IN Conversation with Rob Riggle

Rob Riggle. Photo by Sean Hagwell

In 1994, while stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, with the Marine Corps, Overland Park native Rob Riggle wrote down on a piece of paper, “I want to be on Saturday Night Live.” Ten years later, Riggle got a call from Lorne Michaels inviting him to join the cast.

Riggle graduated from Shawnee Mission South in 1988 and earned a bachelor’s in theater and film at University of Kansas in 1992 before joining the Marines, where he served nine years on active duty and 14 years in the Reserves. 

Riggle is best known for being a correspondent on The Daily Show and roles in hit movies and TV shows, including The Hangover, 22 Jump Street, and Modern Family. He currently co-hosts the miniature golf game show series Holey Moley on ABC.

He is also founder and one of five hosts of The Big Slick, a weekend- long fundraiser for Children’s Mercy Hospital that has raised more than $13 million since its inception in 2010 and has grown to become one of the highest profile annual events in the city. This month, June 24th and 25th, marks the in-person return of the celebrity softball game at Kauffman Stadium and performance at T-Mobile Center.

Riggle spoke with IN Kansas City by phone from his Los Angeles home, reflecting at length about his upbringing, his unusual path from Marine flight school to comedian, and his current aspirations.

As an alum and a big fan, you hosted Late Night in the Phog at Allen Fieldhouse back in October, the annual pep rally that gives fans the first look at the basketball team each year. Did you have a feeling that night that the Jayhawks might go all the way?
I always think they’re going to go all the way. I pick them every year, in every bracket. I’m so predictable. I also hosted (Late Night) in 2011, when they made it to the final and lost to Kentucky. So, I have a pretty good track record when I do Late Night.

They should have you every year, Rob.

Where did you watch the championship game?
I watched it at home with my son. It was everything I hoped it would be. Obviously in the first half—what, were we down 15?

It was 40 to 25 at the half.
Yeah, a record amount down. But even if we’re 15 down, with KU I always feel like, “Alright, that’s just a big number that we have to overcome.” I’ve seen them do it many times. So, my faith was not rattled. Of course, I had friends from all over the country—Marine buddies, college friends, Hollywood friends—texting me throughout the game saying, “Looks like it’s not their night! Uh-oh!” And I very calmly and coolly told them all to… Well, I can’t tell you what I told them to do. But I never panicked. I even told my son and my daughter at halftime, “Relax! Everything’s going to be fine. That’s why they have two halves.” 

What kind of a little kid were you?
Uh, I think I was a pretty good kid. Bad student, good kid.

Were you the class clown?
No, here’s the thing. I was voted “most humorous” in my senior class, but I think I was more introverted in grade school. Also, I don’t like the word “class clown.” Class clown to me is the jerk in the back making armpit fart noises. In high school, I was on the radio station during lunch, and I would do funny things. I was never disruptive.

What was the family dynamic? Do you have siblings?
I have a wonderful older sister, Julia McKee, who is one of the best labor employment lawyers in Kansas City. She and her husband, Mark McKee, who is the president of the Kansas City Monarchs [professional baseball team], do a lot of work for Big Slick.

When you were kids, would Julia have been surprised if someone told her you were going to be a famous comedian and actor when you grew up?
No, I don’t think so. I was blessed with a very fun family. My dad is a great storyteller. My mom is very quick-witted. She’s more puns and little quips. I grew up with that combination, and then my sister is just a really fun-loving person who wants to laugh and enjoy things.

We’d go down to Lake of the Ozarks, and we didn’t have a TV or a telephone down there. So, we would play charades at night, or board games. We learned how to be animated and tell great stories and listen to people tell great stories and laugh and enjoy each other.   

While you were earning a degree in theater and film at KU, you got a pilot’s license. Why?
Well, my grandfather served in the 8th Army Air Corps in World War II, and he wanted to be a pilot. They made him an intel guy instead. When I got up to KU, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. I knew I liked theater and film, but I also didn’t think there was a future in it.

One day I remember thinking, “Maybe I want to be an FBI agent.” So, I picked up the phone and called the FBI. 

No way.
Yeah. I just called and asked, “What do you guys look for? And how do you become an agent?” It’s funny, when I try to explain that to young people, they go, “Why didn’t you just look it up?” And I have to explain, “There was no internet. We had Yellow Pages.” 

The person I got on the phone was very forthcoming. He said, “We like lawyers, and we like accountants.” And I thought, “Good God. That takes me out of the game right away.” I was about to get off, and then he said, “Oh, and we tend to take a lot of Marine Corps officers.” And I thought, “There’s something I might have an angle on.” 

