Robert Smigel has figured out what disgraced morning anchors Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer are up to: They’re co-hosting a midday talk show in Sarasota, Fla., and making their guests very uncomfortable.
That was one of the many gags on Smigel’s half-hour Fox special “Let’s Be Real,” which featured puppets parodying Rose and Lauer, as well as Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, Kanye West and Nancy Pelosi. Frightening, faceless mannequins were used to play Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Puppets were seen interacting with real-life guests including Larry King, Stormy Daniels, Jimmy Kimmel and more. (Scroll down to watch the sketches.)
The special opened with puppet Trump conversing with a real-life King — and it quickly became clear that the special was shot so recently that the duo discussed Trump’s performance on Tuesday at the presidential debate. King asked “Trump” about his command to white supremacist group Proud Boys to “stand back, standby,” which the faux Trump then denied.
A puppet version of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, portrayed as a complete lackey for Trump, backed him up: “Do you seriously think just because you saw him say it, that means he did?”
Smigel said the sketches were shot last weekend, in anticipation of what might happen. “Obviously we threw in a few dubs at the end referencing very specific things that were said at the debate but I was surprised how well the Trump one played, having been written before the debate,” he said.
Biden was fair game, portrayed as slow and long-winded — although, in another nod to the debates, yells “will you shut up, man!” to a rabid badger who’s playing Trump in his debate prep. Another sketch turns Biden’s “you ain’t Black” gaffe on radio’s “The Breakfast Club” into a faux game show (featuring guests like Finesse Mitchell).
In another sketch, puppet Mike Pence freaks out when he winds up in an elevator with a woman (and eventually jumps out of the elevator when “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Widow Von Du shows up).
At the end of the special, Trump decides he needs to re-create the 2016 campaign to get his mojo back, and calls real-life Daniels (who plays herself) and offers her more hush money — but with strings attached. And he also tries to convince Billy Bush to re-create the clip from “Extra” in which Trump tells the host he grabs women by the genitals in order to force himself on them.
When Bush declines, Trump asks the real-life Jimmy Kimmel to help him out: ” “I need some third-rate TV host like Billy Bush to have a gross conversation with me that will destroy his life while I emerge unscathed,” “Trump” says to Kimmel. “It’s a win-win. For me. I get to remain president while also have a gross conversation.”
Beyond the political skits, “Let’s Be Real” also parodies James Corden and “Carpool Karaoke,” featuring a puppet Corden picking up real-life Sugar Ray front man Mark McGrath — and later running over him when a better passenger (puppet Kanye West) appears.
And then there’s “AM Sarasota,” the small market TV show that Smigel and his team imagines disgraced journos Rose and Lauer toiling in obscurity. In the sketches, real-life guests Jackee and George Wendt get increasingly more uncomfortable as puppet Rose and puppet Lauer try to suggest that their past actions should be seen in a different light.
“Does anyone even care or remember the things we were obsessed about in 2019, like which white person may have groped another white person,” one of them says.
“That was my favorite sketch,” said Smigel, who credited his writers — most of whom he’s worked with in the past, including for “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” segments over the years.
“Let’s Be Real” comes out of a project that has been in development at Fox for a while, based on the French pop culture sketch puppet show “Les Guignols.” Propagate brought the show to Fox, and Smigel was recruited to produce a pilot presentation for the network. An early version that was shot last year was scrapped because the puppets looked too real, Smigel said.
“This has been a two-year process… it was an insane undertaking to build these puppets and make sure they all work,” Smigel said. “I was so nervous about it. I wanted to do a test show first, and in fact, we had something we were was ready to go in December, but then we decided the puppets weren’t right — that they looked too creepy and realistic.”
Smigel normally has a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog special in the works during an election year, but he said he wasn’t able to leave the house or shoot on location with Triumph due to the pandemic. If “Let’s Be Real” goes to series, he hopes to have the puppets interact with real people on the street, much as Triumph has done over the years.
“Let’s Be Real” is also the first show to jointly come out of Fox’s scripted and unscripted units. Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn called it “a great opportunity to convert a pilot into a special, and we’re pleased with the results.”
Thorn said he hoped to see “Let’s Be Real” generate interest and conversation over the next few weeks as the network mulls its next steps — such as turning it into a regular series or at least a series of specials. “One of the things we’ve been discussing as a network has been finding both urgency and topicality in our comedy,” he said. “We don’t see this as a one and done.”
Here are some of the sketches from Thursday night’s special: