The new Adam Sandler vehicle You Don't Mess With The Zohan marks Robert Smigel's first produced screenplay—he co-wrote it with Sandler and Judd Apatow—but he's already a famed television comedy writer. Smigel began writing for Saturday Night Live in the mid-'80s and has gone on to become one of the venerable comedy institution's most acclaimed and popular writers, having written or co-written classics like "Action Reagan" and the sketch where William Shatner admonishes a convention full of traumatized Trekkies to get a life. But he's best known for his "TV Funhouse" cartoons, an ongoing series of dark, pop-culture-damaged toons that have consistently ranked as the show's funniest and most bitingly satirical element.
Smigel served as the first head writer for friend and frequent collaborator Conan O'Brien's Late Night With Conan O'Brien and created some of the show's signature bits, like the use of crude Clutch Cargo-style "syncho-vox" animation for satirical fake celebrity interviews and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, a ribald, cigar-smoking puppet insult comedian voiced by Smigel himself. As the executive producer of The Dana Carvey Show, he gave crucial breaks to a pair of young talents named Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, who also provided the voices for the "Ambiguously Gay Duo," a popular recurring feature of "TV Funhouse." In 2000 he masterminded a short-lived but cultishly popular Comedy Central TV Funhouse spin-off that will be released on DVD in late July. The A.V Club spoke at length with the comedy vet about Adam Sandler's package, the super-charged libidos of Israeli men, and why You Don't Mess With The Zohan might just bring people together.
The A.V Club: Can you talk a little about the writing of Zohan? Did you and Sandler and Apatow go to local Starbucks with a laptop and spitball ideas?
Robert Smigel: I can't remember it was so long ago. It feels like 30 years ago. Did you see the preview?
AVC: Yes, I did.
RS: Did you like it?
AVC: I had a smile on my face pretty much the entire film. It is a very, very silly movie.
RS: You can be honest with me. You can be honest with me. You can be honest with me. I've been shat on in my career now and then. So I can handle it if you had problems with it. I like it, because it was opportunity to do a comedy with Adam that had stuff that you don't normally see, not just in an Adam Sandler movie, but in a summer comedy as well. I was excited about the opportunity to tackle this crazy sensitive subject in a movie. I had done Israeli sketches on Saturday Night Live before. Actually Adam's first sketch on SNL was something called the "Sabra Shopping Network." It was a home shopping show. It was at the beginning of the home shopping phenomenon. It was these Israeli electronic store guys with their own home shopping show and they would haggle with the callers and shame them into overspending on the items. And we did "Sabra Price Is Right" with Tom Hanks a few years later. I was excited to write about Israelis, too. I'd gone to a Jewish summer camp where I met a lot of Israelis every year. So I had a lot of Israeli humor stored up.
AVC: There's an interesting culture divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and there's a lot of overlapping as well. It's strange to think of all these very domestic American Jews who, not too long ago, were wielding an Uzi in the Israeli army.
RS: Just the fact that they all serve in the army is a hard thing to wrap your head around as a fat, lazy, American Jew.
AVC: There's also this culture of machismo that doesn't necessarily carry over to American Jews.
RS: Without question it exists. A lot of people wear it as a badge of honor. The Sabra mentality is being confident and aggressive and not hesitating and the appearance of strength. It's a reaction to everything the Jews dealt with that led to the creation of the state of Israel. Once it was created, it inspired people to behave from a position of strength.
