Entertainment Spotlight

Rob Riggle is one of Hollywood’s — and football’s — funniest personalities

Rob Riggle, the Overland Park boy who grew up to be a Marine, becomes one of Hollywood’s — and football’s — funniest personalities.

Updated: 2013-02-03T02:51:24Z

Story by LISA GUTIERREZ, photos by ALLISON LONG

The Kansas City Star

One of my favorite scenes in “The Hangover” is where that obnoxious Las Vegas cop lets school kids use Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms for stun gun practice.

“There’s two ways to use a stun gun,” the cop tells the kids. “Up close and personal, or you can shoot it from a distance.”

He calls a little girl to the front of the room, hands her the stun gun and tells her to aim at pretty boy Cooper.

The cop eggs her on.

“You can do this, just focus.”

The girl aims. The cop barks.

“FINISH HIM!”

She fires and a tentacle full of electricity shoots out and grabs Cooper’s crotch, dropping him to the floor in convulsions. “Right in the nuts!” the cop screams as the kids giggle. “That was beautiful!”

That over-the-top cop? That was Rob Riggle, who grew into his funny bones in Overland Park. Out in Hollywood, he has developed a knack for turning small parts in big films into everyone’s favorite part of the movie.

He was in “Step Brothers.” (Co-worker itching to punch Will Ferrell in his “suckhole.”)

In “The Other Guys.” (Rival detective wrestling Mark Wahlberg at a funeral.)

In “21 Jump Street.” (Gym teacher getting his ding-a-ling shot off by Jonah Hill. There’s more to that scene, but we’re not about to describe it here.)

In an interview with the Independent Film Channel last year, a reporter referred to Riggle’s movie characters as “tough-guy meatheads.”

Yeah, Riggle said, “for the most part I keep playing big knuckleheads who are like bulls in a china shop.”

This football season he yukked it up on game days after replacing stand-up comic Frank Caliendo as the house comedian on the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show, doing skits every week and matching his game picks against Terry Bradshaw and the gang.

It’s a dream gig for a guy who knows the game so well he has actually won his fantasy football league. If only he hadn’t kept picking his beloved Kansas City Chiefs throughout the season.

On screens big and small Riggle bawls, brays, shrieks, shouts, smirks and drops the f-bomb. Truth is, he’s goofy all the time, family and colleagues dished about him.

But that wasn’t anything like the Rob Riggle, a Marine for 23 years, who I had this conversation with in the restaurant at Great Wolf Lodge over the Thanksgiving weekend. Riggle was in town with the wife and kids to visit family here, but it was a working vacation.

Earlier in the week I had watched him entertain a suit-and-tie crowd of more than 1,700 at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner, a tough room for any comic.

To the governor of Kansas, to the mayor of Kansas City and other dignitaries, Riggle offered proof of his Kansas City roots by sharing that he once peed in Brush Creek at a Country Club Plaza lighting ceremony.

He owned the audience that night.

Before we go further, it must be noted that the movie camera does Riggle pitiful justice.

When his eyes aren’t bugged out and he’s not yelling, he is quite a handsome man, strapping at 6-foot-3 with broad shoulders, thick dark hair, good teeth. (And good breath. I think he’d like me to note that.) The guy belongs on a movie poster wearing a superhero cape.

Therein lies the riddle of Riggle: He looks like a leading man yet always plays the obnoxious little brother you want to whack up the side of the head.

When he came home for Thanksgiving he brought the Fox crew with him to film one of the game-day sketches at Arthur Bryant’s on Brooklyn Avenue.

They commandeered the place during a lunchtime rush, setting up lights on tall poles, laying cables across the floor and creating a make-believe lunch crowd by putting actors in bright red Chiefs gear at the tables in the main dining room.

Riggle and Adam LaPietra, a 12-year-old actor from Overland Park in his first TV role, sat at a table in front of the camera and teleprompter, plates of barbecue and fries in front of them.

It took three hours to film the two-minute segment.

“He’s (Riggle) a very disciplined guy. He works very hard at his craft, and he doesn’t take it for granted,” writer Bennett Webber told me later. Webber worked with Riggle when the comedian hosted the ESPY Awards last year and is now part of Riggle’s Fox crew.

