By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
For actor/director/producer/comedian Rob Riggle, the path to achieving dreams and goals is a simple one.
“If you keep your eye on the prize and you keep working and making all your efforts to get to a certain place you’ll get there. You don’t know how you’re gonna get there. You just decide what you want and the rest will take care of itself,” said Riggle, who was in Salina Tuesday evening to speak at the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet.
Riggle’s career has gone from serving as an active duty Marine to his current profession.
“It’s unique for sure, but I was a theater and film major at KU and I had a passion for comedy. I didn’t have any guts. I didn’t have enough guts to get on stage but I just knew I loved it deeply,” he said during a news conference prior to the banquet.
Riggle also had his pilot’s license while in college, so he took a test and received a guaranteed flight contract from the United States Marine Corps. The decision as to whether, upon graduation, he would wait tables while trying to get acting jobs or fly for the Marines was an easy one.
At age 19, he signed the Marine contract and began a journey that would take him all the way to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time he was discharged.
Riggle said he had always wanted to serve in the military.
“My grandfather served and I had family members who had served. I’m also kind of a history buff. I have a deep appreciation for this country so I wanted to serve,” he said. “So I figured I’ll serve first and then try to make my way into acting and comedy.”
As he got into the flying portion of his Marine career, Riggle realized that a decision to continue down the flying path would mean at least 10 years before he would have the option of a discharge. Riggle said that once he realized that, he had a decision to make.
“It was my second grown-up decision of my life. The first was joining. The second grown-up decision was now I’m going to stop flying become a ground officer, but it was mine. I owned it and that’s what I did. That shortened my commitment so that I would have a fighting chance of trying acting and comedy,” he said.
Then he found himself in New York City and still on active duty. During that period, he was a Marine by day and did comedy at night.
“I just kept doing that for as long as I could and then left active duty to join the reserves and continued pursuing comedy acting,” Riggle said. “Then 9-11 happened and I went back on active duty. And then I got back from Afghanistan and I don’t know, probably a year and a half after I got back, I got on Saturday Night Live and that was my first break.”
Riggle said the dream of being on Saturday Night Live seemed like such an impossibility.
“So when I made the decision to stop flying in the Marine Corps, it was in intermediate flight training down in Corpus Christi, Texas, and I remember thinking ‘wow! I’ve never quit anything in my life up until that point, really,'” he explained. “It didn’t sit well with me so I went down to the beach and I wrote in this book, if I quit flying it’s gotta count. It’s gotta matter. What am I going to do? What am I going to accomplish if I quit?”
The first thing he decided to do was get on Saturday Night Live, he said.
“I was second lieutenant in the Marine Corps down on the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. I didn’t know a single person in show business. I’d never been on stage, except for Rock Chalk Review,” he said. “I just knew what I wanted and that was it and that was September 1994. And then in 10 years, almost to the day, September 2004, I got a call from Lorne Michaels asking me to join the cast of Saturday Night Live.”
Riggle uses this story to illustrate his philosophy of keeping one’s eye on the prize.
“Now in that 10 years, there were two wars that I had to go to, there was a marriage, my first child. There was a lot going on,” he said. “So it took 10 years but I got it done. It was such a pipe dream. It was such an impossibility. The odds were astronomical but I feel very blessed that I got the opportunity to do that.”
Riggle said he plans to stay in front of the camera “as long as they will have me. Who knows how long that is. That could be tomorrow but I love acting. I love comedy. Like I said, I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me, but I’m also producing. I’m also directing and writing. My whole life is developing. I mean I’ve got five irons in the fire right now. I’ve got two shows that I’m trying to get on the network. There’s a couple shows that are out there pilotwise that they want me to be in. There is a show I just pitched to Discovery. You’re always trying to develop.”
Although he still loves what he does, Riggle noted that the times have changed for comedians.
“It is a tricky landscape out there right now. Most comedians don’t want to go to college anymore. You know, it’s getting to a point where you can’t win. You say anything and people want to have you fired. It’s not even a matter of whether you liked it or not, whether you agree with it or not, whether you thought was funny or not. I hear jokes all the time I don’t agree with, but I think it’s funny. I see the humor in it,” he said. “It’s scary and it’s sad. It’s sad that we can’t speak freely anymore. That’s not good for a democracy.”