AVC: The movie tweaks that a little bit. On one hand, Zohan is a very masculine soldier, on the other…
RS: Without question. Well, the movie extrapolates that into sexuality of course. I noticed a recurring theme of sexually confident and aggressive Israeli men. I was worried whether we were pushing it too far, but then we cast some of the actors, and were delighted to see that they embodied every aspect of that quite quickly. One of the guys that we cast was Ido Mosseri, who played the little sidekick Oori, who runs the electronics store. His first day on the set he's going off on Tel Aviv and how cool it is. Which is funny, because there was this line that we ending up cutting, which had Nick Swardson's character saying, "I'd love to visit Israel at some point. I always wanted to see the Wailing Wall." And the guys are all saying, "Wailing Wall? You're not going to get any pussy at the Wailing Wall! Tel Aviv is where you go! Fuck the Wailing Wall!" And then I'm talking to Ido about it, and he goes, "Jerusalem? You don't need to see Jerusalem. You come with me to Tel Aviv. You won't believe it: the partying, the girls, it's unbelievable!" Then there's a little bit of silence, and then, "You married?" And I say, "Yeah. Yeah I am." "Maybe you don't have to come." Not joking, just, "Well, all right. Then you might as well not come to Israel if you're not there to score." Then his buddy got another part, a smaller part, and he shows me this text message he sent him after he got cast—here's a guy that's been working as an actor in Israel then all of a sudden he gets a part in a summer blockbuster comedy. The first thing in his text message: "I got cast! Tell the girls in Los Angeles to wait for me!" It didn't matter if it were Adam Sandler or Gallagher II in a movie, this guy just wanted to be flown to L.A so he could get laid.
And then they got here and it was funny, and I think this is reflected in the movie a little bit, they talked about how they were getting shut out at clubs by the girls. I don't know what clubs they went to, but they said they weren't having any luck and they said it was because there was an inherent prejudice against, you know, they came off as foreign guys. They were frustrated that everybody was mixing up Arabs and Israelis here anyway, which is also in the movie.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research on the Mossad before writing the film?
RS: That's where Judd was the responsible one, Judd mostly worked with us on the first draft. Then he went off to become a superstar. Remember, the first draft was written in the summer of 2000. I think Judd was ready to do Undeclared at that time. We were completely happy with it and then 9/11 happened and we didn't even think about doing the movie for a long time after that. Basically, at some point, we were like, "Oh, the Zohan movie. Forget that. That's not happening." It wasn't even a blip at the time. It was the last thing that mattered to us.
AVC: When do you think we, as a culture, reached the point where people could laugh about terrorism?
RS: We didn't even really talk about the movie for a couple of years. Even before 9/11 there was some talk about fictionalizing the countries. Having the dispute stem for orange groves or something like that. Just heightening the trivialization. Once we got back into the reality of it, we tried to get away from that. We're just comedy writers, and I hope it comes off that we are not trying to imply that there's an easy solution to the disputes over there. The only point we're trying to make in the movie is that once these guys are placed in another context that they're not necessarily all that dissimilar from each other.
AVC: If you had gone the fictionalization route, do you think that would have been a cop out?
RS: Well, people on both sides were saying that people are going to know either way what you're talking about. Some people thought that's why you can do it and some people thought, well, you might as well do the real thing because you're not going to be fooling anyone. Adam and I always wanted to do the real thing because everybody knows what it is. Why not hit it head on? In 2004, I tried a version where Adam became a stuntman in a movie directed by a Scorsese kind of guy. He was hired to be Mariah Carey's hairdresser and he sees a stuntman doing something really badly and he shows him how to do the stunt and the guy is amazed by Zohan's ability to get hit by a car and not be hurt. The whole thing ended up turning this Martin Scorsese drama into a crazy action movie. The director becomes consumed with Zohan's ability to absorb pain. I tried that at one point. And then after a few years it just became apparent that not only are we used to the state of the world as it is, but there have been so many uprisings in the Middle East since then that people have become sadly, on some level, desensitized to the violence. On the other hand, people are ready to laugh at the shitty state of affairs we're in.
AVC: Do you think it can be cathartic in that respect?
AVC: The paradox of this story is that it is an incredibly silly movie with an incredibly serious subject.
RS: Hopefully, whatever points we make are not trite. Most of the parody in the movie has to do not so much with stereotypes, although people might disagree; but I don't really see it as a movie so much about the stereotypes of those two cultures as parodying everything that goes with war and the passions on both sides. I think one of the bolder things we do in the movie is parody the glorification of violence. We do it on both sides, I think, with the guy Adam meets who is an enormous fan of his work. He's reminding Adam of the time he made a terrorist sit on a grenade. He's like, "You gotta tell me how you did that, man!" It's sort of a sports metaphor-y type thing. Then on the other side, it's the same thing. The John Turturro character, after he's presumably defeated Zohan, he gets blinged out and gets a gold tooth and a chain of restaurants.
AVC: With his action figure in the happy meal.
RS: Like a retired superstar. It's dicey because there will be people that might suggest that we're saying that everybody glorifies violence.
