Interview: ESPYs Host Rob Riggle Talks Sports, His Military Past, & Advice For Aspiring Actors

The comedian discusses his past experiences and the lessons he's learned along the way.

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Perhaps the best way to describe Rob Riggle and his impact on Hollywood is by saying, "I've definitely seen him a really funny movie or two." In no way is that a knock against the 42-year-old, Louisville, Kentucky, native; instead, it's a testament to all of the solid work the actor has done since he decided to leave the Marines to pursue a career in comedy.

And tonight, Riggle will take his career to the next level. After years of taking both the big and small screens by storm, the funnyman returns to his familiar stomping grounds of the stage to host the 2012 ESPYs. Some may say that following in the footsteps of the ESPN sports awards show's former emcees, including Justin Timberlake and Seth Meyers, would be a tall task, but, rest assured, the Upright Citizens Brigade alum is more than ready for the challenge.     

Recently, Complex sat down with Riggle to discuss his experiences with the Marines, holding his own alongside comedic masterminds like Will Ferrell, and the valuable lessons he's learned along the way.     

Interview by Jose Martinez (@ZayMarty)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

Where did the interest in hosting the ESPYS come from?
They asked me. [Laughs.] Actually, I had no idea that this was a possibility. I was minding my own business, they asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was blown away. I said, “Are you kidding me?” It’s a great opportunity.

Are you a big sports fan?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I can’t quote stats from another decade. I’ve got friends that can do that. But I am a huge sports fan. In fact, I enjoy all sports and when I enjoy a game for five minutes, I’m in it for the whole thing. Plus, I do have some teams I loyally follow.

Which teams are those?
I’m a Kansas City kid, so I love my Royals and Chiefs. I went to the University of Kansas, so I love the Jayhawks. But I live in L.A., so I’m a fan of the Dodgers. Plus, the Dodgers are in the National League while the Royals are in the American League, so I don’t feel like there’s a conflict of interest there. Unless they meet in the World Series, then I’ll have to make a decision—but I’m sure that’s never going to happen, so I feel pretty safe. [Laughs.]

As a Royals fan, what’s your outlook on the season?
I’ll tell you what, we had a rough April, but I got to go to Spring Training this year and I was able to see the guys. We have a young team that’s full of talent. It’s just unbelievable. If we can get all the pistons pumping and everybody going in the same direction, I think they’re a hard team to beat. I’m very optimistic, actually. I think we have good things on the horizon.

Going into your background, how does someone go from serving in the military to becoming a comedian?
I think it started with comedy first. In high school, I was voted “Most Humorous” in my senior class. In the Midwest, we call it “forensics,” and it was really competitive drama. In college, I was a theater and film major at Kansas University. I always had an affinity for comedy. I could probably quote everything from Caddyshack, Stripes, and all those great comedies from the ‘80s. I remember seeing Eddie Murphy in Delirious when I was probably too young to see it, but I remember thinking that it was amazing.


I always loved comedy, but I was a theater and film major, so when you graduate with that degree, you’re probably going to be a waiter or a bartender for a long time. [Laughs.] So, I got my pilot’s license when I was very young and I took test called the AQTFAR. It’s like an SAT for pilots and I scored high enough that I got a guaranteed flight contract with the Marine Corps. I thought that I could eventually become a second lieutenant or even get a shot at being top gun. It all sounded pretty good and after I graduated from KU, I went to the Marines. However, as I got closer to getting my wings, I realized that once they pin those wings on me, they own me for eight years.

Still, I wanted to try comedy and acting at some point. I knew that I probably would never get that opportunity to try it if I stayed and continued flying. Eventually, I changed my job and became a ground officer, which shortened my commitment. Once I fulfilled my commitment, I moved to New York and pursued my comedic and acting aspirations.

Eventually, you found yourself at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Could you talk a little about that experience?
That was everything to me. That was my whole foundation. When I first moved to New York, I took a stand-up comedy class and I hated it. I thought I made a huge mistake. I thought to myself, “Why did I give up flying for this?” [Laughs.] Then, I went down to the UCB, saw a show called “Asssscat” on Sunday night and I was blown away. I was like, "That’s it, that’s exactly what I want to do."