“I think he’s a very genuine, sincere guy who cares for his family and friends and about the community where he comes from. He loves the Jayhawks. And he’s trying to love the Chiefs and Royals again.

“I think it’s why he’s so successful on the NFL show. He’s such a relatable guy … Marine. Good father. Good husband. How dull is that?” Webber joked. “Next year we’d better book Robert Downey Jr. because I’m getting bored.”

On the Hollywood pecking order, Riggle occupies a spot somewhere below the paparazzi bait of the A-list but many rungs higher than the D-Listers who show up on TMZ on a slow news day.

Which means he still gets asked questions like this from a reporter during the “21 Jump Street” junket: “Were you more intimidated by Jonah Hill’s comedic genius or by Channing Tatum’s good looks?”

Translation: You’re neither as funny as Hill nor as good-looking as Tatum.

Riggle quoted a Hollywood adage to me that 10 percent of the stars in Hollywood make 90 percent of the money.

“I’m definitely not part of that 10 percent making that money,” he said with a laugh. “I get SAG (Screen Actors Guild) scale plus 10. That’s my life story.”

Actually that’s only part of his life story, the current chapter, the one, he likes to say, that took him two wars and countless nights of working his private parts off. There was no “American Idol” catapult into fame. He was an ol’ married guy by the time he started doing stand-up. Rob Riggle, late bloomer.

How old are you, I asked him innocently.

It would have been easier to get his Social Security number.

“Oh God, can I lie? Do you really need to know? You’re not going to print that, are you? AGE? Do you ask women their age?” he said, kidding. Kinda.

I ask EVERYONE, I told him.

He sighed. Forty-two, he said.

I verified it later on Internet Movie Database.

And yes indeed, he was born 42 years ago, in Louisville, Ky., son of Robert A. Riggle Sr. and his wife, Sandy, and little brother to Julia. He lived the first two years of life there before his dad’s insurance job relocated the family to Overland Park.

He was a goofy little boy who could make his mom and sister laugh until they cried; he still can, according to his mom. “My mom and my sister are my best audience,” he said.

The family spent summers at the Lake of the Ozarks — he waterskied at 6 — at a house that had no phone, no TV. They entertained themselves with games and cards, and Riggle and his cousins staged shows for the adults. Funny voices. Skits. Dancing. The kids’ version of “Saturday Night Live.”

Riggle liked to make people laugh and he learned how by listening to geniuses of the genre — George Carlin, Eddie Murphy. Storytelling was in his DNA; his grammy could spin a yarn like no one else.

Being funny came in handy when puberty came late, leaving him smaller than his buddies and vulnerable to teasing.

“I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed and I wasn’t the biggest, so I got real good at running my mouth and making people laugh and using humor as a way to not get into fights,” he said.

In high school at Shawnee Mission South he put that mouth to use on the school’s radio and TV stations. He and his buddy played music during lunch hours and did comedy bits, pretending to interview bands and reading announcements they weren’t supposed to read.

Oh, look. Mr. So-and-So is absent today. Bet he’s hung over!

They mastered the microphone-is-still-on trick. Pretending not to know that the mic was hot, they’d use cuss words and say silly things — “I gotta take a big dump” — for everyone to hear.

Then they’d laugh when they heard the click-click-click-clickety-click-click-click of their teacher’s shoes as she ran down the hall, screaming, “The microphone’s on! The microphone’s on!”

His fellow seniors in the Class of 1988 voted Riggle the most humorous.

At KU, when the classes he needed for a political science major didn’t fall his way, he decided he wanted to be — punch line coming — an FBI agent.

“So I called the FBI and said, ‘How do you go about becoming an agent? What do you look for?’ Whoever I talked to was very nice and said, ‘Well, we like lawyers and accountants.’ That didn’t help me at all because I had no interest in either.”

We take Marine Corps officers, too, said the man on the phone.

Bingo!

Riggle talked to a friend enrolled in the officer training program at KU. The friend had scored so high on an aerial aptitude test that he was guaranteed a contract to fly planes for the Marines. “Top Gun” stuff. Cool, Riggle thought. Bye-bye FBI.

Riggle’s grandfather, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, paid for his flying lessons, and Riggle passed that aptitude test, too. In 1990, at age 19, he went off to officer candidate school at Quantico, Va. The experience, he said, was like trying to drink from a firehose.