AVC: Do you think that you could have written with Sandler and Apatow if you weren't Jewish? Do you think that granted you a little more leeway?
RS: The only leeway we might have is making fun of Israelis a little more than non-Jews. As far as creating stereotypes, we've probably hit on some Israeli ones more than we hit on Arab ones. I went to an Arab comedy festival. I made a lot of friends with a lot of the actors in the movie and also used this guy, Dean Obeidallah a comedian, for feedback. He's an Arab comic who read all the scripts and a lot of the drafts. He was one of the people I depended on to make sure I wasn't saying anything that was inaccurate or offensive, or that would be perceived as unfair by the majority of people. But he had an Arab-American comedy festival that I went to. And there were a lot of funny people there, but I was amazed by the stereotypes that were in the sketches. A lot of the sketches were about being an Arab-American, and some stuff was political, but some sketches were about how Arab women are hairy and have moustaches, stuff I never even heard of or thought about. It was funny to see how every ethnic group goes to that well of exploiting their own stereotypes.
AVC: There's something preemptive about making fun of yourself before others can make fun of you.
RS: Oh, yeah. Everybody has the right to make fun of themselves. Maybe the three of us, we're probably more cautious in that regard. The characters of [Rob] Schneider and his friends in America and all the shop owners that were in that neighborhood, we didn't really go for any stereotypes there. We tried to portray them as regular people, going about their jobs, unless you want to say the stereotypes were that Schneider was a cab driver. It's not like Arab-American cab drivers don't exist. We went to a great deal of trouble to cast Middle Eastern performers. I really didn't want it to be a minstrel show with everybody doing a fake accent.
AVC: You didn't want to cast Mickey Rooney.
RS: Schneider probably could have played this broader but he was careful to try to keep it real and still keep some of the energy. But he's not as broad as some of his, "You can do it!" guys. The Arab-American actors that were cast, it was hilarious how grateful they were that they weren't playing terrorists. One of the guys, Sayed [Badreya], he's a main bad guy in Iron Man, and he was one of the people who was like, "Thank God! I'm playing a cab driver this time! I'm so tired of playing a terrorist." (It's like) cab driver! What a step up! I think being Jewish, I wanted to be very careful about being fair to both sides, especially in the way people were portrayed in general, so I would consult with the actors on their wardrobe, on their lines, on the set. I would drive some of the people on the set crazy by bringing an actor in and saying, "Does this really look like where an Israeli guy would live in Tel Aviv? Where a Palestinian would have lived?" We were very careful about that.
AVC: There were times when I thought I was watching a documentary. I was like: Who's that real Israeli soldier who looks like Adam Sandler? It was disconcerting.
RS: I suspect that you're probably joking.
AVC: To me, one of the interesting things about the movie is that it feels like a live-action cartoon.
RS: People probably imagine that all the cartoony elements were brought to the movie by me, but Adam actually pushed me further on some things, like when Zohan catches the bullet in his nose. That was Adam's idea. And I'm like, "Wait, is this guy a superhero? Or is he just incredibly, just over-the-top skilled?" But when I saw it on film, I just figured people aren't keeping score. Just let it go.
AVC: It's not like people would leave the theater thinking, "That Adam Sandler movie was not realistic. He swam like a dolphin. That could not have happened in real life."
RS: Well, the dolphin thing, you know, that was fine with me, because that seemed like an exaggeration of what a human can do. But no human can even deflect a bullet. Much less catch one. I'm pretty sure. I'm pretty sure. What the hell?
AVC: It seemed like he was a superhero. Like he possessed superhuman powers.
RS: Besides the bullet, you mean? I thought of him possessing extra-human powers. Not superhuman.
AVC: Well, there's a scene where his hand gets chopped off and then he still manages to stab someone with it.
RS: And he used his telekinesis to…
AVC: So there's a logical grounding of that gag.
RS: I guess you can call that superhero stuff. When we were writing it just seemed like an over-the-top skill because it involved telepathy. It just felt like we could get away with it. That was a particularly goofy joke that Adam also came up with.
AVC: At any point during the writing or making of this film did anyone go, "No, that's too silly?"
