Robert Smigel brings Bill Swerski's Superfans back to da stage during Just for Laughs.
In 1983, when comedian Robert Smigel moved to Chicago to take classes at Second City spin-off Players Workshop, one of his first stops was a Cubs game. At Sheffield and Waveland Avenues, he had his first encounter with what he termed the “superfan.” Five years later, alongside Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk, Smigel premiered characters based on this race of mustached, Polish-sausage-eating, beer-swilling, Ditka-worshipping Chicago sports enthusiasts in Happy Happy Good Show at Victory Gardens Studio Theater. In the early ’90s, their sketch Bill Swerski’s Superfans became a Saturday Night Live hit. Odenkirk and Smigel penned an unproduced film in ’95 based on the bit. Dubbed Da Bears Movie Dat Wasn’t, the script gets its first live readings at the Park West as part of the Just for Laughs comedy fest Saturday 19 with Odenkirk, George Wendt, Joe Mantegna and a roundtable interview with Da Coach himself. Last week, we spoke with Smigel, perhaps best known as the voice and puppeteer of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.
The Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champs now, but hockey’s never been Superfan territory.
They’ll be covered in the Just for Laughs performance, but for years there was just nothing to say about the Blackhawks. They would so rarely even be in serious play-off contention, and the team didn’t have personalities that popped. But they’ve got an incredible coach right now, Quenneville.
He’s definitely cut from the Ditka cloth.
That guy’s a superfan’s wet dream. That mustache and that glare! He’s so built for Chicago.
When I heard you wrote a movie based on Superfans, I wondered how “Ditka! Ditka! Ditka!” could be stretched for 90 minutes.
Right. [Superfan voice] “Da Bears!” No, no, no. We wrote it right after the traumatic baseball strike of ’94—the only canceled World Series ever. It’s more about the corporatization of the sports world, how it was being taken away from the average, devoted superfan. Bob came up with a team-owner character: a fruity, sort of fey owner who buys the Bears pretending he’s going to keep everything the same, but ultimately he tries to turn Soldier Field into an exclusive 200-seat, $20,000-per-ticket venue—the whole place just couches and piano bars. And he wants the superfans out of the stadium. He hires Tommy Tune to choreograph end-zone dances. That part scared the studio.
They wanted it to be more domestic, like Coneheads?
Probably. And I wanted it to be a live-action Simpsons.
Given all the SNL spin-off stinkers that have been produced, is it a sour-grapes situation knowing that, say, Julia Sweeney got to make It’s Pat?
It may sound like bullshit, but I haven’t seen a lot of them. I saw It’s Pat on TV. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. But that’s a tough character to play for 90 minutes, with the voice and all the gurgling. [Laughs] Superfans is based on real people, so I thought, There’s a way to make them less one-dimensional.
Oh, they exist—some in my own family.
It’s funny: Chicagoans used to come up to me with their big mustaches and they’d say, “Hey, you know dat sketch you do? I got a brudder juss like dat.” [Laughs] Who, the guy you just saw in the mirror?
Some Chicagoans call Mayor Daley “Da Mare.”
I know! In the original scripts, we didn’t have a “da” in there. Then the Bulls won the championship and it became a catchphrase. It was crazy. We were invited to be onstage with the Bulls during the Grant Park rings presentation for three championships.
Did you ever think, Don’t these idiots realize we’re making fun of them?
Well, it’s such affectionate mockery. I remember one editorial in the Tribune from the ’90s: “The whole world is going to think we’re a bunch of pork-eating, beer-guzzling idiots!” But people should know it was never mean-spirited.
Catch Da Bears Movie Dat Wasn’t Saturday 19 at the Park West.