Rob Riggle’s career path has more twists than a survey of soap opera season finales. For now, however, he’s happy playing it straight.
After a decade-long string of similarly aggressive alpha-male side characters in comedies like Step Brothers and 21 Jump Street, Riggle is sinking his teeth into bigger, broader roles. The former Daily Show correspondent and marine reserve (with 23 years of service under his belt) has stepped it up as the third-billed star in back-to-back hits Let’s Be Cops and Dumb and Dumber To. Both showcase Riggle in ways that diverge from the cinematic persona he’s carved out over the years, but then again he’s headed in unexpected directions since the beginning.
As Dumb and Dumber To continues to score with audiences, Let’s Be Cops hits DVD and Riggle’s line of small-batch, gluten-free vodka, Loaded Vodka hits shelves, the comedian, writer, and actor spoke with Co.Create about his decision to leave the marines, his decision to leave The Daily Show, and establishing and then breaking from the tough-guy type.
With two weeks to go before the end of flight school, Riggle switched courses, drastically, and decided to take a shot at comedy.
“A friend of mine who I went to college with ended up going up to Chicago and studying at the Improv Olympic and Second City,” the comic says. “He called me and said, ‘Riggle, you gotta do this. It’s everything we did in college, and it’s amazing.’ And he just kinda hit me at the right time because I was thinking, as soon as I get through flight school and pin on those wings, I won’t have a choice for the next eight years and then I’ll only have nine more years till retirement and I’d be foolish to get out at that point. I was looking at the next 20 years of my life and I thought, ‘Well, I want to try this instead. And if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.’ So I stopped flying.”
“I still had an obligation, so I stayed on to fulfill my ground contract for another two and a half years,” he adds. “At the time, one of my bosses asked what it would take for me to stay and I said that if I could be stationed in New York or L.A. where I could do comedy, I’d stay on active duty for another three years. And he called my bluff. The next morning I had orders for New York City. But I figured I had to have a day job anyway, so I might as well get paid a Captain’s pay, as opposed to waiter pay. So I was in the Marine Corps during the day and I pursued comedy at night.”
Riggle refers to the style of many movie characters he’s portrayed in the past as Arrogant Ignorance. It’s not a coincidence, though, that he’s been playing in this style since he first began doing improv.
“It was a character that was always believable for audience members,” Riggle says. “I have a certain look, a certain tonality, I’m a bigger guy. So playing authority figures felt very natural. And I understood that command and presence through being an officer in the Marines. I just kind of knew how to be that presence. And then you sprinkle in some specifics that you’ve learned along the way as far as life and the jerks that you’ve met. You put them into different characters. That role has always been there.”
Although Riggle has been writing pilots and screenplays for years, he didn’t wake up one day and decide to take a shot at it. Rather, it was a gradual expansion of the work he’d begun doing in sketches and improv.
“Some of it’s through osmosis–if you’re around it long enough you start to realize ‘Oh this is a good script, this is a bad script, this is funny, this is not funny, this might be funny if it’s done right,'” says Riggle. “You just start to develop a palate for understanding this stuff. You start small, by writing a sketch. You need a premise. Boom, here’s a premise. Great, now what would happen? How would this guy play this out? What’s his objective? What’s her objective? And then it’s building blocks. If you can write a sketch, well, then you can maybe write two sketches, and then maybe three sketches. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve written an entire sketch show. Each thing you write builds toward the next thing.”
Not many people can say their first professional gig in comedy was “cast member on Saturday Night Live,” but Rob Riggle can. He only lasted one season, but the following year he landed on The Daily Show, where he had to face the tough reality of a torturous commute.
“When I got hired as a Daily Show correspondent, it was just for six months. That’s it. The first six months was probation, basically, and I’d just left SNL and moved my entire family across country to Los Angeles,” Riggle says. “That’s not a small thing. We had just gotten established, we had just gotten a little condo in June, and then in July I got The Daily Show in New York. We couldn’t afford to move back, so I tried commuting. I rented a little studio apartment off of Craigslist. And then after the first six months, they gave me another six months. Then I got a year-long contract. Eventually, after two and a half years commuting from Los Angeles to New York and only coming home for an occasional weekend, it was just really hard on the family. So after we got through the 2008 election, I went to Jon [Stewart] and I said ‘I love this show, I love working for you, and I love being part of this, but I just can’t do it anymore.’ And Jon was the sweetest man in the world. He was like, ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it this long.'”
Building on his usual bearing (Arrogant Ignorance) and improv skills, Riggle will often make choices based on a deep understanding of the identity of the character he’s playing.
“I don’t predetermine this guy’s whole history–I take guestimations,” Riggle says. “I also just try to think in terms of how would this guy honestly react to anything you throw at him. We used to do an improv exercise at the UCB before we’d start a show, and especially if it was a character show. We would spend the whole day thinking, acting, and reacting as that character, which can be quite annoying to people in your life but also very funny because it forced you to really put on this character all the way. And once you get to that place where you can think and react and have an answer for any question, and just generally know how this person would react, then I think you’ve got a good grasp on the character. I think it’s more useful than trying to figure out the background and all that stuff.”
Riggle may not quite be abandoning his established persona, but he is branching out with new kinds of roles.
“A lot of times I play the heightened character, the bigger character, but I love playing the straight man,” he says. “A good straight man or woman can really make the comedy pop more, especially in something like Dumb and Dumber To. If everybody on screen is crazy, it doesn’t work. You’ve gotta have somebody reacting to it. And if you do it well and no one notices and it allows everything else to pop, it kind of serves the comedy. The role in Let’s Be Cops was much more than what I typically have done. He was pretty straightforward, pretty sincere, and he got to be heroic at the end, which is stuff I normally don’t get to do. In these two movies, I’ve finally gotten to play the straight man, and I gotta say–I loved it.”