RS: As long as it was funny, no. Sometimes too silly is not funny. The telepathy thing was on the fence. There were people who, when I sent them the script, were like, "Oh, that's the best," or "I love it! It's so ridiculous." We knew that for some people, we would lose them. For a moment, anyway. It's either, "That's fantastic! It's so ridiculous," or "Oh, come on, that's ridiculous!"
AVC: I saw it with some of my co-workers, and one of them said that one of the things he liked about it was that the movie didn't shoehorn a dramatic aspect into it where Zohan, you know, learns to be a good dad and then the sensitive piano music plays. Was it a conscious decision to just go for laughs?
RS: Well, I think it's in there. The movie has a bit of that element. That is a place where I get involved or try to. Adam's done it a little more skillfully than others have in some comedies, but there are a lot of comedies where it's way more contrived. Even great movies like Dumb And Dumber, which I thought was unbelievably funny. But it has this one moment where the music shifts and [Jim] Carrey is explaining his dream. I can't even remember what the dream was. I don't even remember the scene except that it made me uncomfortable for that brief moment. That's where the cynicism of comedies entered into it. It was more about having a light touch. Adam had actually taken out scenes we had already shot; there was a scene in particular where he was kissing [love interest] Emmanuelle [Chriqui] at the end of the movie, which I thought was pretty funny. He expresses how amazed he is at how great kissing her is. He confesses he never kissed a woman before. Incredible. And then he lists all the forms of sex he's had with these women, but he's never done this kissing thing. And then she asks him if he wants to do the other stuff, he said, "No, let's just do this."
It was such a novelty. It was such a sweet moment, but Adam felt like he already had enough sweet moments with Emmanuelle. Adam came up with the great move of Zohan discovering his love for Emmanuelle via his erection. I don't know if you like dick jokes. You may like some of the dick jokes more than others. But the moment that Adam discovers than he is in love with her because he has a boner, that was a very funny way to convey his growing attraction. I don't know if I should be giving this away.
AVC: Nobody is going to see the film after you give this away.
RS: The idea that he realizes how much he feels for her because he's finally able to get a boner again was a very funny plot move, and a great kind of novel way to get through that moment in the movie where you know these guys want to get together. I actually resisted having a romantic lead in the movie for a long time. I thought the romance in this movie is about Adam and [John Turturro's] Phantom character realizing that they have the same dream. There's also a romance between Zohan and America. I just thought there were other romances in the movie and wouldn't it be cool to not have to do the girl thing. I was outvoted, but I was very grateful in the end. Judd pushed me on that, and then Adam came up with that move which really sold that whole act for me.
AVC: Was the studio pushing for the love interest? Were they saying, "We can't just have him shtupping old ladies?"
RS: Any studio's going to want to have a love interest in a movie, because they think that more women are going to be interested in seeing the movie for that reason. But I don't think it was so much studio pressure. I think that Adam just knew that it was the right thing to do, and he figured out the key move that sold it for me. And the girl was really great in that when she auditioned she was the only one that looked funny when she was annoyed. They brought in all these model-type girls that were vaguely foreign-looking. None of them were funny. They just didn't look like they've ever experienced pain in their lives. Emmanuelle comes off as a real human being and sort of has a little sister quality to her that makes her feel very human even though she's va-va-va-voom.
AVC: Getting back to the dick jokes, in Zohan, Adam has the largest package I've ever seen onscreen.
RS: I'm actually jealous of this movie, because I wrote an Ambiguously Gay Duo live-action movie with Colbert a couple of years ago. Every successful character on Saturday Night Live prompts the question, "Is this a movie?" Ace and Gary were two characters I had no interest in doing a movie about. When I thought of them doing it live-action though, I thought, okay, I can make the characters much more dimensional, and, boy, would they look funny in those costumes with the enormous packages.
AVC: Especially if they were Carell and Colbert.
RS: Well, at the time, Carell and Colbert were, you know, it was the year 2000, and they weren't superstars. Nobody had any idea. They blew us away at The Dana Carvey Show and we thought that they should have incredible careers, but we were surprised that they weren't famous even then. We were surprised that Saturday Night Live hadn't hired them back in 1996. Because they were both like 30 years old already, and they'd been around Second City. You never know when someone's going to get a break. But it's refreshing to see talent win out like that.
