Friday, May 8, 2009

Rob Riggle on comedy, the Marines, and AltCom

It’s a unique resume – Rob Riggle: comedian, actor, Marine. But somehow, Riggle manages to juggle all three, with a family to boot. Riggle left The Daily Show in December, and he’s still busy booking film work and touring as a stand-up comedian. That’s in addition to the announcement that he will soon earn the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves.

I spoke with Riggle by phone last week as he was arriving in Atlanta for a film shoot, for a piece that appeared in the Sunday Boston Globe. But I wound up with a lot of interesting interview material that didn’t fit, so I give it to you here. Riggle is on tonight’s 10PN show at the Somerville Theatre with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Ian Moore, and Eugene Mirman.

Are you fairly busy with film work now that you’ve left The Daily Show?

I’m kind of doing a lot of things, actually. I’m doing some film work, which I’m very happy to get. I’ve been out doing stand-up around the country a lot. Still do improv, whenever I get a chance. At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles or New York, I always pop in and go back to my roots and do improv. It always feels good to do that. I shot a couple of episodes of Gary Unmarried for CBS which will be airing in May, May 6th and the 13th.

Is that character Mitch going to be recurring?

Possibly. Yeah, possibly. I think there’s a strong possibility. We’re trying to figure that out, as well, because I also have a development deal with CBS and we’re in the process of developing a show for myself. So we’ll see what happens there.

Is that why you left The Daily Show?

Honestly, I could have stayed on The Daily Show for a long, long time. I could have stayed on there many more years. I loved it there. I love John Oliver, I love Jon Stewart, and all the correspondents and the writers. It was a really, really good place, and I still have a really wonderful relationship with everybody there. It’s just that I was living apart from my family for the two and a half years that I was on the show. I was commuting. And it just was too much. I needed to be home with my family.

You were balancing that and balancing a career in the Marine Corps Reserve. How does that fit into everything?

Well, that is a good question. It’s exhausting. I have to get in a certain amount of days every year for the Reserves every year. So I spend a lot of vacation doing Marine Corps drill.

What does that entail for you at this point?

It can be anything. It could be me going to train other Marines or I could, myself, go to training. I spent a year going to Command and Staff College, which most officers, you have to go to. It’s a requisite school. Or I could go work at a public affairs office in New York or in Los Angeles.

How much time is that?

I think it comes down to 38 days, I owe them.

Thirty-eight days each year?

Yeah. Thirty-eight days a year, minimum. I can give them more. I usually come in anywhere between 38 and 45 days.

Where did comedy come in – before or after the Marine Corps?

I was a theater and film major at the University of Kansas. And I was voted most humorous in my senior class in high school. I’ve always had a passion for comedy. I’ve always been a student of it. I love it. It’s always been there. But when you graduate as a theater and film major, you’re pretty much consigning yourself to being a waiter for ten years out of college. I also flew planes when I was an undergrad. I had my pilot’s license when I was at KU. So I got a guaranteed aviation contract with the Marine Corps. So I thought being Top Gun might be a little better than being a waiter. That’s how I ended up going down the Marines path.

What year was that?

That would have been ’92, when I graduated. I got down that road, and then I realized, if I didn’t try comedy, I would regret it the rest of my life. And I couldn’t live with that. So I just gave up flying for the Marines and asked to be reassigned to fill my ground contract instead of my aviation contract, and once that duty was up, I was going to go to Chicago and study at Second City. I was going to try comedy, come heck or highwater, whether I failed or succeeded. At least I’d know, you know.

Who did you have to tell in the Marines to day, I want to leave the Marines and try comedy? And what was that conversation like?

Well, I didn’t quite put it like that. I don’t think that would have been well received. I was a couple of months away from getting my wings and I realized had I gotten my wings, I would have been committed to a life of aviation, probably. And I couldn’t do it. So I requested to leave flight school and be reassigned on the ground side, and they did. Which, it shortened my commitment. I still had to do three more years, and I did. And while I did those three years, I went to night school and I got a graduate degree in public administration.

Where did you go for that?

Westchester University. Tried to make good use of my time, anyway. And then, that’s where I got interested in politics and city government and municipalities. But that’s a whole other story. Anyway. But then when I was getting out, after I’d done my ground tour, they said, what would it take for you to stay in? And I said, not much, because I’m going to go do comedy. Which they… couldn’t believe. I said, look, if you sent me to New York City or Los Angeles, I would extend on active duty. And the next morning, I had orders for New York City.

So I extended on active duty for another three years and I went to Manhattan, and I worked in an office in Manhattan, the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office, right there in Manhattan. It was basically an eight to five job, like everybody else. And then at night I would leave from the office and go straight down to do comedy anywhere in New York City that would let me. I found a home in the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I learned improv and studied and watched them. I just loved what they were doing, and I spent the next seven years studying there before I caught the breaks.

So it was ’92 when you first left the Marines for the Reserves?

No, that’s when I took my commission, was ’92. I left flight school in ’95. then I did six more years, active duty, and left active duty in 2000. I went in the reserves in 2000, but then I was called back in 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan. I was reactivated there. And then when I for back from there in 2002, in the fall of 2002, I picked up my comedy career and carried on.

When was it that you landed The Daily Show?

Well, I got Saturday Night Live first. I got that in 2004. After Saturday Night Live I went out to California because I had a deal with NBC, a development and holding deal. And then the year after that, in 2006, I got The Daily Show.

When were you in Liberia and Kosovo?

I was in Liberia in 1996. During the Atlanta Olympics, basically. I remember watching some of the Olympics from the embassy weight room there in Liberia. Then I was in Kosovo in 1999. I was pulled from my New York duties and sent over there.

