Comedian Rob Riggle is everywhere. He’s on the big screen, the small screen, and stages across America, and now, on a webseries produced by AXE Shower Gel and Comedy Central Digital, hosting the AXE Dirtcathalon. Punchline Magazine got a chance to catch up with Riggle and his amazing story of how he came to do almost everything (sketch, stand-up, acting, improv, etc.) all at the same time.
You have three separate bios on your site. Do you ever just look back at everything you’ve done and just feel amazed at how far you’ve come?
That’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t look back. You gotta keep going forward.
Really, it’s amazing. You come from the Midwest. You grew up in Kentucky and you went to the University of Kansas. Do you ever think you’re like one of those Horatio Alger “rags to riches” American dreams stories?
I like this. You really romanticized it. I do love this country for many reasons. I had a dream to be a comedic actor and I grew up watching Caddyshack and Stripes and all these wonderful movies and I just thought those guys were so funny and so amazing and I was like, “That’s what I want to do.”
You wanted to be “one of those guys”?
Yeah, you know, that’s a wonderful thing. You put a little hard work into it. In life, you get what you put in. That’s it’s. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no magic combination. It’s just hard work and maybe a little talent and you catch a break here and there, you get an opportunity here and there, make the most of it, and you hope it works out.
I’m still curious, as cheesy at this might sound with everything else I’ve asked you this far, but why was comedy always your dream?
Yeah, I don’t know exactly. It just called to me. I did remember when I saw Trading Places and I remember when I saw Caddyshack or Meatballs or any of these great comedy movies. I remember being just so entertained and so mesmerized by some of the performances and thinking that that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I enjoyed it and I think that’s what drove me to, one day, try to be that.
I remember the joy that Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy and people like that brought me. I can remember quoting them for days and weeks and months and years. Quoting them and quoting them and thinking how awesome that was. Given that opportunity, I wanted to be that guy too. I wanted to do stuff that was funny and hopefully memorable. I get a real big kick out of when people come up to me and quote lines back to me from movies that I’ve done.
That has to be a great feeling.
It’s like if I saw Bill Murray, I’d go up and quote lines to him, you know? It’s very flattering and I’m very grateful.
I do have to take a moment here. You were in the military for almost 20 years. Thank you for your service to our country.
Thanks. I’m still in the Reserves, actually. Twenty-one years.
How then do you manage your time? You’ve come all this way with comedy and you’ve had a very illustrious military career as well. How do you balance something like that?
Right now, I’m in the Reserves, so provided I get in my proper amount of drill days per year, then I have a “good year” is what it’s called. So long as I get in my days, I’m good. I’m getting very close to getting out. So, I should be out probably sometime around this time next year.
You’re going to retire a Lt. Colonel after being in several movies and all these Funny or Die videos.
It’s going to be one hell of a party.
So, you got a degree in film and theater from the University of Kansas, why did you decide to go in the military if you knew comedy is what you wanted to do?
Well, I also had my pilot’s license when I was in college and, at the time, I took a test called the AQTFAR, an aerial aptitude type test. I took this test and the Marines said I scored high enough on it that they’ll give me a guaranteed flight contract. When you’re a young man and about to graduate college and you’re a theater and film major, it means you’re going to be a waiter upon graduation, or, if you’re lucky, a bartender upon graduation cause no one just graduates from college then walks across the street and go, “I’d like to be in movies now.” You have to have a day job, usually for a long period of time.
So I was looking at being a waiter or a bartender upon graduation or I could join the Marine Corps with a guaranteed flight contract and be the next Top Gun. So I thought that sounded a little sexier at the time, but then, as it turned out, as I went through Basic Training, Officer Candidate School, went through all that boot camp, and got to flight school down in Pensacola, FL and eventually continued on in Corpus Christi, as I worked my way through the flight school pipeline, I realized that once I pin my wings on, they got me for eight years and that seemed like a lot back then. That’s my whole life and I wanted to try acting and try comedy, you know, I gotta try it. If I don’t try it, I’d always regret it.
If I try and I fail, it’ll suck, but, at least, I’ll know. So, I told them I didn’t want to fly anymore and I became a ground officer, which reduced my commitment time, but it was better than right years. I fulfilled my contract as a ground officer and then went and pursued comedy and I’m glad I did.
Even in being a ground officer, how would you allocate your time?
After I left flight school, I was sent to North Carolina and I served there for two and a half years and then I was getting out. My contract was up. I was done and I was actually going to move to Chicago and I was going to study at Improv Olympic or Second City, I didn’t know which one, I just knew I was going to Chicago to do long form improv like all my heroes: Belushi, Akroyd, all those guys. That’s where I was going.