AVC: You were briefly a consultant on The Colbert Report.
RS: Yeah, I probably never earned a credit less. That was nice of Stephen to do. I talked conceptually about the show a few times with him and I didn't even know he was going to do that until they called me and asked me where I wanted my check to go. Then later he told me he did it for his own inspiration, which was sort of sweet and nice of him to say and nice of him to do.
AVC: What did he mean by that?
RS: Well, I didn't want to get into that. "What do I mean to you, Stephen?" We're great friends and I hired him at the Carvey show and I believed in him. I'm so proud to see what he's done. I saw him when I was still at Saturday Night Live in '92 one summer. We were scouting for people and I went to Second City. We saw their show and we were told there was an understudy that night for this guy Steve Carell, who's really great, but, you know, this was the night that Lorne Michaels could go. But I was just blown away by the understudy, who of course was Colbert. I became obsessed with getting Colbert involved with something I was doing. I tried to get him involved with Conan when we started. It didn't come together then.
AVC: As a writer or a performer?
RS: As either a writer or a performer. But for some reason it didn't click at the time. So then The Dana Carvey Show happened and he was not available to audition so he sent in a pathetic videotape where he didn't really do anything, he just was trying to be funny to the camera. Then he showed us his newborn child and begged us to hire him. I told Carvey, let's just fly him in and see what he can do. Then we flew him in and did a genuine audition and he was hilarious. At that point it became very easy. But anyway, Zohan has a big dick.
AVC: Can you talk a little about the TV Funhouse special?
RS: Do you mean the SNL thing or the Comedy Central TV Funhouse? Cause that's coming out on DVD imminently. It's so imminent. I can't begin to tell you how imminent it is. It's coming out July 22.
AVC: That's got to be exciting. Kind of validating.
RS: Considering what's put out on DVD, I wouldn't necessarily call it validating.
AVC: Like My Big Fat Greek Life: The Complete Series and Mama's Family: Season 7?
RS: The Real Housewives Of New York: Season 2 is already out. My thing took eight years to get on DVD. I'm not exactly bursting with pride. The demand was not exactly the same.
AVC: But there's still a bit of a cult following.
RS: Well, the show was cancelled, as I explained in the past, because of the budget. Not unlike That's My Bush!, which had the same problem. They were just expensive shows to mount for Comedy Central. Mine went way over budget. I mean, [That's My Bush! creators] Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone] are superstars there and they had a million dollar budget an episode from day one. The show needed to be a monster hit to survive.
AVC: It needed South Park ratings.
RS: Exactly. My show was not supposed to be $700,000 per episode, but the studio time was out of control.
AVC: You were working with live animals as well. That's got to be kind of a crazy variable.
RS: Yes. We had actors crouched under this 3-foot puppet stage intermingling with live animals. The low point was when Dino [Stamatopoulos] was shat in the eye by a duck. We had actors come in, people who weren't working at all, people who desperately needed the work. They'd come and do puppets or do a voice and we'd call them later and be like, "Hey, you did a great job. We're doing another thing next Friday, we got…" "You know what, I don't think so." They couldn't handle being underneath that tiny stage. It was too painful.
AVC: It seemed to entail an enormous amount of work on everybody's part.
RS: Oh boy, it was a hard show to mount. And the ironic thing was we really weren't interested in making the animals do anything difficult. The whole joke was that the animals are not in on the joke. They're just sitting around and disappointing us with their animal behavior. It was about how much we invest in our animals' personalities, and how we portray them like humans. And the gap between that and reality. So, I just wanted the animals to sit around most of the time, and even that ended up being hard to do. Even just sitting, sometimes. It's just not that easy to sit a duck on a chair and have it stay there. Even just for a few seconds, to get it to sit in front of a plate of Peking duck. Or a cow to drink from a milkshake.
AVC: Tell me about the DVD. Are there going to be commentaries?
RS: Yes. Dino and myself and Doug Dale, the host of the show, did commentary on all eight episodes. I brought in Andy Breckman for a couple of episodes. He's a really great comedy writer, the guy who created Monk. He worked on the show just sort of when he could at the time, and he came up with the "Stedman" cartoon, which is probably funnier than any cartoon I came up with on SNL.