So, I talked to a buddy who was going through the Marine Corps program at KU. I thought highly of him, and I just kept pulling on that thread and eventually went into the recruiting office and they said, “Listen, kid. The best way to get in is to get one of the flight contracts.” 

This is more detail than I’ve ever given anybody…

It’s interesting. Thank you.
At that point, I said something offhand to my grandfather about it, and he said, “If it helps, I’ll help pay for your pilot’s license if you’re really interested in doing that.”  There was a school at the time out at the Lawrence airport. They had a Cessna 152, a little two-seater with basically like a lawn-mower engine in it. 

I guess I had a natural touch for the stick and rudder, and I got a pilot’s license a couple of days after I turned 20. And I joined the Marines’ officer program when I was 19. I was in a Platoon Leader’s Course. They didn’t pay for my school, which gave me the option of, when I graduated, I could take my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, or not.

So, I graduated as a theater and film major, but that still seemed like such a pipe dream. And I could be a 2nd Lieutenant and flying planes. I used to fly a lot when I was in Lawrence. I would take my buddies up all the time. We’d fly over campus, up to Manhattan, out to Hutch[inson]. We’d fly to football games and basketball games in other college towns. It was a lot of fun, and I got a lot of good flight experience.

But when I got to flight school in the Marines, I felt like I liked flying. I didn’t love it. I think if you’re going to fly off a ship at night with a bunch of Marines in the back, you better be passionate about it. It had better be your life’s calling.

And, thanks to the Marines, I got enough confidence to think, “You know what? I think I want to try being a comedian or an actor.” I thought if I failed, I could live with that better than never knowing.

So, then I switched over to the ground side and completed my required service. Then I thought, “OK, I’m going to move to Chicago and study at ImprovOlympic and Second City.” And then the chief of staff for 2nd Marine Air Wing grabbed me and said, “What would it take for you to stay in?” And I said, “I don’t know, sir. If you can get me to New York City or Los Angeles, I would consider giving you another three years.”  

He called my bluff. The next day I had orders to New York City. I moved there to a 350-square-foot apartment, sight unseen.

I did Marine Corps work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and tried to pursue comedy every night. I didn’t know what I was doing. I found a standup club that offered classes. I took the first class and I hated it. It was awful.

What was awful about it?
I like storytelling comedy. I loved Eddie Murphy—I thought Raw and Delirious were the best because he would tell these great stories with these great characters. But they said, “Nah, nah, nah. We don’t tell stories here. You tell three jokes a minute: Set up, punch. Set up, punch. Set up, punch.

It was like an ill-fitting shoe. But I had spent what limited money I had on the classes, so I followed through. At the end of the eight-week class, you had to get up and do five minutes of material. I got up and did it their way. I hated my material. I have never been so scared in my life—and I used to fly planes upside down over the Gulf of Mexico. The adrenaline pulsing through my body felt a little bit like shock. When I was finished, they handed me the videotape and said, “Hey, good job!” But I didn’t remember anything. It was like a car accident. 

I got home and watched the tape, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I definitely wasn’t listening to the crowd. I would say a joke and there would be a laugh, and I would be moving on to the next one before they even had time to laugh.

Then I panicked. I thought, “I can’t believe I gave up flying for this.” I was lamenting to someone that I had made a huge mistake, and they said, “You ought to talk to this guy, he was just on Saturday Night Live, he’s a really nice guy.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to bother this guy.” But I called him up. It was Dave Koechner.

I told him everything I just told you, and he said, “I think improv might fit you better.” At the time, the only improv place in New York was called Chicago City Limits and it was short-form improv, little games, like you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

And he said, “I have some friends who just moved out from Chicago, and they’re starting a theater, and it’s called the Upright Citizens Brigade, and they’re teaching classes. You ought to go catch their Sunday night show, it’s called ASSSSCAT.”

So, I went and saw the show. The four founding members of Upright Citizens Brigade are Matt Walsh from Veep; Ian Roberts, one of the best improvisors ever; Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler. It blew my mind how good they were. It was like an epiphany. I went up to Matt Walsh after the show and said, “I want to sign up for classes.” And he said, “Cool!” And that was it. 

For the next seven years, I took classes, I taught classes, I did sound and tech for other people’s shows, I hung out at the theater and found like-minded people and I would write with them. And eventually I caught a break and got an audition for Saturday Night Live and I got on it.    

