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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

To wrap up our special animal week. We're going to listen back to an interview Terry conducted with Robert Smigel. Smigel is best known as the voice and hand puppeteer of Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog. But he's also is the creator of the Fun with real audio, and Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoons on "Saturday Night Live" and the animal puppets or Anipals who starred on Smigels cult Comedy Central series "TV Funhouse." Terry spoke with Robert Smigel in the year 2000. They talked about why dogs were funny and he told her about the inspiration for one of his puppets, a real dog named Xabu.

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL (Comedian): It was my wife's dog. It was a German Shepard mix and I believe part wolf and they took him to an obedience school. And after two sessions, the teacher said, you know what, he's a beautiful dog and you should just enjoy him. He's beautiful. Take him home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: He was that stupid. And one of the reasons my wife and I get along so well is because we can both laugh for a half hour just watching a dog that stupid chase its tail, which is what we used to do. The dog had this incredible rage, it seemed, towards his tail. But there's just - there are few things funnier than watching a really dumb animal passionately go after his tail. He had this way of chasing it and I guess - I've seen this with other dogs but not to this effect - he could go 90 miles an hour in a circle and then just stop on a dime, and completely freeze, and then go 90 miles back on a dime as if he was trying to - he didn't look like he was catching his breath. He actually looked like he thought he would trick his tail this way. You know, I'll turn and turn and turn and then stop. And the tail will have no idea what's going on. He'll be totally frozen, you know. And then, boom, I'm back at the tail. Of course, it never worked.

GROSS: So that's your voice that the dog does?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, I have this stubborn insistence on making all the dog sound like eastern European immigrants, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: And some of the - I've noticed that some people have criticized, you know - they've watched the show and they've said, why do all the dogs sound like Triumph, you know? Why do they have the same accent? It's lame. Can't he come up with another voice? And, well, yeah, I could. You know, I realize there are more accents in the world than eastern European. But in my head, that's how dogs talk.

They have, for years, since I was 10 years old I used to, you know, give dogs that voice when I would look at dogs. I think it's because my grandparents are eastern - they're Russian immigrants and I grew up with that voice. And I think I make an unconscious connection in this - let me finish the thought because it could sound rude - but between dogs and immigrants just off the boat, because they both have a certain element of wide-eyed wonder. As if to say like, oh, look at all of this. I cannot believe this. And, you know, eventually European immigrants catch up and become jaded, but dogs never do. That's why I can laugh at dogs forever.

GROSS: One of the things I think you're doing on "TV Funhouse" with all your use of the Anipals, the puppet animals, is having them do the kind of things that animals really do in public, but that people only do behind closed doors. Such as...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ...having sex, defecating.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: I mean, I know like, as a kid, there's things you learn that people don't do in front of other people, period.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: But you see animals doing it all the time in the street.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: And it's very confusing sometimes as a kid. Like how come they let animals do that in the street?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I know. We can learn a lot from animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's the whole point...

Mr. SMIGEL: That's the whole point.

GROSS: ...of the books that your parents give you, so you can learn a lot from animals.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. And now this is an adult show that's trying to have animals teach people how to behave properly. No, there is something, you know, it's fun doing a show that has characters that don't have the ambitions that humans do. And that can talk casually about things like pooping on the street or having sex as if it's just a regular animal need, you know. I try to explain to people that when I write about sex or I write about defecation that, you know, I'm going to look like an idiot trying to explain why I think this stuff is funny beyond, you know...

GROSS: Cheap, crude laughs.

Mr. SMIGEL: ...going for cheap laughs, yeah. I mean, to me, it's all about the way our dignity is compromised. You know, sex has always cracked me up because it makes people do crazy things, you know, like working out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I mean can you imagine - anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: But, you know, that's the funniest thing about it. That we are--you know, I remember years ago, we were at "Saturday Night Live" and I was hanging out with Conan O'Brian, who, you know, I met there as a writer, and Rob Lowe was hosting and so everybody was passing around the Rob Lowe sex tape and it was just, you know, something that you don't get to see that often is just a real-life porn like that.

And, you know, just a lot of it was really boring and - but all of this fuss was being made over something that was, you know, quite common. And I don't know, I just remember Conan laughing and just saying, We're just all animals, it's hilarious.

GROSS: Did you have a lot of pets when you were a kid?

Mr. SMIGEL: I had a cat when I was four years old. My parents gave me a cat and the cat just sat on the foot of my bed and did nothing all day long. Just grew and sort of developed that mashed-potato body that cats get, just sort of spread on the carpet as the years went by. But I just adored it. It had no interest in anything but I just like, oh, pretty kitty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I just loved it. Loved it like nothing else. And then later on, after the cat died, my sister - who didn't really like the cat -suddenly - I've noticed this too. It's the sibling who didn't like the animal that suddenly is, like, gets all emotional about the animal when it dies and wants to replace it immediately. And that's what happened.

And then we got a little tiny Bichon. And all I could do all day was talk to the Bichon, in it's own voice and it was very similar to Triumph's voice, just a higher pitch, you know, because it was such a fruffy(ph) little thing. And it was just very spoiled, I want to eat now please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you talk to it a lot?

Mr. SMIGEL: I used to drive my sister crazy. Just, you know, she would, like, walk into the room and would say hi and the dog would run up to her and I would be like, hello, hello, I've waited all day for you. Where the hell have you been?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Robert Smigel speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. His "TV Funhouse" cult series has been released on DVD. And that concludes animal week here at FRESH AIR. No animals were harmed in the making of this week's programs. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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