AVC: I'm partial to the cartoon about the superhero who's always trying to get his alter ego laid.
RS: Oh, "Wonderman"? That was mine. Thank you. I did the voice of that guy, too. Most people go bananas over the "Stedman" cartoon. I actually rejected it at first, because it was too mean for me. I have no problem making fun of people, but there are certain things that make me uncomfortable. I'm uncomfortable about drug addiction jokes. Addiction humor sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I feel sorry for the people it targets. It's something that they can't necessarily help. It's a disease. It's a hard thing for me to laugh at. I don't laugh at handicapped jokes very easily. Things where people can't help it, I get into trouble. In this case, the idea that Oprah was unattractive actually made me uncomfortable. The whole idea that Stedman can't stand to have sex with her made me uncomfortable. But I revisited it a week later, and understood it was far too funny to adhere to that rule.
AVC: Funny excuses an awful lot.
RS: Yeah, without question, that's true. That should be called the Michael Richards rule. That was the cardinal crime. He was trying to be ironic and failing in the worst possible way. The rage underneath his attempt at irony was so transparent you really were confused at what he was trying to do.
AVC: You talked a little bit about being uncomfortable with jokes about drug addiction. But there was a fair amount of drug humor on TV Funhouse.
RS: But it wasn't making fun of people who were really suffering from a serious addiction, a problem. I actually did break the rule on TV Funhouse. I broke the rule with another Andy Breckman sketch, which was called "Kidder, Downey, and Heche." It was such a strange idea that I thought it was too funny not to do. I can't even remember the premise now. Because all three of them had wandered aimlessly in a drunken or drug-induced stupor into somebody's house, in the cartoon they tried to use this "talent" as a skill and become private investigators. One time Conan wanted me to do the lips of Nick Nolte's mug shot, and [head writer Mike] Sweeney approached me about this and I was like, "Really? I feel so bad for the guy. He's got a problem he's working through. He was caught in this awful state." And we didn't do it, and literally a month later, Steve Martin in his monologue at the Academy Awards, it was a punch line to one of his monologue jokes, and there on the Kodak Stage or the Shrine Auditorium was a gigantic Nick Nolte shot. The whole world laughed at him. So, I guess I was too squeamish or something. People would probably be surprised that I do try to draw the line at certain points. With the Zohan movie, I drew a lot of the lines. There are going to be people on both sides who disagree and they'll think I'm crazy to say things like that. "What do you mean restraint? Are you kidding me, with the Hezbollah Hotline?" Or something like that. But, I don't know, it's not like we were saying these three guys were terrorists. We were kind of making the point that they weren't.
AVC: Getting back to the "TV Funhouse" SNL special. Could you talk a little bit about putting that together? It's probably one of the best Saturday Night Live episodes of the last 15 years.
RS: Well, I'm glad you think so. It didn't read like it was the funniest episodes in the last 15 years to the folks over at ACNielsen.
AVC: It seems like it's always athletes that get the best…
RS: Best ratings?
AVC: It's got to be a little dispiriting to think, "LeBron James is getting better ratings than my life's work."
RS: It was a little humbling in that sense, to do something in between a rerun and a first run. I always know those cartoons have a very loyal following, but there is a chunk of the audience that are there to watch the performers in the live show and it's probably a bathroom break for some of those people.
AVC: It's generally the funniest part of every episode. That and the Digital Video.
RS: The Digital Video has really found a niche. I still like to do the cartoons, but they're not as vital as they seemed before. They felt really essential to the show when they were the only pre-taped element. But I feel like when we have a good one, it adds a lot to the show. I had a good one, the Dora The Explorer one, which I wish was on the best-of DVD that I did a couple years ago. But the best-of, I had complete control of the whole episode. The cast was very nice. I asked the cast to do interstitial pieces, reacting to [Ambiguously Gay Duo] Ace and Gary. And they basically did it as a favor. I always wanted to a best-of cartoon show, but once I got the opportunity, I got very paranoid. How am I going to entertain these people with cartoons for the whole 90 minutes? So I felt like I had to have live people in there. I probably didn't, but I did it anyway.
AVC: I think having Colbert and Carell as Ace and Gary in the interstitial material would be an attraction as well.
RS: Well, you would think. ACNielsen didn't seem to agree.