He went back to KU and finished his bachelor’s degree, in theater and film, and graduated on Dec. 18, 1992. Two days later he stood in his Marine dress blues in front of family and friends at Country Club Christian Church on Ward Parkway and accepted his commission into the Marines as a second lieutenant.

Mr. Funnyman raised his right hand and pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. So help him God.

He rarely cracks jokes onstage about his time in the Marines. “I alway try to keep those two worlds separate,” he said.

On his website, Robriggle.com, he has a photo of himself in the cockpit of a jet fighter, taken during one of his early solo flights. He looks like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” — flight suit, helmet, the wild blue yonder as his backdrop.

But he never got his wings. Just months before finishing flight school he dropped out. Boom. Just like that and against the advice of his parents, his girlfriend, his fellow Marines.

Riggle knew that pinning those wings on would tether him to the Marines and keep him from what he really wanted to do with his life.

“Everyone in my flight class was like, ‘What are you doing man? You can fly planes for a living. Are you an idiot? You have a good job. You want to quit to become a comedian?’ ”

He wanted his bold decision to bear fruit. So he took a book that he was reading, turned to a blank page at the back and made a list of all that he would accomplish after the Marines.

The first thing: Get on “Saturday Night Live.”

Because of his film and theater degree from KU, the Marines made him a public affairs officer after he quit flight school. He went to Kosovo, Albania and Liberia.

His obligation to the Marines ended in the summer of 1997, and he was packin’ his bags, headin’ north to Chicago and the Second City school of improv, birthplace of the greats — Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner.

Thanks for the memories, Marines.

But the Marines weren’t done with him yet.

“Then my boss said: ‘What would it take for you to stay in the Marines? We like you.’ I said, ‘Uh, there’s not much. The whole reason I left flight school was so I could go do comedy. I’m mission-focused here.’

“And he said, ‘We’ll work with you. What if we got you to New York City or Los Angeles?’ ”

Riggle thought about it. Reservist by day, comedian at night? He had to make a living somehow, and maybe this was better than waiting tables and bartending.

So he challenged his superior: Find me an assignment in New York or L.A. and I’ll stay.

The next morning, he got his orders for New York.

Before he moved he came home to see his family. One night he met a friend and her boyfriend for drinks. The friend brought along a work colleague, a “stunning” blonde wearing a French blue shirt with a black scarf. Riggle remembers exactly what his wife, Tiffany, was wearing the first time he laid eyes on her.

“I was so impressed, then I got nervous and squirrely. But I got her laughing, and that’s all that mattered,” he said.

The handsome Marine got the girl. Before long, she moved to New York to be with him, and they’ve been married 13 years. They have two children, whom Riggle would not allow us to photograph.

Riggle’s first comedy teacher in New York nearly drove a stake through the heart of his dream.

The guy taught a traditional three-jokes-per-minute cadence. Set up, punch line, set up, punch line, set up, punch line. Riggle, though, was more comfortable telling stories, a la his grammy and Bill Cosby.

In a panic he called a friend of a friend who had just left “SNL.” The guy sent him to a new improv workshop in town called the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. It’s exactly what you need, the guy told him. And it was. One of the resident comedian/teachers happened to be Amy Poehler.

“It was a revelation: They were just creating and listening and reacting and doing everything right there, making it in front of us,” he said. “It was, honestly, like in ‘The Blues Brothers’ when the light comes into the church. I was like ‘Yes, yes, Jesus, at last!’ ”

UCB became Riggle’s second home. He took classes, did lights and sound for other people’s shows, anything just to be around the theater, soaking up funny. He began writing and performing around town on any stage that would have him.

And then, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Riggle’s reserve unit received orders to report to ground zero to help with search and recovery efforts. He put on his Marine uniform and spent the next six days working on a bucket brigade, moving rubble by hand in search of survivors. The pile of destruction was huge, six stories.

“If you brought in heavy machinery there could be cave-ins, and we didn’t know if anybody was still down there. So everything had to be moved by hand. And then we would drop listening devices down, and they would get everybody quiet. And you would listen, listen, listen. Nothing. And we would keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.”

