You wouldn’t expect an animated film about a talking iguana to draw equal inspiration from Andy Kaufman and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but that just might help explain the wide appeal of Netflix’s smash hit “Leo.” It also makes perfect sense when you consider the creative minds behind Adam Sandler-led project, which includes his longtime collaborator and comedy’s not-so-secret weapon, Robert Smigel.
Though perhaps best known to audiences for his work as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the foul-mouthed canine puppet who began life on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” where Smigel was the first head writer. But Smigel was also behind some of the most memorable comic moments of the last 30 years. On “Saturday Night Live” he created countless indelible sketches and the animated segment “TV Funhouse,” which received its own spin-off series on Comedy Central. He wrote and performed on the brilliant but short-lived “Dana Carvey Show,” where he first debuted “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” before it found fame on “SNL.” And he’s teamed with Sandler for countless projects over the years, including making his feature directorial debut with “The Week Of,” co-written with and starring Sandler and co-writing the first two “Hotel Transylvania” films.
Now Sandler and Smigel, along with co-writer Paul Saito, have penned the charming and heartfelt “Leo,” in which Sandler voices the titular reptile, the cynical class pet in a fifth-grade classroom who begins dispensing wise advice to the kids who take him home on weekends. The film is co-directed by Smigel with David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti, creative partners in W/M Animation who have previously worked with Smigel on his animated projects.
Upon its November premiere, “Leo” became the biggest animated feature debut ever on Netflix, topping the streamer with 34.6 million views in its first week. While that might not be too surprising, the film has also received strong reviews for its humor, music (with songs written by Smigel) and the sensitive way it handles the struggles of children preparing to transition to middle school. These include a talkative girl who struggles to make friends, a misunderstood bully and a kid who is followed 24/7 by an overprotective drone.
But the film has plenty of moments adults will appreciate — Smigel credits his humor largely to legendary comic Kaufman and his “theater of pain” style. But the filmmaker also draws on some surprisingly emotional inspirations, including his real life.
Variety spoke with Smigel about the warm reception, his unusual method of writing songs and the “SNL” sketch that never made it to air.
I understand that “Leo” began its life as an animated film, but without Leo himself?
Adam wanted to make a musical about kids and the transition from elementary to middle school and the anxieties that come with that. He’d say, “I wanna do a ‘Grease’ for kids.” And that sounded great to me because I love musicals. Adam ended up taking a crack at the story with Paul Saito and there were some great things in it — and we kept a lot of those things, like the drone. But there was no lizard. There was a narrator, and at the end of the movie we learned the narration was coming from the snake in the classroom terrarium. And that sort of triggered everything.
I mean it as a compliment when I say it’s such a great idea, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before.
I just thought it would be hilarious if there were this incredibly jaded class pet who has sat in the same classroom for 70 years and see it all. And I loved this idea that he wants to live out his dreams but as he starts using his knowledge to give kids advice, he realizes he loves where he’s at. I love stories like that — my wife and I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year. I think of my wife as a combination of both George and Mary Bailey. She had a great career at the Museum of Natural History and then we had a child diagnosed with autism and she devoted her entire life to that. She fundraises and advises parents and works with programs all over the country — she’s amazing. And sometimes my wife says, “What have I done,” like George Bailey. And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? You’re my hero!”
I love celebrating the inherent reward of being generous with your time. I also think of the movie “Up” — everyone cries at the beginning of it but for me it’s the end when he opens the book and sees the inscription from his wife thanking him for the adventure. That’s the part that makes me cry.
Do you think it’s going to surprise people reading this to learn that Triumph is such a softie?
I don’t know if most people make the connection — I’m so behind the scenes with that. But even though I’ve always been a smartass, I’ve also tried to have some degree of empathy. Like I would be the only person who would invite the nerds I was making fun of to my birthday party. I mean, some of my best friends in high school were the people I teased relentlessly.
You wrote these amazing songs for the film, some that feel straight out of a Broadway musical — are you a musical theater fan?
I’ve always been a musical theater nerd — I grew up in Manhattan and would go to shows, and all through high school and in summer camp I loved performing in them. As a kid, I loved TV theme songs. Sometimes I would watch cartoons just for the theme song. As a kid, part of my repertoire was not imitating people but writing a jingle about them. So at “SNL” I started writing theme songs to sketches, like “Mr. Short Term Memory,” which gave a backstory to a character that really didn’t need a backstory. I wrote other things, like Steve Martin’s monologue “Not Gonna Phone It in Tonight” and people would help me with lyrics and music. I wrote “Christmastime for the Jews” and a whole album of Triumph songs.