Riggle also spoke of his charity work, including the Big Slick event to raise funds for Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He said Big Slick got started after hospital personnel asked him 10 or 11 years ago to host their Red Hot Night Gala.
“We raise a lot of money and it was fine but they kind of shoehorned me into some corny jokes and I had to kind of go off of their script and it was it was a great night but it didn’t fit that well for me,” Riggle said.
“But they were very smart because they took me on a tour of the hospital and I met the staff. I met the nurses and the doctors and I met some of the parents and I met some of the patients. And I’m a father, so I was hooked. I was like, all right. You got me. I’m in. I said let me come up with my own thing because I don’t want to do that again so let me see if I can create an event,” he explained.
It was on a dock at Lake of the Ozarks that the concept for the Big Slick was born.
“So I was sitting with my brother-in-law down at the Lake of the Ozarks on the dock and I was just spit balling ideas. How can we get a bunch of celebrities to come to Kansas City? Most of them are gamblers so let’s play poker,” Riggle said.
“Then the following Christmas, I ran into Paul Rudd at the Daily Show Christmas party and I said, ‘Hey Paul, I’m thinking about doing this thing for Children’s Mercy and I know you’re a poker player,'” he said. “I was pitching him hard on it and he didn’t miss a beat. He was like, ‘yeah, I’ll do it with you.’ That was huge.
“Then I said ‘look, I know Sudeikis from SNL, I’m gonna reach out to him, cause we’re all three Kansas City guys so I’ll reach out to him.’ I reached out to Jason and I said ‘Paul and I are going to do this. Do you want to join in’ and he’s like ‘I’m in,'” Riggle said.
Over the years, a number of other celebrities have been added to the Big Slick team, including Will Ferrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Dave Koechner, Riggle said.
“So now this summer will be our 10th Big Slick and if all goes well will we’ll hopefully come close to hitting the $10 million mark in 10 years,” he said. “We’re very proud of that, but it’s about the people in Kansas City because they show up. If they don’t show up nothing happens so the fact that they show up makes all the difference.”
Riggle said he also does some charity work for veterans groups.
“I do stuff for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. I do stuff for the Semper Fi Fund. I have a golf tournament I do in California for the Semper Fi Fund,” he said.
He also works with the Team Rubicon and Got Your Six organizations, he said.
As for his own work, Riggle said it was difficult to pick out one character as his favorite.
“I have different appreciations for different things. I loved playing Gil Thorpe on Modern Family. I loved playing Randy in Step Brothers, Officer Franklin in The Hangover, the coach in 21 Jump Street. I enjoyed playing all these characters for different reasons,” he said.
Although he couldn’t pick a favorite character, Riggle was able to define the type of character he most enjoys playing: “arrogant ignorance, which is large and in charge but totally wrong-headed. I’ve always enjoyed watching those characters on screen and I get a kick out of them, so if there’s ever an opportunity to play some like that I try to do it because I just enjoy it so much.”
While most of Riggle’s acting is in the realm of comedy, he does have a dramatic role to his credit.
“I was in a movie called Midnight Sun (2018) with Patrick Schwarzenegger and Bella Thorne and it was nominated for a People’s Choice Award just this past year for drama,” he said.
“It’s a drama. It’s not just a straight role. I did 12 Strong (2018) I consider that more of a straight role. Some people might call it a drama, but to me it was just a straight role. Midnight Sun was a dramatic role, but you’ll have to watch it. I hear good things,” he added and smiled.
What’s next for Riggle?
“Well, I just got back from Iceland where I was filming with Bear Grylls. I was running wild on a glacier,” he said. “I’ve got some shows and some pilots that may be happening here in the spring. There’s a movie about Hiroshima that I’m going to be involved with. We’re waiting for one of the key actors. Someone who is going to play Truman, who’s very, very good. We’re waiting for him to get freed up from his current schedule. And then I may try to write a book which I don’t know if it’s gonna happen but I would like to. It’s been on my to-do list for about three years so we’ll see.”