As he worked, he got angrier and angrier.

“Just take yourself back to September 2001. As that month went on, and as that autumn unrolled, everybody wanted to do something. How can I help? Do you want my blood? Do you want money for the victims? I was a captain in the Marine Corps. I knew what I could do. I was right there. I was ready. I saw it. I moved the rubble with my own hands. I smelled it every day. I knew what I had to do.”

He had to go back to active duty.

Get me in this fight or I’ll get myself into it, he told his superior.

How did you tell your wife you were going back?

He said nothing, letting the question hang in the air.

Then he said, “It’s tough, because I wasn’t 100 percent honest with her.”

He told Tiffany that the Marines had called him back, not that he had instigated the move.

“I should have given her more credit. Of course she’d understand,” he said. “But at the same time it’s hard to say, ‘I’m gonna go away for a year. I’m gonna go to war for a year.’ ”

He told her the truth before he shipped out. “She was actually very proud of me,” he said.

Eleven weeks after the attacks he was on a plane to northern Afghanistan, where he worked on building roads and medical clinics and rebuilding schools that the Taliban had shuttered. “We did what we could,” he said wearily.

He finished that tour in November 2002 and went back to his Marine-by-day, comic-by-night life in New York, where people started learning his name on the city’s comedy scene.

Two years later came the call of his life.

He thinks, maybe, that Poehler and fellow “SNL” cast member Horatio Sanz were the ones who put in the good word for him with “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels. Cast, writers and producers help “SNL” keep its finger on the pulse of the nation’s comedy world.

“Sometimes they’re looking for women, sometimes they’re looking for African-Americans. You just never know what the cast needs are,” Riggle said. “And sometimes they don’t even know. Sometimes they’re like, ‘Yeah, just bring everybody. Let’s see who’s funny.’ ”

He’s still not sure what the show was looking for in 2004, the year he was invited to audition. There were 15 to 20 other wannabes from all across the country in his group.

The auditions took place in a New York comedy club. Names were drawn out of a hat to determine who went first.

“Lorne. Tina Fey. All the producers and head writers. The bigwigs, the muckety-mucks of ‘SNL.’ They sit in a booth in the back, and you have five to seven minutes to do your best. Whatever it is you think your best is,” said Riggle.

“For stand-ups, they get up and do their best five minutes of material. For me, I was an improviser. So … I created four characters.

“Now, as soon as the night’s over everybody hangs out outside and starts drinking and smoking cigarettes because everybody is so nervous. Then, you either get a call or you don’t get a call. If you get a call, you get to come back the next night to 30 Rock, Studio 8H, where they film ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”

Riggle got the call.

The next day he walked out, alone, onto the “SNL” stage, through the same door, down the same steps so many famous hosts had walked before. In front of him, in an otherwise empty studio, sat Michaels, Fey and company, again. NBC brass in Burbank, Calif., were watched the taping, too.

They’re not going to laugh, he was warned, because they all saw your audition last night.

He could feel his heart pounding as he began the audition of his life, the audition he’d waited for since he was that late-bloomin’ boy.

Looking at Michaels he thought, I’m this close, I’m this close.

A few nights later he was standing in a restaurant waiting to order takeout when his cellphone rang.

Is this Rob Riggle?

Yes.

Please stand by for a call from Lorne Michaels.

To describe what happened next, Riggle impersonated Michaels’ slow, laconic, wake-me-when-I’m-done-talking voice.

Hey, Rob. How you doin’? Yeah, we really liked your audition. We thought it was very original. You’re a very funny man. We think you’re very special. Would you be interested in joining our cast this year?

“I think I screamed something like ‘%#@& yeah!’ ” Riggle laughed. “And then I was typical Johnny Kansas. I’m gonna work so hard for you! And he was like, whatever.”

The call came almost exactly 10 years to the day that Riggle wrote “get on Saturday Night Live” in the back of his book.

To stand on that stage, to wave goodnight at the end of a show, to hang out with the band, to hug the hosts. It was all so surreal. “My whole life I’d been on this side of the camera, watching those people. And then, that was me,” he said.

“And I was writing sketches, and I was smoking a cigarette in the stairwell where Belushi used to smoke cigarettes. My picture was on the wall! My picture is on the wall, permanently.”

