from the archives

Clowns, Guns, and Talking Outhouses: A Look Back at Robert Smigel’s Original TV Funhouse Pilot

Robert Smigel on the Fox pilot Saturday TV Funhouse. Photo: Youtube

Thank God for first drafts. They’re a great way to work out the kinks, get an idea down, take the first step. Usually nobody but the writer(s) gets to see them, but sometimes they find their way into the light, and when that happens they can provide rare insight into the artistic process. Today we take a look at one such first draft, for the 1998 pilot of Saturday TV Funhouse. Originally made for Fox, it would evolve into Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse, itself an offshoot of the series of similarly titled animated shorts that sprung from the mind of Robert Smigel and aired on Saturday Night Live. While Saturday TV Funhouse shares a lot of DNA with what it eventually evolved into, the original pilot is very much its own thing, and one that fans of any iteration of the Funhouse will almost certainly enjoy.

There are many places where this story could start, but let’s begin with the final product: the eight episodes of TV Funhouse (financed by Comedy Central) that aired from December 2000 into January 2001. A number of animated and live-action shorts, in the vein of the SNL segments, interrupted the narrative of a children’s television pastiche in which our host Doug (played by Doug Dale) would introduce a theme for that show’s episode (Western Day! Safari Day! Mexican Day!) and head over to his TV Funhouse where his friends, the Anipals — played as puppets by Smigel, Dino Stamatopoulos, Jon Glaser, Jonathan Groff, and several other Conan writers — would refuse to participate in the show and head off to gamble in Tijuana or some other debauched activity. The show reran several times after its initial airing, and according to its DVD commentaries, several scripts for another season were ordered and produced. However, TV Funhouse was ultimately canceled by Comedy Central, with Smigel citing the fact that every episode went over budget due to the difficulties of filming a show with several live animals (as well as his own perfectionism). While the cartoons would live on as a feature on Saturday Night Live, TV Funhouse the show was no more.

But let’s back up a little. Actually, a lot. On WGN in Chicago, from 1960 to 2001, there was a local children’s television program called The Bozo Show. Though the Bozo character existed years prior as a character on LP records and was franchised out to several different markets, Chicago boasted the longest-running Bozo program and arguably the character’s most iconic portrayal, at the hands of Bob Bell. In Chicago, Bozo’s studio audience was comprised of children and their parents, who thrilled to the antics of Bozo and his sidekick Cooky the Clown and the magic tricks of Wizzo the Wizard.

Children all across the Chicagoland area adored the show, which continually won its weekday time slot for the majority of its run. At the peak of the show’s popularity, the waiting list for tickets to attend a taping was ten years long. In addition to being Bozo country, Chicago is also one of the biggest “comedy towns” in the United States, and as you might imagine, there is a bit of crossover between these two realms. Podcasting pioneer Jimmy Pardo has discussed his love of the clown many times on his show Never Not Funny. Dan Castellaneta cites Bob Bell’s Bozo as the primary inspiration for the voice of The Simpsons Krusty the Klown. And, in a fun fact that I just learned from Wikipedia, non-comedic actor Adrian Zmed was a childhood fan and later played a clown on The Bozo Show.

Robert Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos displayed their affection for Bozo in a different way.

Produced for Fox, the TV Funhouse pilot begins with a disclaimer not dissimilar from one that would appear years later on MTV2’s own kids’-show-skewering Wonder Showzen: “The following children’s program is not intended for younger audiences. Although it appears to be shown to children, the children are not actually seeing any material children shouldn’t see. Children shouldn’t see this material. Even on Fox.” We are then shown an episode of “Fun With Real Audio,” a recurring sketch on the SNL version of Saturday TV Funhouse titled “Presidential Address Outtakes.” In it, we see “bloopers” as Bill Clinton attempts to address the Lewinsky scandal to the American public but is interrupted by various semen-covered articles of clothing and furniture, ending in a then-timely There’s Something About Mary reference.

Back in the realm of live-action, a kindly older man introduces himself as “Ringmaster Ted” and introduces us to the show and its cast of characters as he stands in front of a happy live studio audience filled with children and parents. There’s Prozo, “most people’s favorite clown,” played by Smigel; his “kooky pal Looky,” played by Doug Dale; “the mysterious Wizzy,” played by Stamatopoulos; a cat puppet that is licking itself named Furball; and a three-piece TV Funhouse Band. (The band is fronted by Floyd Vivino, better known in the New York/New Jersey area as subversive children’s show host “Uncle Floyd” and brother of Jimmy Vivino, who up until last month was the frontman of Conan O’Brien’s longtime band.)

On the whole, Prozo and the gang keep it pretty tame around the kids, relying mostly on gross-out humor as the Furball puppet lives up to his name, as well as on innuendo that goes over the kids’ heads, such as when Looky and Prozo watch Furball lick himself for some time before Prozo professes a desire to be an “aminal” [sic], or just using the classic kid-pleasing tricks, such as the sketch in which the clowns reenact the Camp David peace accords between Clinton, Arafat, and Netanyahu with a trolly full of pies. Perhaps the only piece in the show in which the joke is on the kids themselves is a segment called “You’re in the Picture.” (Side note: I don’t know for sure if this segment was inspired by the infamous failed game show hosted by Jackie Gleason, but that is certainly one of the stranger stories in TV history.)

The premise is straightforward: Just as with one of those flat, standing figures with a hole in which to stick one’s head, one lucky child is selected to appear on camera, and suddenly a drawing is superimposed around their head to show them hitting a home run, meeting Debra Winger, or getting a prostate exam. The child who is ultimately selected throws himself to the ground when the drawings imply that he would put his arm around Debra Winger, clearly concerned about cooties. A fast-thinking camera operator saves the bit by panning over and making the boy’s nanny the star of the final drawing. Cootie implications aside, this isn’t the part of the show I was referring to. In order to select a child to participate, Prozo uses the “magic arrows.” The camera zips around the audience as arrows flash on the screen. Finally the camera lands on a small girl, who jumps up from her seat excitedly for a few seconds before the words “NOT YOU” appear and the camera resumes its search. It’s a little mean, but it’s also really, really funny, so I say it was completely worth it.

And that’s just a smattering of what’s in here. There’s a song as the children are marched out of the room to eat ice cream so the adults can watch a “dirty cartoon.” There’s a news update from Prozo between commercials. And there’s a segment featuring a bunch of mafioso chimpanzees. I’ve been hoping to come across this pilot ever since I heard Smigel discuss it at a retrospective of his work at The Paley Center. Had I known that all I needed was the correct string of search terms, I could have found it on YouTube long ago. Now you can, too:

With the passing of the pilot’s director, Danny Leiner, last month, Robert Smigel tweeted a link to the pilot, praising Leiner’s attention to detail and laid-back confidence. He also posted a link to this deleted scene from the pilot featuring Stephen Colbert as Grimy, the talking outhouse:

Sometimes first drafts need to be locked in a drawer or just plain thrown out. Thankfully, this first draft escaped total obscurity and is here to be enjoyed today for all the cat puppet hairballs, Bozo admiration, and mad brilliance that it contains.

Looking Back at Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse Pilot