Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” cartoons on “Saturday Night Live” are so subversive, scabrous and at times downright surreal it’s a wonder they ever find a place on network TV, even if it’s usually after midnight. So it’s all the more jarring to see NBC devote an entire “SNL” — on the first week of sweeps, no less — to Smigel’s twisted, dark genius, narrowly skewed as it is to those with similar personality traits. The result is a pretty remarkable special, complete with new interstitials featuring one of Smigel’s most inspired creations, that crime-fighting cartoon tandem the Ambiguously Gay Duo.
Although forever wedded to his Conan O’Brien alter ego, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Smigel’s cartoons and film shorts are a delirious feast for 30- and 40-something pop culture enthusiasts — mirroring, as many of them do, cracked versions of cheesy cartoons from our youth.
Those rudimentary images and drawings, however, belie the sharp barbs affixed to these shorts, as well as the political broadsides embedded in them. In addition to the aforementioned Duo, for example — who spend the entire program (when not zipping around in their phallus-shaped car) looking for Jimmy Fallon — the roster of superheroes includes a Fantastic Four-type team consisting of ex-presidents and the Divertor, who deflects public attention away from failed GOP policies by directing his powerful scandal-causing ray at Hollywood celebrities.
Virtually no one escapes Smigel’s fire unsinged, which is part of his charm. He seems to particularly delight in finding the most vulgar side of animated icons, from his dead-on spoof of the latest Disney made-for-video “Bambi” sequel to affixing anatomically correct genitalia to Hanna-Barbera characters.
Not all these conceits work, alternating as they do between utterly juvenile and brilliantly satirical. Still, the nice thing about the brevity of these animated shorts (and the few live-action ones, including a hilarious sexual-harassment guide) is that if one falls flat, another comes along momentarily.
Smigel is an unusual talent to say the least, and it’s to the credit of “SNL” patriarch Lorne Michaels and O’Brien that they have found a way to harness those unique, almost-not-ready-for-even-latenight gifts, as well as NBC for giving them a well-deserved showcase.
In this case, by the way, most definitely not for me to poop on.