AVC: Were the ratings really that bad for it?
RS: No, they were fine, but they weren't up to a first-run show. They were low for a first-run show. It just reinforced that there's definitely a niche audience for it. These things have enjoyed a great deal of positive response in the media, which is great and flattering. But I never thought that everybody who watches Saturday Night Live loves these cartoons. It's a very specific thing, and Saturday Night Live is a live show. It's about live performers and you're watching cartoons for 90 minutes.
AVC: Were you worried about the topicality of the cartoons? You were oftentimes responding to something very immediate in the culture.
RS: Over the years, I started making the cartoons more immediately topical. I've been pushing the animators. Originally the lead time was five to six weeks, and the last two years, it's been more like two weeks. They've been able to pull off stuff that's amazed me over the last two years. The last thing I did this year was a Barack Obama cartoon that I kind of rushed out. I wasn't able to go into production until after the writers' strike ended. But they were able to get it on the second show back. I was incredibly grateful that they could do it, but once they were able to prove to me that they were able to do cartoons in two weeks, they kind of fucked themselves, because they could never pretend that they couldn't after that.
AVC: Watching the best-of, did you ever find yourself thinking, "I have led a silly, silly life?"
RS: [Laughs] A very lucky life. When I got that cartoon I thought I would do it for a couple of years, then I hung onto it, because I never stop being amazed that I'm able to do it. Over the years, I see people trying to do cartoons on the web, short-form stuff, and I'm this one person that is able to do it on this huge forum and waste a lot of NBC money. That'll probably change. You know how that's going. Their primetime television, everybody's getting hit.
AVC: Saturday Night Live had to cut the budget?
RS: They had to chop some cast members last year. There were budget cuts after the writers' strike for sure. A lot of shows were hit with that stuff. But fortunately [veteran staff-writer James] Downey wrote a sketch that Hillary [Clinton] felt the need to comment on in the middle of the debate.
AVC: Do you feel like that revitalized the show?
RS: It certainly did in the media. There's nothing the media loves more than to be the subject of everyone's attention. The premise of Downey's sketch was that the media had made the decision to favor Barack Obama, and so not only was it a funny political sketch that Hillary Clinton actually mentioned in a debate, but the subject of the sketch was a group of people deciding whether to make it a story or not.
AVC: There's an element of navel-gazing to it that's absolutely irresistible to the media.
RS: Tonight's subject: ME!
AVC: As a satirist, which candidate would you—
RS: Hillary. Everybody agrees that Hillary will be the funniest person to be president. Was that was your question?
AVC: That was my question. Why do you think that is?
RS: Baggage. That's the reason that she isn't getting in, pretty much. I have never seen a candidate come into a race with so much baggage and be so prejudged as Hillary Clinton. I've always been amazed at the magnitude of hatred a certain segment of the public has for her. It's a combination of factors: There's the sexist side of it that she's a strong woman that doesn't always convey a big sense of humor. Not that there are a lot of male candidates who are necessarily cut-ups either. There's that, then there's the fact that the Clintons are basically the most successful Democratic politicians of the last 30 years, and thus became lightning rods for the opposition. You put those two things together, sexism and partisanship. You couldn't build a candidate that had more baggage than Hillary. Those two things. It's pretty incredible. No candidate has ever demonstrated in an unwitting way how wrong-headed the way we make decisions about who will run our country really is.
AVC: It seems like Obama would be a difficult subject for satirists.
RS: I think he has a lot of funny moves that people will be able to pick up and imitate. I think Obama and McCain are both funny. They're just no Hillary. There's just too much going on there for either of those guys to possibly compete. For Obama, it could be a John Kennedy situation where everybody is going to invest all this hope and optimism, idealism, but John Kennedy was probably the first president to be subjected to a great deal of satire once he was elected. Maybe it was because he had a funny accent.
AVC: Getting back to Obama, one of the reasons the media seized on the whole Jeremiah Wright thing was because here was an aspect of Obama and his history that was very broad. That was very silly. It was such an incredibly juicy, juicy target for satire that they finally had an in and they definitely seized on that.