Where was it you got the Combat Action Ribbon?

That would have been in Kosovo.

Was there a specific action that that was for?

There were a couple actually. A lot of people on the MEU, that Marine Expeditionary Unit, there were many different days when we were engaged, shot at. There were many different times. I don’t know if it was one specific or whatever, I just know that it was a couple different incidents.

Once you got back into the world of comedy where people are making fun of foreign policy decisions and talking about this sort of thing from a fairly removed point of view, how did you move in that world? What were your thoughts?

You know, it’s tricky. It was a little bit of push and pull. I thought I had a pretty good perspective on it, as far as understanding both sides. I could understand arguments made for both cases. I think that’s why it’s such a difficult issue for the country, because a reasonable person, I think, can see what happened, what led us to where we were, and why things we did were right or wrong. There’s arguments to be made on both sides.

Did you feel trapped in the middle? The assumption is that The Daily Show is a very liberal place, I don’t know if you would agree with that to begin with. And the assumption is that the Marines, everyone is very conservative. Neither of those assumptions might be correct.

I think what you just said is very accurate. I think neither one of those assumptions would be one hundred percent correct. I think that’s probably a fair assumption. I think anyone who thinks the Marines are hardcore conservative, I think that would be inaccurate. And I think anyone who thinks The Daily Show is hardcore leftwing or something, I think that would be inaccurate as well.

Did one side ask about the other? Did you get a lot of curiosity from The Daily Show folks about the Marines and from friends in the Marines about The Daily Show?

Yeah, there’s always a healthy curiosity, but there was never any challenge, I never felt like anybody was angry. I never felt like I was under threat or anything like that.

That’s not necessarily what I was asking. I was just wondering if there was a level of curiosity on both sides.

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Definitely. And it led to a lot of very interesting conversations.

I think you could see that in – well, saying “your character” on The Daily Show, I’m not sure if that would be a characterization…

Yeah. It would be. [laughs] I don’t’ go steamrolling through life like I did on The Daily Show.

In comedy, it’s so tough to make assumptions, because some people’s character, every once in a while I’ll ask somebody about a stand-up routine and say, what was the real story there, and they’ll say, what do you mean? I told the story, that was the story.

I think it’s different, too, because when I do my stand-up, my stories are, I’d say, 95 percent true. I may embellish a little for comedic purposes, but the stories themselves actually happened. But when I’m doing a character and I’m on the Daily Show and I’m being bombastic or whatever, that’s not generally how Rob Riggle would go through life or how he would talk to somebody.

Do you feel that carries a bit more weight, because you’ve actually been to these places and had a bit more intimate an experience?

Perhaps. I couldn’t say, because I’d have to leave that to other people’s interpretation of them. But perhaps. I know when I went over to Iraq for The Daily Show, it definitely helped me having served overseas. It really helped me understand what was going on better. I just had the feeling, I felt like I had my finger on the pulse maybe a little bit better than some other folks that might have gone over there, they might have just let things blow by.

Did you get that assignment because of that previous experience?

I got the assignment because I requested it. I asked for it. I went in, sat down, and talked to Jon and said I want to do this, and Jon said, absolutely. And I said okay. That was it.

Did it exist before, or did you say, I want to go to Iraq?

That’s how it started. I found a field producer who was willing to go, and I pitched it to him and he said yes, and we both went in and sat down with Jon and said this is what we want to do. And he said, are you really, really sure? We said yeah, and he said all right.

By the way, congratulations on the promotion. I saw that at the end of The Daily Show.

That was very nice of them. I had no idea that they were going to do that. It was very unexpected and very nice.

When did that actually happen?

I was selected for promotion. I am a Lieutenant Colonel selectee, which means they come out with the list of everybody who’s going to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves. And now, they go by number, your ranking, whatever your number is, and you get promoted, each month, they promote x amount of people, throughout the year. I have a very low number, which means I probably should be promoted in either May or June.

I’ll try to find a way to say that in ten words or less when I write this up.

He’s a Lieutenant Colonel Select who will probably pin on the rank in May or June.

Okay. That’s much more concise than the words that were flowing through my head to try to describe it. SO when you come to Boston, are you going to be doing mostly sketch or stand-up?

I’m under the impression that I will be coming there to do stand-up. That’s what I’ll be there to do. However, the Upright Citizens Brigade will be there, and I’m really good friends with all those guys. I’ve spent the last ten years playing with those guys and hanging out with them, so if I get the chance, I would love to do improv with them. We’ll see what they’re doing.

Yes, it’s actually the same show that you’re on at the Somerville Theatre with Eugene Mirman and Ian Moore.

Eugene is so funny. I’m looking forward to just watching his show.

He had a show come through here, Wes and Eugene’s Cabinet of Wonders with John Wesley Harding a little while ago which was a pretty fantastic show.

I could imagine. I could imagine. Eugene is just uber-talented.

The thing people don’t see of him, he used to work with Tony V all the time up here, and it was off the cuff all the time, and I don’t think fans are used to seeing him just going up onstage with absolutely nothing and just seeing what comes out of his head. It’s a pretty special moment.

That’s an awesome skill to have.

I wonder if there are skills you could apply to both the Marines and improv, or if that’s stretching thing.

I don’t know. The ability to think on your feet may be the only crossover. Other than that, they might be pretty much mutually exclusively.

The situations in which you would have to think on your feet, probably much different.

Yes, absolutely.

Remembering where somebody has designated a table, versus what to do if a grenade rolls anywhere near you. Different skills.

A little bit higher stakes, maybe.

Depending on your fear of public humiliation.


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