Compared to most comedians, Rob Riggle got a late start. He was 34 years old when he landed his first real show business gig on the cast of Saturday Night Live. That was 15 years ago this fall. Of course, he’d spent 15 years before that serving in the Marines.
Riggle has more than made up for lost time since that less-than-successful season on SNL—he was let go after the show failed to get its usual election year bump in 2004. He went on to serve as The Daily Show’s Senior Military Affairs Correspondent during the height of the Iraq War through the 2008 presidential election before popping up for scene-stealing performances in hit comedy films like Step Brothers and 21 Jump Street.
Now, Riggle has found more unlikely success co-hosting ABC’s new miniature golf competition series Holey Moley.
“You never know how these things will go,” Riggle tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “I’ve made movies where it’s like, oh, this is going to be amazing! Or you make movies where it’s like, I think it’s funny but I have no idea. And then it turns out to be The Hangover and it goes off the charts.”
During our wide-ranging conversation, Riggle explains how he made the difficult transition from the Marines to comedy, how much better his experience on The Daily Show was than his short-lived stint on SNL and how he expects his career to evolve after he turns 50 next year.
On choosing improv comedy over the Marines
“Flying was fine. I was fine. But you need to be passionate about what you do. Especially if you’re flying off a ship at night over some ocean and you’ve got 15 Marines in the back of your helicopter. You’ve got to love what you’re doing. And so I did some real soul-searching, it was the first big decision of my life—I call it my quarter-life crisis, I think I was 24 at the time—and I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to pursue flying? Or was I going to stop? Because once you pin your wings on, that’s when it’s over. Then they got you.”
On his first time doing stand-up in front of an audience
“I went up there and my adrenaline was going so hard. I could feel the pulse in my neck. And I’m not being melodramatic but there was a buzz in my head and I couldn’t feel my fingertips. It was like a car wreck-type adrenaline rush. And they called my name and I remember walking up on stage and trying to be confident but not feeling it. I remember saying some things and maybe getting a laugh and maybe not, but I didn’t care—I didn’t even care beyond two feet in front of my face. So I walked off the stage and thought, that was the worst experience I’d ever had. I thought I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
On his ‘dysfunctional’ season at ‘Saturday Night Live’
“I literally was called back to active duty after 9/11. So I got back at the end of 2002, right at the beginning of 2003 and was on SNL in 2004. And listen, I don’t want to bash on it, because I’m always grateful that I got the dream-come-true to be on that show. But I wouldn’t say it’s not dysfunctional. I had a very special circumstance. The year I was hired, I was the only guy hired. The cast was massive. Fifteen people on the cast and I’m the only new guy. Well, you know Darrell Hammond’s getting his, Tina Fey, Amy [Poehler] is getting hers, Maya Rudolph’s getting hers, Will Forte, go down the list, they’re all getting their time. I’m going in there and I’m drinking out of a firehose. This is the first showbiz gig I ever got so it’s overwhelming to begin with. It’s an unbelievable pace and pressure and I got to a point where I didn’t even know what was funny anymore by the end of the season.”
In defense of Ashlee Simpson’s infamous SNL lip sync moment
“My second show was the night Ashlee Simpson walked off stage. She did that little hoedown and she walks off the stage. And she came running by us, brushed shoulders with me as she ran off. And I remember going, ‘Does she know this is live?!’ It was an unfortunate thing. But in all fairness, she got such a bad deal, because I listened to her sing all week and she was awesome. Then she got sick and her voice gave way. And so they’re talking about canceling and all this stuff. So I understand why they had click tracks and things like that but it all got screwed up because it was last minute. And so everybody pounced on her and I thought: Don’t, it’s really unfair. Because she can sing, she did a fine job and was gutting it out so that the show could go on. So I just got mad. Everybody’s just full of hate, it’s sad.”
On the unusually high stakes of his audition for ‘The Daily Show’
“I was completely out of money and was very seriously considering going back on active duty. We were in the middle of a war. They needed people. This was 2006 and it’s full-blown at this point. All I had to do was put my hand in the air and they’d pick me up in a second and I’d go back on active duty. I was still a captain at the time, I could make good money, I could provide for my family. So if I didn’t get—and no one knows this, especially The Daily Show, I’m not advertising this and I don’t want their pity. But my wife I knew that my back was against the wall. And if I hadn’t gotten The Daily Show, about a week later, two weeks later I probably would have had to go back on active duty.”
On Jon Stewart putting comedy aside to fight for 9/11 first responders
“I was so proud of him when he did that. He did that in a very articulate way and he did such a good job of advocating for those first responders, of which I was actually one of them. I was down on the rubble piles. I got my orders on September 11th, because my reserve unit was in Manhattan. I was working on the bucket brigades, moving rubble by hand. Jon’s been doing comedy his whole life, he’s been doing stand-up his whole life, and that show was 45 weeks a year and you’ve got to feed the beast every day. He was the captain of the ship and he was responsible for everything. So it just shows you the unbelievably high standard, the work ethic he had. Of course he’s tired, of course he’s fatigued. He needed a break and I’m glad he’s taking it. And I hope he’s healing his soul and healing his mind and he’ll be back when he’s ready.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings, whose new special Can I Touch It? premieres on Netflix Tuesday, July 30th.