What were some of the song inspirations in “Leo”?
They’re different, but definitely draw inspiration from songs I love. “Old Man River” kind of inspired “Lizard’s Lament,” where Adam is singing about lost opportunities. The one where the girl talks really fast is a patter song, like something Lucy would sing in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” And when Leo sings “Don’t Cry” to one of the kids, it’s very inspired by “Stay Awake” from “Mary Poppins.” I wrote that on a plane from L.A. to New York and I had to sing it into an app on my computer before I could forget it.
I wanted to ask more about this unusual process. You don’t play instruments and you technically don’t write music?
I don’t play an instrument — I don’t have the coordination and I give up quickly on things that seem insurmountable. And I don’t write music. I just sing the songs into an app and I’m really precise about the melody. Then I have a brilliant arranger, Dan Reitz, who creates demo tracks for me. And a really talented songwriter friend, Tiffany Topol, who helped me with the opening song because it’s very complex.
It’s a strange process, I know. And I was intimidated to do it for a whole movie. I was afraid I would be laughed out of the building. So I had a friend, the brilliant composer David Yazbek who won a bunch of Tonys for “The Band’s Visit.” And I sent them to him, these little recordings of me singing into a recording. I said, “Do these suck?” And he said, “Nope.” And that gave me a lot more confidence.
Something else I think is unique about “Leo” — the three co-directors are all making their animated feature directorial debuts.
It’s so cool, and I’m really happy for Robert and David because they’re brilliant and they’ve had much to do with the success of my cartoon all these years. They have toiled in the shadows for years. And now they’re getting their crack to direct a movie in their late 50s and early 60s. They really helped keep the movie visually fun throughout by suggesting that each song could have its own visual style — that sometimes departed from reality. Thus the “Sesame Street”-like animated feel of “Dear Drone,” the big, old-fashioned musical number in “Extra Time,” dancing within the yearbooks in “Happy,” the chalk drawings and stark lighting of “When I Was Ten.” Also, David had me keep Leo’s attempting to escape through more scenes than I’d originally planned, which led to us thinking of fun visuals for multiple kids’ scenes instead of just the first one.
Forgive me if this has been broached before but has anyone talked to you about the “Black Mirror” episode “The Waldo Moment” where a vulgar animated bear runs for office?
I haven’t talked about it — I did see it.
I bring it up because I would vote for Triumph.
I’ve thought about doing it, believe it or not. Not run for president, but some office and just doing the entire campaign as Triumph. But part of it is campaign finance laws are really strange and strict. Because I would want to chronicle it and there are certain rules about how cameras can’t be following you unless they’re a separate documentary crew. And I’d only want to do it if I could do it in a humorous way. I loved covering the election as Triumph for Hulu in 2016 and it was one of the most well-received things I ever did in my career — before Leo.
So now that you’re a softie, look at how respectable you’ve become.
I’ve always done things that were pretty strange, and somebody had a problem with it. This is the first thing I’ve done outside of something shortform that really hit. And it’s a strange feeling. It wasn’t a conscious move on my part to, like, broaden my audience. I was excited about this project in the first place because I have kids now. When I wrote “Hotel Transylvania,” I was writing about their experience in elementary school. And now I’m writing about my experiences with substitute teachers who replace pregnant teachers and parents who cause scenes on behalf of their kids and things I’ve drawn from life experience.
I always like to ask people who wrote for “SNL” if there was a sketch they loved that they couldn’t get on the air.
Actually, there was one that Dana Carvey and I released. Bob Odenkirk had written about it in his autobiography and talked about it on a show as the funniest sketch that never aired. There’s a host talking about early footage of Charlie Chaplin. Dana Carvey was playing Chaplin, and we see outtakes where he’s basically unrecognizable and not funny at all. Then this waiter character comes out and he’s dressed just like Chaplin. Take after take, you see Chaplin slowly steal every part of his persona — to the point where the guy ends up serving him in long underwear. We did it at dress rehearsal and it never made it to air, but we put it online.