Most comics don’t begin their career in the Marines. But then again, Rob Riggle is not most comics.
I know two lieutenant colonels in the United States Marine Corps – my younger brother, stationed in North Carolina, and Rob Riggle, the guy perhaps best known for shouting “POW!” at Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. My brother I know a little better than Riggle, to whom I’ve only spoken once, for this story.
But they are not so different from all appearances: They are big men, imposing, able to fill a room just by peeking into it. They are loud, too, at least in public, the sound of their voices seemingly registered somewhere between 120 and 140 decibels – the sound of jet fighters passing overhead. And they are, when no one is looking, kind and quiet. It’s almost as though the noise they made in public — the jokes they tell, the laughs they get — is a diversion, so no one pays attention to the good they do in private.
In previous interviews, for instance, Rob Riggle has made almost no mention of his work with a foundation out of Bozeman, Montana, called Warriors and Quiet Waters, founded five decades ago by a retired Marine colonel and pilot named Eric Hastings who had returned home from Vietnam traumatized by the horrors of what he had seen and heard. Hastings found solace in the water, casting flies into the river – into the quiet.
But on this day Riggle mentions his affiliation with the foundation, for which he delivered a keynote address this spring.
Because, he says, “it’s a wonderful program, and it’s been beneficial, I think, for a lot of our wounded veterans and our veterans that suffer from PTSD. I was up there in June fishing with them. I enjoy the outdoors. It’s just work and family, and it’s hard to get out a lot, but when given the opportunity, I will definitely try to get out.”
His parents have a lake house in Missouri; when Riggle can, he takes his son out there to learn fishing tricks passed down from his grandfather.
“My son, he loves the experience he has with his grandfather — and with me,” Riggle says in that tone of voice all men have when speaking of their fathers and sons. He is a funny man onscreen, but off he is like every great comic who doesn’t need to be on to prove his worth.
And he has friends who live in Wyoming and Idaho who likewise enjoy a day on the water, casting and kibitzing – the real pleasure of the day, whether it’s fishing or golfing or playing poker.
“When you get together at the end of the day and you cook up the fish, or you have a beer, and you talk about the one that got away, or you talk about the great fish that you caught,” he says, “it’s just a wonderful opportunity to connect with friends. Or potential friends.”
But the Warriors and Quiet Waters is special. Because Riggle, too, was a warrior. Still is, actually. There is no such thing as an ex-Marine.
That military background has always been the thing that separated him from his peers – the Upright Citizens, the Human Giants, the not-ready-for-prime-time players on Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show correspondents, the Will Ferrells and Channing Tatums with whom he has appeared. They always seemed a little … softer than Riggle.
No one else could have gone to Iraq for Jon Stewart. And no one else could have “managed to offend two cultures at once by wailing in fake Hebrew at the Great Wall of China,” Rolling Stone once wrote when ranking Riggle 19th among The Daily Show’s best correspondents (which feels a little low).
The Louisville, Kentucky, native joined the Marines in the spring of 1990, when he was a 19-year-old at the University of Kansas and working on getting his pilot’s license. He says he signed up because he wanted to know if he had what it took to be a Marine. And because, “I wanted to serve.”
He joined up to become a pilot, but balked at the long commitment the military demands of its flyboys. He has said it would have interfered with his hopes of becoming a comedian. So he left flight school to join public affairs. His was no desk job, though; he was no phone jockey setting up interviews. He was dispatched to faraway war zones.
“I had an intention to serve, and I did,”
“I had an intention to serve, and I did,” he says. “I probably stayed longer than I thought I was going to, to be honest. But I also had an intention to pursue comedy and acting at some point. I just consider myself very fortunate that I live in a place where you can have more than one dream and you can pursue both of them.”
He retired from the Corps in 2013, but for a long time his two lives were intertwined – sometimes comically so.
Riggle moved to New York in the late 1990s to study comedy. He had no idea where to begin – probably, he figured, at one of those below-ground cellars that stand newbies against brick walls. He found just the place: Comic Strip Live on 2nd Avenue.
“They were fine people,” Riggle recalls. “It’s nothing against them, but they were, ‘We do three jokes per minute – set-up, punch; set-up, punch; set-up punch — and that’s how we do comedy.’”
But that wasn’t how Riggle did comedy. He was more of an Eddie Murphy man – Delirious, especially, which was more storytelling than stand-up. But he gave it a shot. And, the way he remembers it, he did OK – people laughed, which was, after all, the point.
“But I remember hating the experience,” he says. “I felt like I made a big mistake, because I gave up flying in the Marine Corps to pursue comedy. I was like, ‘Aw, man, I made a big mistake.’”
At which point a friend told him to find the Upright Citizens Brigade, who had just moved to Manhattan from Chicago and were putting on a regular Sunday night show called ASSSSCAT. At that time the UCB consisted of Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts – the Beatles of the new wave of improv comics. Or maybe the Talking Heads.
“So I went down, and I watched the show, and at that moment when I saw it …” He pauses. “I always equate it to The Blues Brothers when John Belushi was at the Triple Rock Baptist Church and got hit with the beam of light from God, that’s what I equate it to. That’s what I felt like. I felt like, ‘Holy cow, this is it. This is what I wanna do. This is what I’ve been searching for.’
“So I went up to those guys after that show and I said, ‘How do I sign up? Do you teach classes? How do I get involved?’”
They told him: Sign up for classes, that easy. And so he did. And they taught him, the original members, among them the future star of Parks and Recreation. He took all the classes, all the levels – twice. He began performing. He ran lights. He even taught some. Anything it took to stick around the UCB and the other like-minded comics floating around the scene back then. He was like a young Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village in 1961, soaking up the sound to find his own voice.
He eventually wound up getting the Big Gigs, SNL and The Daily Show – the first in 2004; the latter, two years later. When he was still in the Marine reserves.
“I would go from 30 Rock, go from rehearsal on Saturday Night Live, over to 46th and Lexington and do drills during the middle of the week,” Riggle says. “When I was on The Daily Show, on the weekend I would go to JFK airport, fly to Los Angeles, rent a car, drive down to San Diego to Miramar and go to Command and Staff College on the weekend. Then I’d take the redeye back Sunday night, land Monday morning at JFK and go straight from the airport to the office at The Daily Show, and I did that for two years.”
That ended a decade ago, after which followed the movies (21 Jump Street, The Hangover, The Other Guys) and the TV shows (almost every funny one of the last decade, from The Simpsons to Key & Peele). And now he has his own, on Sony’s Crackle channel: Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy.
He plays himself. A much louder version of himself, who does and says all the bad things Rob Riggle would never do or say in real life. Because the real Rob Riggle is kind and quiet.
“It’s cathartic,” Riggle says. “That’s a great way to put it, because it’s fun. Most people are not allowed to be obnoxious, nor should you be. And you’re not allowed to be a jerk, and you’re not allowed to say things that are tacky or over the top. You’re not allowed to do these things, and nor should you be allowed to do them, but if you’re given the opportunity to do it, have fun with it. Don’t hold back. Go for it.”