People in Kansas City are so proud of the Shawnee Mission comedy mafia: you, Paul Rudd, and Jason Sudeikis. When did you meet Paul and Jason?
I met Paul at KU, at a party. Paul was a sophomore when I was a freshman. When Paul left KU to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York—I think around his junior year—I remember watching a football game and a Miller Lite commercial came on, and it was Paul. I remember jumping out of my seat, going, “Oh, my God, that’s Paul! He got a commercial!” 

A couple years later, he showed up in Clueless and he was wearing a KU hat. I remember bragging about that to everyone. He was always the guiding light, the guy who made it. He was an inspiration.

What about Jason?
I show up for my Saturday Night Live audition, and he was also invited to audition. Unbeknownst to me, Jason was doing all this great improv and sketch comedy with Second City in Vegas at the time, so our paths never crossed. 

We’re out in front of this stand-up club at 79th and Broadway. Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey and all the head writers and producers are inside sitting in a booth. This is the dream shot. So, everyone is stressed out. And Jason makes a reference to Kansas City, and I look up and say, “I’m from Kansas City.” Then we start doing that thing: “Oh, I lived here, and I went to that school…” We became pretty fast friends right there on the sidewalk.  

Who came up with the idea for Big Slick?
It was me. In 2009, Children’s Mercy asked me to host their Red Hot Nights ball, the one they do in February. They had me kind of performing some corny jokes, and we raised a lot of money. 

But they were really smart. They took me on a tour of the hospital. At the time I had two small children. So, I immediately felt a connection to that place and empathy for the parents. I watched them do open-heart surgery on a 9-day-old baby. Just a year prior, that baby would have perished. But because of the advancements they were making, they were able to save that baby’s life with these robotic techniques. I said, “You got me. I’m in. I want to be part of this, but I don’t want to do Red Hot Nights. Let me think of something and get back to you.”

Then I was sitting on the dock of my parents’ Lake of the Ozarks house with my brother-in-law, Mark, and we were spitballing ideas about how to get celebrities to come to the middle of the country. I mentioned a poker tournament because celebrities love to play poker. But I didn’t want to do it as an individual, because there is much more energy as a team. 

That Christmas, I was at The Daily Show Christmas party, and Paul popped in to say hi to Jon. So, I asked him if he would co-host a poker tournament with me, and he didn’t miss a beat, he was like, “Yeah, I’m in.”

Then I called Jason and said, “Rudd and I are going to co-host this poker tournament in Kansas City for Children’s Mercy. Do you want to do it with us?” And Jason didn’t miss a beat and said, “I’m in.”

Kathy Sudeikis (Jason’s mom) did all the travel because she’s a travel agent. Gloria Rudd (Paul’s mom) did all the marketing because she works in PR and marketing, and my sister and brother-in-law organized the wiffle ball game and the show and the auction. 

The first year, I was shooting a movie called The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Adam McKay was the director. Adam used to host a poker night on Friday nights during production, so I just threw it out there, “Hey, I’m doing a charity event in Kansas City with Jason and Paul. It’s our hometown. It’s for Children’s Mercy Hospital. It’s a worthy cause, but I can’t promise you anything because I have no idea what to expect.” And everybody at the table said yes. 

We set a goal to try to raise $50,000, and we raised $100,000. It was at Harrah’s. And now we’re at the T-Mobile Center. In those first few years, we were inviting Eric Stonestreet and Dave Koechner, and then we thought, “They’re Kansas City guys, they should be hosting it with us.” Then Koechner’s sister, Joan Charbonneau, and Eric Stonestreet’s sister, Mauria Stonestreet, became part of the family team. 


My ambition is always there. I still want to do good work. I’ll stay out there as long as people will have me.”


At this point do you feel like you’re already famous, so you can just bounce along and pick from projects that come your way, or do you still have aspirations?
There’s no finish line in show business, and you’re never satisfied. Even if you’re in a hit TV show or a hit movie, it goes, and you have to get another job and another job. I want to work with good people, try to do good things, make people laugh, raise my kids to be good people. 

My ambition is always there. I still want to do good work. I’ll stay out there as long as people will have me.  

Has the not-work part of your life become more important than when you were starting out?
Absolutely. Show business is without a doubt one of the toughest businesses. It’s so subjective. It’s so competitive. It’s really, really hard. It’s hard on your psyche, and it requires maximum effort every day. And you do get to a point where you’re like, “God bless, I just want to find some peace.”

What does peace look like to you?
Peace to me would be, first, spending time with loved ones: friends, family. And still being passionate, still being driven but not having to do ten things at once. Just finding one thing that comes with good people around it to enjoy spending your hours with and working on that.

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.