He did scenes with De Niro, Hanks, Winslet and Swank. It was a glorious season. But it was just one year. Just one.

The show dumped him. To this day, he’s like that jilted boyfriend still trying to figure out how the love died.

Will Ferrell had warned him. “You’re kind of screwed,” he told Riggle when he was on that season to host. “He said, ‘When I joined the cast there were five or six of us and the cast at that time was only 12. We were half the cast. So every week we were being used in every sketch. We were getting tons of time.’ ”

But the year Riggle joined as a featured player he was the only new guy in a cast of 14. “And when you have a cast that big and only one new guy, well, Maya’s going to get (her on-screen time), Amy’s going to get hers, Seth Meyers is going to get his, Darrell Hammond is going to get his.”

He was at the family’s house in the Ozarks when he got the breakup call.

Did Michaels call, I asked?

“God, no! God, no!” Riggle said with a laugh. “I think Sarah Silverman found out by fax. She did one year, too.”

The pity party — this is unfair, if only I’d done this, I can’t believe this is happening, this is so embarrassing — lasted but a few hours.

“Then, I got up the next morning and I was like, ‘All right. That’s that.’ And it was my first lesson in that there’s no finish line in show business.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you made “SNL.” You’re set. You’re good.’ No. All there is is gigs, and you go from one gig to another. And hopefully you get a good gig and it lasts for a while, and you get good work and people remember it and you have good memories of it.”

So he kept “cookin’ and jammin’.” He wrote a sitcom pilot for NBC that didn’t get picked up. He tried out for a sitcom and came oh-so-close. Then he auditioned to be a correspondent for Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and in 2006 that became his new job.

Ah, those guys at “The Daily Show.” They were so in awe of Rob the Marine. How many times did he hear: “You could kill any of us!”

The problem, though, was that the show shoots in New York, and Riggle’s family was in California. He struggled with long-distance fathering. He missed his wife and kids. So he left the show after three years.

His movie career was under way by then. He had a bit part in Ferrell’s 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Someone must have liked what he did because he got called back to work in Ferrell’s movie with John C. Reilly, “Step Brothers.”

It was the beginning of a couple of beautiful friendships — Riggle and Ferrell, and Riggle and any comedy set. He has been in 20 or so movies to date.

In “Step Brothers,” his improv training kicked in, and his explosive riffs away from the script got everyone’s attention. Fortunately for him they were appreciated and welcomed by director Adam McKay, who gave Riggle permission to play.

“Bring the heat, Riggle,” became the common direction, and it’s that way on most movies Riggle works on now.

“It’s definitely a comedy of energy. He gives everything he’s got,” said Bennett Webber, Riggle’s Fox colleague.

“You gotta go for it with Rob. He’s going to swing for the fences. You have to make sure the comedy you give him lines up with that. There’s no half-assing it with Rob.

“My job is to just slow him down. I’m just really a pebble in his shoe.”

Riggle is currently starring in a six-part Web series called “Coogan Auto,” playing on the YouTube channel Loud, an aptly named home for his brand of funny.

Riggle also wrote and directed the series, which co-stars Sanz, Alison Becker of “Parks and Recreation” and J.B. Smoove from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” They play the employees; Riggle is the boss of the kooky car dealership.

When I suggested to Riggle he should be taking leading-man roles — I saw how the women lined up to get his autograph after the Chamber of Commerce dinner — he just laughed.

“Trust me, if it was up to me, I’d be doing it. It’s not up to me,” he said. “Of course, that’s what I want to do. I would love to. But this is the hard part of Hollywood, this is why it’s so tough. No one’s going to, right now, put $30 million on the table and say ‘Rob Riggle’s going to lead this movie.’

“Now, they might say, ‘We’ll put $30 million on the table and (this) A-lister will open this movie and we’ll get Rob to support. But, right now, those opportunities aren’t there. Yet.”

Aw, shucks.

The good-guy, humble Marine who hands out bottles of Kansas City barbecue sauce to his Hollywood pals still doesn’t seem to get that he is a star.

In fact, he could hardly believe that one of his last guests of the football season on Fox knew who he was and, even better, told him he was funny.

That guest?

Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lisa Gutierrez writes the Stargazing column for The Star. To reach her, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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