It was early enough where they didn’t even have a theater. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts were the teachers. I was one of the first students to go through the UCB. You can imagine having these people as your teachers. It was pretty great. They only had three levels back then and I took each one twice, just so I could get each teacher at least once. Eventually, I started teaching there. It was awesome and I give them all the credit in the world. Through that, I got bits on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and an audition for Saturday Night Live

Going into Saturday Night Live, what was your takeaway from that experience?
First of all, it was a dream come true and when I got the opportunity, I was completely grateful. I didn’t stay very long. [Laughs.] So, the big takeaway for me was that, in show business, there’s no finish line. All you do is, you get a gig, you hope it’s a good one and it lasts a while, but as soon as that’s over, you gotta find another gig. I learned very quickly that I gotta find another job. I was lucky enough to find another job at TheDaily Show with Jon Stewart.

How was it working with the people at TheDaily Show?
Amazing! The best! Jon Stewart is a genius. He’s a great manager and a good man. He really let me grow, learn and if I screwed up or wasn’t doing something right, I never felt like I was going to be instantly fired. He would just work with you and suggest trying this or that. Eventually, you would get better and your skills will improve. I grew confidence-wise and as a comedic.

You went through many different stops before breaking into movies. What’s your feeling on the road from TV to the big screen? 
It’s just one of those things that the more work you do, the more people see you and the more auditions you get. It’s a slow process. It never happens overnight. I talk to a lot of young actors and comedians, and it’s always the same thing: they want it now, not later, now. I get that. I had the same feeling, but I tell them all the same thing that they all don’t want to hear: you got to go do the work. Will Ferrell told me, “It takes 10 years to make an overnight success,” and it’s absolutely true.    

Speaking of Will Ferrell, the two of you have co-starred together in many movies. How have you and Will been able to work so well together on film?
He’s an improviser as well. He’s always down for a bit, which is always fun. I can come in and act like I was the youth minister at a local church and I just moved in town, and I’m introducing myself to him. He’ll just jump right into character and heightening it. Then, when you get on set with him, it carries over because you start improvising there. All of that stuff doesn’t make it into the movie, but a lot does.

For example, in Step Brothers, that whole "Pow!" thing wasn’t in the script. We were just messing around and I kept doing it to, basically, harass him. But it ended up in the movie.

Can you talk a little about your role in the upcoming HBO Wall Street series?
We pitched the idea of an 1980s Wall Street guy that is a little bit out of control. [Laughs.] It’s going to be a comedy and a lot of fun. We’re still in the early stages of developing it.

When the idea of creating this show came about, what was the inspiration?
There’s a great book out there called Liar's Poker that inspired a lot of the thinking. Plus, it was such a great time, as far as obnoxiousness goes. With abundance, greed and all that stuff, it just seemed pretty rich for comedy.

Going back a bit, do you know when you hit that breaking point where you realized that you could make a career out of comedy?
One of the first times I was invited to do “Asssscat.” It was a big moment because I’m on the stage doing improv with my teachers and I was so nervous. The show is split into two halves. So, you do half the show, take a halftime, and finish the rest of it. The first half of the show, I never came off the wall. I didn’t do one scene. I just stayed on the wall the whole time. So, we went back into the green room and Ian Roberts was like, “Hey, you gotta come off the wall and play with us.” And I was like, “Yeah, I will.”

They knew I was nervous. Then, Ian said something to the effect of, “Just get out of your own way.” He said, “Even if you don’t have a thought, step off the wall and just trust it.” So, we went out for second half and I just went for it and got out my own way. Now, I also knew I was going to do comedy for the rest of my life.

When I left flight school, it was a big thing because I never quit anything in my life. I don’t like the taste in my mouth. I said that if I attempt this acting thing, it’s got to count, it’s got to matter. That’s why I felt like I was going to succeed or, at least, make it in comedy. Stepping off the wall was a personal point where I said that I can do this and we’re going to be OK. 

Interview by Jose Martinez (@ZayMarty)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

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