Rob Riggle, Skillset Cover
(Photo by Straight 8)

Q&A With Rob Riggle on Life in Combat Before Making It in Hollywood

The struggle is real. Picking a cover story for Skillset is a very difficult thing to accomplish. The process normally consists of several meetings that involve our staff putting dozens of names on the white board, screaming at each other and then painstakingly narrowing it down to one. This usually takes weeks, but as soon as our publisher mentioned Rob Riggle, the meeting was over. We knew we had our 2018 winter cover.

Sitting Down With Rob Riggle 

Besides being an incredible actor, what intrigues me about Rob Riggle is his past. He wasn’t born into the Hollywood scene like most of his peers. His path mirrored greats like Alan Alda, Chuck Norris, Drew Carey, Dennis Franz, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson (to name a few). That’s right, Rob chose military service before life on the big screen. Now, I get the chance to sit down with Lieutenant Colonel Riggle and do a little one-on-one counseling … Marine Corps style. 

Jason: Sure, you are an accomplished actor and comedian, but you are also one of the nation’s finest. Let’s go back to the moment in college when you decided to become one of the few and the proud. What was that decision like? 

Rob: There was a buddy of mine that I lived with named Tim Raynor, who’s a Colonel and flies F18s. He was just a stud and I thought the world of him — a real great guy. He had gone through PLC, come back, and was even more of a badass. I already had my pilot’s license, but the more Tim talked about flight school, the more I wanted to become a Marine. I ended up getting a guaranteed flight contract. There’s a history of military service in my family that goes all the way back to the American Revolution. I always wanted to serve.

LtCol Rob Riggle USMC

Jason: You didn’t end up being a pilot, right? What happened?

Rob: I was going to fly helicopters, and I realized the commitment was really long after I got my wings. At that point, I would have been in for 11 or 12 years. No one gets out that close to retirement. Suddenly, it would’ve ended up being 20 years on active duty for me had I gone this route. I knew I wanted to pursue comedy and acting. I decided that if I switched to the ground side, my active-duty commitment would change dramatically, giving me at least a shot at the entertainment industry.  

Jason: See, I went the opposite route. I was a dumbass kid who didn’t want to get out. I thought, “Well, I can either go back to West Virginia and work at Burger King, or maybe these guys will let me stay here another four years?” The Marine Corps was like, “Yeah, I mean, I guess, if you want.” (Laughs.) I did five years as Lance Corporal. I treated my first tour in the military as if I were in college — you know, all the partying with none of the education.

Rob: That’s awesome. Five years as a Lance Corporal, huh? (Laughing.) I remember when I made the transition to the ground side; I put in for every combat arms possible. The Marine Corps was like, “Yeah, we’re good — thanks — but you can be a logistics officer in Okinawa or a public affairs officer.” 

Jason: Yeah, that’s funny — no thank you on the logistics officer. So, you chose public affairs, right? 

Rob: I did! At my first duty station, I went to night school the whole time I was there. When you’re in North Carolina, you don’t have many choices. You either go to night school or go get into trouble, you know? I told myself, “I’m going to Chicago. I’m going to study at Second City — Improv Olympics, some of these places, these renowned places, and I’m going to learn how to do comedy.”

Rob: I’d just gotten back from Liberia and was promoted to Captain. The Chief of Staff asked, “Hey, what would it take for you to stay in?” I said, “Well, I’ve got plans, sir, but if you got me to New York or Los Angeles, I’d stick around.” He called my bluff and I got orders to New York City. Marine Corps work was during the day at the public affairs office, and at night I did comedy. At first I was doing stand-up, and I hated it because it was uncomfortable. I wasn’t any good at it. I didn’t know what I was doing. It just didn’t feel right, and I really thought I had made a huge mistake.

Jason and Rob talk Marine Corps

Jason: Sure, I mean, cool pilot who gets all the chicks or lonely stand-up comedian? That’s an easy choice!