The Marines said, “What would it take for you to stay in?” and I had just been promoted to Captain at that point and I said, “If you can get me to New York or Los Angeles (cause we have a little public affairs office in those places), I would extend on active duty.” They called my bluff. The next day, I had orders to New York City. So, I moved to New York City and I was a Marine seven to five during the day, then, at night, I would leave straight from the Marine office and go downtown to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and I would take classes, do lights and sound for people’s shows, anything I could do to be around the theatre. I would hang around with guys from my improv classes and we would write sketches. We would perform on any empty stage that would have us. Eventually, I started to teach down at the UCB and all that stuff was in the evenings and that was seven nights a week.
All my weekends, I was at the UCB constantly trying to learn, trying to absorb, just take in as much as I could, meeting other comedians, meeting other writers who turned out to be life long friends and I still play with them and perform with them to this very day. As a matter of fact, Paul Scheer, Rob Heubel who are from Human Giant, the three of us were on the same improv troupe at the UCB for 7 years. Tonight, I’m going to the UCB Theatre here in Los Angeles and we’re doing a show that we did back in New York called “Facebook”
That’s where you take an audience member’s Facebook profile and improv off that, right?
Exactly. Back in New York, way back in the day, the original name of the show was “MySpace”. I mean, I still do improv whenever I get a chance. I don’t get paid for it, but we do it because we love it.
We love each other and we love doing improv.
I always held this belief about comedy that if you’re going to perform it, you can’t be in it for the money. You have to be in it for the love of it because you’re not going to make any money at it for a long time.
That is a cold hard fact. You gotta love so much that if you wouldn’t do it for free, it’s probably not what you should be doing.
As I’m a stand-up comic as well, here in LA, performing for free kind of goes without saying.
Yeah, exactly. But, if you work at it long enough and hard enough and get where you want to be, the money will come.
You were a Marine from seven to five, then you were at the UCB seven nights a week. How do you have the energy for that?
You know, you do a lot of things when you’re a young man, right? If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it.
Did you feel coming up through the UCB prepared you for things later in your comedy career like the Daily Show, SNL, the Office?
Absolutely, 100 percent. I believe the UCB is hands down one of the best training grounds for whatever you want to do. If you want to be a writer, if you want to be an actor, if you want to be a stand-up even, believe it or not, it’s just a wonderful place to go learn because you get stage time, which is crucial. You learn what works in front of an audience and what doesn’t and why. You start surrounding yourself with a community of comedians and writers and it’s also just a great place to be seen. There’s managers and agents and casting directors are all over the UCB Theatre in New York and in LA. It’s a real good community and it’s a good place to start.
Do you think it’s almost like a movement at this point? UCB, alternative comedy?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know how I’d frame it like that. I just think a great training ground and a great proving ground. A great place to grow your roots and also grow your wings. Oh, I sound like my dad, right?
They’re there for a reason.
I have nothing but positive things to say about the UCB because I feel like I grew up there comedically. I got to get up and do shows. I had shows that were very successful and shows that tanked. You know, you have great days and you have bad days, but it’s all learning. Again, I still have people I met there that I still work with to this very day and I can see myself working with them for the rest of my life because they’re wildly talented and we enjoy each other’s comedy.
The reason I ask about UCB being a movement is that a lot of people that aren’t aware that the UCB even exists, that there’s such a thing as alternative comedy. Here in LA, there are people that only know, as far as comedy goes, about the Hollywood Improv, Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store, and that’s it.
They deny themselves. I’m a stand-up too and I love stand-up and I enjoy it a lot, but improv is something special and when it’s done well, it’s really fun to watch people who know what they’re doing. It’s a really a good time. It also feels a little safer than going out on the stage all by yourself, especially when you’re starting out.
There’s almost very little difference between some booked shows and some of the open mics here in LA because you’re still performing for comics and it’s rough. It can be great sometimes, but, either way, you, as a performer, have to go through it. A working stand up comic friend of mine was telling me recently that bad shows never stop. You’ll always keep having bad shows. It’s just the frequency of it will go down if you keep going up and keep working at it.
That’s a fact. Sometimes, it’s out of your control. I’ve done stand-up shows that have gone average and you think to yourself, “What was the deal with tonight?” Sometimes, it’s you. Sometimes, it’s them [the audience]. There’s a lot of factors that go into a good show that you kind of just take for granted. That’s accurate though; the bad shows get fewer and far between.
|Exclusive – Rob Riggle – Should Be Dead|
You did sketch and improv for so long, how did you get into doing stand-up?
I was on the Daily Show and I shared an office with John Oliver for almost three years and John Oliver is an amazing stand-up comedian. And, he was always on my case, telling me that I gotta do it and I finally said OK, you’re right, I’m gonna do it. So he kind of pushed me into getting out there and, you know, I would go around New York to the Slipper Room, the Piano Room, UCB, any place that had stage time and I would get up and do five minutes here and five minutes there and eventually I was able to build a set.
