Q: When you did Triumph the Insult Comic Dog for the first time, did you have any idea that it would actually work?

A: The first time I did it on the show, the segment producer, Frank Smiley, said "That's gonna be big. It's gonna be huge. 'For me to poop on!' Ha! People are gonna be saying that." I was like 'What are you talking about? It's a parody of a catchphrase.'"

Q: Why was that thick-accented voice the one you decided to go with?

A: Yeah, Triumph is a Borscht Belt comic, but he talks like he's from eastern Europe. Very tangled web. When I was 10 years old, that's the voice I gave to dogs. I think because my grandparents talked in that accent.

Q: And they had dogs?

A: No. [laughs] The awful explanation I have is like I subconsciously compare dogs with eastern European immigrants because they both come over, they both enter the world with wide-eyed wonder, they're both just a step behind what's going on — at first anyway. So I just imagine a dog talking "Oh, look at all of this! I can't believe it!" So every dog on this show has an eastern European accent. They are all the same accent, just different voices. Just like real dogs.

Q: Were you a class clown type growing up?

A: I was the class comedy bully, which is not the class clown. I came up with funny things that caught on — nicknames and anthropomorphic cartoons and such. I genuinely liked the people I was making fun of, I just couldn't resist making fun of them. I lacked the empathy chip. I thought I was just having a good time. Because a lot of the people I made fun of were good friends of mine. Sometimes I was their best friend. I'd just be like, "Come on, you're 12 years old and you have tits. That's funny. Why are you upset about that?" That's a guy I'm talking about. I was a bully with a heart of gold. I didn't mean to hurt people. And I still don't. Triumph, fortunately — one nice thing about devolving into silly comedy is that there's less of a sting to it. The dog is so silly that the people I make fun of on Conan's show, they kind of eat it up. They have to love it.

Q: I saw John Tesh loved it.

A: Well, Tesh has to love it. He's kind of made a career out of being pooped on. Now Richard Hatch, we had him on recently, and he was loving it, loving it, loving it, just the way you would think he would. But then the writers wrote one joke that cut to the quick a little too much and I couldn't resist saying it because I was so offended on some levels by "Survivor" and by his being and the being of all those people. It was to the effect of "Enjoy your 15 minutes because you're about to be swallowed by anonymity faster than my pink thing in a St. Bernard." And he was just stone-faced after that. He was laughing his ass off at all the gay jokes, but then that one he just.... They're all deluded nuts to enter that kinda show in the first place, so obviously the guy who wins, he thinks he's gonna run for Senate some day.

Q: The cute one got that Rob Schneider movie.

A: Right. In this world cute ones are the only people who have a right to expect anything.

Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to get into comedy?

A: My father is a very successful dentist, and I wanted to be a dentist. Well, I didn't want to, but I had no concept that I would ever be able to make a living doing what I did in high school. So I actually worked hard in high school to get into a good school, and I got to Cornell and I was a pre-dental student. I just could not handle serious science courses. After a couple years of that I went to NYU, took communications, realized communications is a joke to take in college, so I did damage control and finished college as a pre-dental student at NYU, where it was a little easier. I took some organic chemistry at Hunter College in the summer, where it was even easier, and I still failed organic chemistry, and I still got into dental school because of my father — he invented tooth bonding. You should be interviewing my father. He's much more of a big deal than me.

Q: Is he funny?

A: He is funny. Very funny, especially when he's got cotton in your mouth. He comes up with these non-sequiturs. Always makes me laugh. Anyway, at some point I entered a stand-up comedy contest and was one of the winners, and I did a comic at NYU. That started to make me think, "Wait a minute, maybe it's worth a try..." So I went to Chicago and joined a comedy group there. Took improv classes. Was found by Franken and Davis and hired by SNL in 1985. Did that show 'til 93. Then I did "Conan," which was the best experience of my life, but exhausting, and I quit after a year and a half.

Q: Were you at all insulated from the criticism during that first year?

