The following article, by Hugh Boulware, was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on June 24, 1988. I found it here.
It's 3 in the afternoon, and two writers for TV's "Saturday Night Live" are standing on a stage in a North Side bar engaged in the serious business of being funny.
"I wonder," says Robert Smigel, "if the laugh isn't bigger if it just goes, 'That kid out front.'" His partner, Bob Odenkirk, replies, "Yeah, but '11-year old girl' really lays on the humor of the specific." "Yeah," Smigel answers, "but it's so generic and stupid, I don't know...."
The two men are haggling over the script of "Law Office," one of 18 sketches in "Happy Happy Good Show," in which they'll also act. The Mark Nutter-directed revue-in which Dave Reynolds, Debbie Jennings, Rose Abdoo and another "SNL" writer, Conan O'Brien, are cast-opened this week at Victory Gardens Theatre.
The genesis of "Law Office" tells something about what makes a funny person tick. "I had this thing - 'keen legal mind' -rattling around in my head all week," says O'Brien, a rail-thin man with red hair. "I kept saying to my partner at 'Saturday,' 'Keen legal mind.' It didn't do anything for him."
"But I loved it," says Smigel. And the sketch, a 'who's on first'-styled bit revolving around an outrageous visual pun, was born.
"It's weird," O'Brien continues, holding up his index fingers a couple of inches apart. "There'll be a little thing about this long, a little attitude that you do, and you have no place for it. You're walking around with it, it's like in your pocket, and then you'll bump into someone else, and you'll do it for them, and they'll laugh and add something to it. You start out with one third, somebody adds another third, and someone else walks in with the last third. It's humbling in a way."
Although the writers' strike gave Smigel, Odenkirk and O'Brien a head start on their summer show, they were already planning to stage something in Chicago between TV seasons. Arriving in late May with a batch of unused "SNL" scripts, the three have since written about eight new pieces, including stories about a lonely salesman, psychotic convenience store employees and one very bad ventriloquist.
Absent from "Happy Happy Good Show" are topical skits. "There's no political humor at all in the show," says Odenkirk, a booming-voiced, crew-cut Naperville native who, at this rehearsal, is dressed in running shorts, baseball jersey and suit jacket. "We get to do plenty of that on 'Saturday Night,' and besides, we're not very angry. We eat well, our parents were good to us, no scars."
Aside from the drier, more low-keyed humor of their Chicago revue, Smigel says, "The main difference with 'Saturday Night' is if you write a script for a giant monkey, they go out and build a giant monkey. Here, we'll spend a large percentage of our time running around trying to find shreds of monkey." Odenkirk interjects, "We have flunkies there, but we're seriously lacking flunkies here."
So why are these well-paid professional humorists press-typing their own fliers and making papier-mache costume props when they could be peddling sitcom scripts in L.A.?
They miss performing. Smigel, Odenkirk and O'Brien all honed their craft in front of audiences. Smigel met Odenkirk at Jo Forsberg's Players Workshop here, which, Smigel says, "at first was really scary, and the theatre exercises were kind of embarrassing. But they broke you down to basics so you could build from there."
The two later helped write and perform the long-running Practical Theater Company revue "All You Can Eat and the Temple of Doom." Three years ago, Smigel was hired for "Saturday Night Live" and greased the wheels for Odenkirk, who joined last fall.
O'Brien, a Bostonian, began writing political parodies for Harvard Lampoon when he was 18. He performed stand-up and later worked with L.A.'s Groundlings troupe before joining the "SNL" writing staff a few months ago.
All agree that performing helps their writing. "It gives you that extra sense of what an actor needs," Smigel says. "Some things look great on paper, but somehow, they just don't play on the stage. Maybe an idea is too rich or requires too much exposition."
O'Brien adds, "It gets almost mystical. We'll have arguments about 'Gotta go' versus 'See you later,' and if you don't spend a lot of time thinking about comedy, it may seem like nonsense, but it isn't."
The three are not big fans of improvisation. "It's a good writing tool," says Smigel, "but if you're looking to set yourself apart, it's more impressive to write something, edit yourself, and make it really good, as opposed to getting laughs for something just because it's off the top of your head."
While the "Saturday Night Live" writers are clearly aiming for something off the beaten comedy track, O'Brien wants to make sure "Happy Happy Good Show" audiences know what to expect. "You know, our show isn't going to trouble or challenge anybody. Maybe it's a little over the edge or silly, but this is what's funny to us. We want to get a laugh."