Is that set what you do now or do you still write new material?
I’m always developing material. Not enough, lately. I’ve been writing screenplays and stuff. You know what it’s like being a stand-up (ed. note: writer Jake Kroeger performs stand-up in LA), you have your notebook, jotting down premises and then you’ll flesh that out later and then you come back and think, “Why did I think that was funny?” Though, sometimes you look back and see that there was something funny there, “I can work with that.”
Then, you’re doing it six months later and then you find what was funny actually worked. You just found that little detail that needed to be there for it to work.
You’re doing the road now, correct?
Do you think being in the military has mitigated how lonesome and grueling that can be?
Yeah, definitely. It was absolutely a good training ground.
Road stories with comedians are always a big deal and how depressing it can get, but you must have a pretty high tolerance for it.
Well, I’ve been deployed before and I know what it’s like and also, I’m kind of a square because I’m married and I didn’t get into stand-up until after I was married, a little later in life. Most of those comics when there out there on the road, they’re in their 20’s. They’re single and they’re getting loaded, meeting girls, you know, and it’s a good time. For me, I go to my hotel room. I go to bed. I go to the clubs and do my gigs. Then, I go home and that’s it. So it’s not quite the wild ride that everyone else is having.
You’ve done the Daily Show, SNL, stand up, viral videos. Take us, if you would, through the trajectory of where you want to go comedy wise and how it’s been?
Well, I would love to be the lead in a movie. Eventually, someday, I would love to have that opportunity and other than that, I want to keep doing what I’m doing, which is comedic acting. It’s so much fun when you get to work with really funny, talented people. If I keep doing that, that’s all I need and I’m a very happy man.
How do you “switch hats” between all of these things: sketch, stand up, improv, acting? At the end of the day, it’s still comedy and you’re making people laugh, but it’s a different skill set.
It’s like being a baseball player. When you’re in the field, you have situation awareness. If they hit a “pop-up,” you know how to handle it. If they hit a ground ball, you know where you’re going to throw it, and when you’re at the plate and it’s time to bat, it’s a totally different thing. It’s still in the same genre of baseball, but it’s a different skill set and you gotta know how to hit the high ones and how to hit the low ones. You got to have all those skills down, but it is all under the umbrella of baseball. I think the same thing goes for comedy.
You’ve got the big umbrella of comedy, but then, underneath that umbrella, you have stand-up, sketch, comedic acting, story-telling, writing. you know, there’s all kinds of things that fall under that. It’s just different skill sets and I think, as a comedian, you need to have as many of them as possible.
You’re doing so many projects right now, building the Rob Riggle brand?
I don’t look at it as building the Rob Riggle brand, but I definitely look at it as an opportunity to work. That’s all that I can ask for, but I hear that too, “You gotta come up with your own thing, your own brand, da da da…” So it’s yes and no. If it’s something good, people buy into it, gets traction, gets you recognized, then that’s great, but it doesn’t mean that it works for everybody. Generally, what I’ve found and what I believe to be true is that if you just go out and do good work, the best you can, things tend to follow. Things take shape the way they’re supposed to. There’s no magic formula. There’s no silver bullet answer to the combination of success. It doesn’t work like that. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. There’s a ten year overnight success. That’s pretty common.
I love how with comedic performers when they break out, people think they’re just brand new, but have been working at it for 15 years.
I think people watch American Idol too much these days and think it’s going to happen overnight like you can just walk off a playground and be a superstar. If it happens, it’s one in a million. It’s the exception and not the norm. The norm is: you work your balls off, you don’t get paid much, you don’t get appreciated much, as a matter of fact, you get fucking out right abused. If you have enough tenacity, you might catch enough breaks that you actually get what you want.
You said that there is no answer to making it in comedy. I think that you have a little bit of an answer. You do all these different things we’ve mentioned throughout, do you think that’s what it takes to make it?
No, I don’t necessarily that is what it takes. I think hard work is what it takes. Generally, people want it to come to them, but it’s never going to come to you. Unless you are one of maybe 10 people in this world that are on a very small A-list, people actually write movies and produce movies for you, everything else you have to go get yourself.
Like your most recent project, The AXE Dirtcathalon. What exactly is it?
The good people over at AXE Shower Gel are relaunching their brand and they wanted to do it in a fun, unique way. So, they created this series called the AXE Dirtcathlon. It’s basically a game show meets a reality show on the web. We have four, hot, young, sexy couples competing against each other in these bizarre challenges that we’ve created for them, so that they get very dirty in the process and whoever wins out of this challenge gets a trip to Spain to be a part of that festival where they throw tomatoes at each other so they can get dirty all over again and if you go to Axe.Atom.com, you can watch these webisodes and you can even win prizes yourself.
How did you get approached for this project?
They just called. They called and asked if I’d be willing to host and I said, “yeah.”