RS: I think the reason the media seized on it is because it was all over YouTube and it was an unavoidable subject. They knew that the Republicans were going to seize on it and they knew that the media, everybody believes that the media tries to shape our perceptions. Whether this is true or not, everyone assumes that it is. Here was something that was completely beyond their control. This was a sound bite that everybody could see. Everybody would have access to it on the web. Basically, it had to be addressed. Once they dove in, absolutely it was a juicy story, because Jeremiah Wright was a juicy character. I haven't had a chance to do Obama on Conan yet, but I did do Jeremiah Wright. They were anxious to do a Jeremiah Wright Clutch Cargo.
AVC: I wanted him to linger in the public eye longer so you could do more of those Jeremiah Wright bits.
RS: Sure. Well, I don't know what happened. Obama castigated him then he disappeared.
AVC: It seems like a lot of these stories have a short shelf life.
RS: Let's see what happens in the fall. Let's check in the fall and see if that story has a short shelf life. You know that it's going to be used on some level, but Obama's genius is that he's been the anti-politics candidate. Even before he's been the subject of criticism because of Jeremiah Wright, he's always been able to dismiss it as politics as usual. So every time he gets criticized, and you're placed in a position of judging Obama on this new set of criticisms, he turns the mirror on you in a brilliant way. He makes you ask yourself whether you really want to go there and choose your candidate on something like that. If Hillary Clinton could have come up with this, she might have had more success.
AVC: It seems like with McCain, at this point the only satirical angle for him is old-people jokes.
RS: Oh, I can't stand it!
AVC: It also seems like, a) 72 really isn't all that old these days, and b) old jokes are inherently one-size-fits-all.
RS: But he also doesn't seem like an old fogey. Bob Dole was old and he also came off like a bitter old man. Bob Dole is my favorite comedy bit I've ever done. Doing the lips of Bob Dole on Conan. I enjoyed that even more than Triumph. Because he was really a crotchety old man. He had that persona. He had it back when he was running with Gerald Ford in the '70s. He was this crazy, angry guy, this Republican hatchet man. Then he just became this hilariously tragic, Nixonian figure. He was a crotchety old guy who was never going to get his moment in the sun, and then he finally got it against Clinton. It's a little bit of a parallel to McCain in the sense that everybody thinks McCain's candidacy is going to end up like Dole's, a "so-what?" kind of candidate who doesn't energize the party and gets clobbered. Everybody's perception is that the Democrats can only beat themselves. The only ones who haven't in the last 30 years are the Clintons.
AVC: It would be nice if comic writers could satirize his actual politics and not just indulge in the standard "He's old! His first car was a dinosaur!"
RS: You know, we did that with Dole, because Dole felt like an old man.
AVC: It was the Wilford Brimley thing where he was born an old man.
RS: Thank you, I should be interviewing you. You said it in like five words. Let me tell you one more thing about Zohan. We were talking about the Arabs and Israelis in the movie and we went to all this trouble to hire all these real people. The point of the movie is what they have in common. It was fascinating to see that it came to life on the set. It manifested itself on the set because some of these people really were from Israel and had practically never been here before. And to see them debate and discuss every night with the Arab-American actors was pretty amazing. For both sides, they'd never really interacted. Here in America, I get the sense that there is a sort of acceptance of either side, a "the war's over there" kind of thing. But it's not like Israeli-Americans and Arab-Americans are all buddy-buddy necessarily. But these guys had never had a dialogue with each other. On these long nights on the set, we were stuck doing crowd scenes for eight hours a night. And they'd hang out and talk to each other, hang out and talk about other shit. And there were these people saying, "I'd never trusted an Israeli. I'd been brought up to hate them unilaterally. My perception of them has just been a stern army guy at checkpoint who gives me a hard time for trying to get into Israel." And the reverse is true as well, you know. Israelis have all these perceptions about Arabs. It was amazing to see, and this was completely unexpected, that people would have their perceptions shaken by appearing in this silly summer comedy.
AVC: It sounds like you think that Don't Mess With The Zohan does have the capacity to bring people together.
RS: Well, let me say this: One of the actors invited a bunch of actors to Las Vegas. One of the Israeli guys owns a restaurant and both Israeli and Arab actors went out there. He set them up at parties and everything. I just think that if Israelis and Arabs can share a hookah, then I think that says a lot about their potential to share a tiny sliver of land in the Middle East as well.