A: No one was. I was Conan's best friend at the show and it was impossible to be insulated. I felt everything Conan would feel. I was insulated compared to Conan, but he was such a good friend of mine that it was very hard to have to watch him deal with that stuff. It'll always be the thing I'm proudest of because it was such a bizarre challenge to succeed David Letterman, maybe the funniest ever to do that kind of work. But after a year and a half I just couldn't do the five-day-a-week grind. But I never really left the show. Then there was the Dana Carvey thing, which was a show that we all thought was funny but we obviously did it at the wrong time and the wrong place, after "Home Improvement" on ABC. Disney-owned. We signed up and then they were bought by Disney a month later, and yet we didn't stop to think that maybe we should adjust or rethink. We still opened the first show with the President breast-feeding puppies and kittens and we couldn't have angered the audience for "Home Improvement" more. So that was a unique highlight. I don't think I'll ever make a bigger mistake than that in my career. But you know, tune in next month.

Q: You're in the Adam Sandler movie doing more dog shtick. What's your take on him?

A: Sandler is one of the funniest guys I ever worked with at "Saturday Night Live." Very underrated in his writing ability. You have to dig into the archives or pull out the best of tape of Chris Farley, and you see things that Adam wrote that were very inventive. He did a lot of funny stuff that played with the form of presentational sketch comedy that no one had done before. He dared the staff to like him. He was one of the first people who kind of stepped outside of conventional sketch comedy and commented on it in a way that deconstructed it in a silly way. At the time, the audience was split. "Oh, it's so stupid. He just called his character Cajun Man." And other people love it because he's making fun of the labored premises that sketch comedy has. Believe me, he knew what he was doing. He's an incredibly smart guy. I think he's hysterical. I think his movies — obviously he's constructed more conventional vehicles for himself, but he's always had incredibly funny moments in his movies and I think his new movie is actually a step beyond. There's more of a concept to it than his other movies. There's a world in there. He worked harder on it than any other script. I hope critics cut him some slack.

Q: How did the "X-Presidents" comic book happen?

A: It's very odd. The only thing I've been working toward was doing a TV show. Random House saw a little two-page "X-Presidents" thing in George magazine last year. They asked me to write a book, and I already had a screenplay — Adam McKay and I had written a screenplay for "X-Presidents" a couple of years ago. People had asked me to do something with Ace and Gary and I just thought that would be a lot of heartache. I didn't know how to write it. Those guys are deliberately one-dimensional. The four ex-presidents are solidly two-dimensional.

Q: Is there any sort of descriptive thing you've come up with for the kind of comedy you do?

A: I do a lot of, I'd hate to call them gimmicks, but I'm like a comedy trick shot artist. I do the real audio, and the thing I did on "Conan" with the lips, they're like funny visual gimmicks that kind of make it fun, it just keeps me interested. I was really getting fried on sketch comedy when Conan came along, and the idea of doing sketches that way was just such a pleasant diversion. That's like a vaudeville bit, that Bill Clinton thing that I do. But I like playing with silly visual tricks, and this is just one more where I'm combining puppets and animals. This thing is basically practical jokes on live animals. I love all creatures. I love being around animals. I love being in a room with a sheep and a goat and a — I mean, I grew up in Manhattan — I always wanted to meet these people.

Q: It's pretty great that you still get to hop over to "Conan" and "Saturday Night Live."

A: It's the best. It's great. Ever since I left "Saturday Night Live" I've had this strange career where I bounce around between those two late-night shows. I'm the only person who gets to do that. And even when I was doing "Conan" I would occasionally have a sketch idea for "Saturday Night Live," and I had just built up enough credibility at that show that they were happy for me to submit stuff. And then when I left Conan I had a beautiful two-year period where I just had so much time with my wife and I only had to work from inspiration. I didn't make a lot of money, but I had made a lot of money from the previous two years doing "Conan." I cruised, and it was just a great feeling to write from inspiration only, sketches for "SNL" and bits for "Conan." And then the Dana Carvey thing was back to insanity. But the cartoons, the idea to do cartoons came out of that, and that's the best job I've probably ever had, because I have complete creative freedom. They just expect 10 cartoons a year and Lorne doesn't even ask or care what it is I'm doing. He just likes to be surprised on Saturday when I show up at dress with a cartoon. He's just been great about it. I can't complain.