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As a comedy legend renowned for his work on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (where he created, operated, and voiced Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, who is currently the star of his own sitcom with 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) and Saturday Night Live, Smigel has a unique specialty: entertainment that looks, sounds, and acts like classic children’s television of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80 but should not be watched by children under any circumstances. He’s a genius at investing the cornball innocence of kiddie entertainment with very adult cynicism.
Nowhere was this bleaker or more pointed than in the Saturday Night Live TV Funhouse short “The Narrator That Ruined Christmas,” where a snowman ostensibly in the holly, jolly Burl Ives mold, sickened and saddened by such real-world events at the attacks of 9/11 and the United States involvement in Afghanistan, can’t bring himself to tell the tale of the Abominable Snowman or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer when his deeply depressed psyche is fixated on the real-world horrors all around him.
The short begins bleak and just gets darker and darker as a despondent Snowman takes confused and disappointed children to donate blood at Ground Zero only to be passed over for Jerry Stiller and Santa Claus. Smigel, who co-wrote the short with a group that included an up-and-coming comedian and writer named Louis C.K, is cynical, but his cynicism has a righteous edge. Santa ends up delivering a moral that will resonate with anyone who has seen Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels: entertainers can best serve the world by providing people with an escape from the dreariness and horror of everyday life, not by wallowing in all of the ugliness the world has to offer. And the short benefits from attention to detail: it looks and sounds exactly like a Rankin-Bass stop-motion special, but to much darker, twisted ends.
But not all of Smigel’s work on TV Funhouse was so trenchant, satirical, or timely. Sometimes he just delighted in teasing out the not-so-subtle subtext of classic kiddie cartoons in unmistakably adult ways. TV Funhouse favorites The Ambiguously Gay Duo (voiced by a pair of Second City veterans who would go on to do pretty well for themselves, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert) are a Batman & Robin-like pair of crime-fighters/best buddies/possibly something more whose outrageously phallic car and homoerotic escapades are noticed as evidence of their barely suppressed homosexuality by everyone other than themselves. In this clip, the duo thwarts an evil plan at the NBA finals, but not before making everyone uncomfortable with their extremely homoerotic crime-fighting techniques.
At his best, Smigel’s work wasn’t just hilarious and genuinely satirical but also strangely poignant. A good case in point: this Smigel-engineered spoof on the old RAID commercials with their “Kills Bugs Dead” slogan (the original of which was produced by no less a comic/animation genius than Tex Avery). It hilariously humanizes the bugs being killed and asks audiences to feel for these sad, innately doomed creatures so cavalierly slaughtered not just in commercials but real life. In cartoons like this, Smigel isn’t just laugh-out-loud funny but also strangely moving, even tragic. He really makes you feel for those disgusting cockroaches, and that is a remarkable feat.