Rob: Yeah, I thought the same thing — “Why did I quit flying? This was stupid.” Then I went down to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and I saw their long-form improv show. It was awesome. You remember Belushi in “The Blues Brothers,” when he’s at the Triple Rock, and he sees the light? (Laughing.) Yeah, that was me. Right there on the spot I was like, “This is it. This is amazing. This is what I want to do!” So, that’s what I did. I went and started taking classes there. I took them all. They had three levels at the time. I took all three levels twice, so I could have every teacher and learn as much as I could from them. Eventually I started performing and even started teaching there. I was doing light and sound for other people’s shows, just to be around the theater.

Jason: I love the determination! 

Rob: That all came from the Upright Citizens Brigade. I stuck it out for seven years there. I bet I heard the word “No” at least 5,000 times trying to get gigs. It was terrible.

Jason: Was being a Marine what got you through it? When most people hear “No” two or three times, they usually give up.

Rob: People always ask, “What could you possibly take from the Marine Corps and bring to acting or comedy?” In their minds, it didn’t connect. The truth is, it was the intangibles. The Marine Corps lets you know who you are (laughing) … which is normally a big sack of shit.

Jason: Yeah, they let you know that right off the bat … pretty much every day.

Rob: You get embarrassed, and you get knocked down. But you also get challenged, and then you think, “How am I going to respond? Am I going to lie down and quit? No. Am I going to get up and try again? Yes. Am I going to try it a smarter way? Hopefully. Am I going to keep sticking my finger in the socket five times before I learn?” Sometimes that happens, but you get better. I think of those vital intangibles I got from the Marine Corps, such as not quitting, having a thick skin, knowing my goal, knowing my mission, and being willing to adjust my plans on the fly.

Jason: Yeah, I believe that too. When Gina Marie started this magazine, she came to me with that same attitude and said, “Let’s do this. How hard could it be?” (Laughing.) She followed up with, “We’re not going to fail — we’re gonna fuc**ing do it!” in an overly confident Marine Corps “moto speech” tone of voice. So, I gotta know. What’s it like on stage at a comedy club when there’s a bunch of angry drunk people that are screaming, “I paid good money. Make me laugh, clown!” Who’s the hardest person to please in those clubs?

Rob: Oh, it was always the big former linebacker, some Nordic-looking guy from Minnesota who’s still got the buzz cut, and he’s all red because he’s angry. He’s straight off work. The tie is still in, but it’s loose. He’s sitting there, and he’s just power drinking. He’s got that look on his face like, “I’ll kill everybody in this place. It’s just a matter of time,” and you’re like, “Hello, everybody. Everybody having fun tonight?” Then, he yells, “To hell with you!” You can just tell he’s wound too tight to be in a comedy club. I never understood the people that came to comedy clubs with an attitude or with an edge. I’m like, “Why did you come here tonight?” Most people came there to have fun and be entertained, but there’s always a couple people that are just bent out of shape.

Jason: I always keep my eye on guys like that. You never know when they’ll snap and go all “Falling Down” on someone. To be honest, if I’m at a show, I’m probably looking at exits. I’m also profiling people in the audience, thinking about how I’m going to get out of there. 

Rob: I talk about this all the time, too. My wife and I will go into restaurants, and it’s just an old skillset, I think, from the Marines where you know your egress points. You know, I’ll go golfing, and I still do terrain association. I’ll think, “That’s a saddle. That’s a great ambush site. That’s great cover. Look how deep that creek bed is. No one would even see me. I could move all up and down this fairway. No one would even know I was there.”

Jason: Exactly! It’s just part of who we are now. (Laughing.) It’s better to know and not need than need and not know, right? That’s why I always say that one day — and who knows? I might be 95 when the shit goes down — I’ll be like, “Wheel me over to that, right there. Here’s what we need to do.” I’ll be barking orders. Speaking of terrain association on the golf course, that’s your game, right?  I’m assuming the answer is yes because you’re a military officer. 

Rob: Guilty.

Jason: Golf isn’t my game, but I think we probably both share a love for the movie “Caddyshack.”

Rob: The greatest movie ever! I’ve seen it … I couldn’t even imagine, maybe 500 times. 

Jason: Would you say yes to a remake?

Rob: No, absolutely not. Would you remake “Gone with the Wind”? That’s how I see it. I view it as an iconic picture. I’m a member of the Academy, and I still lobby them to give an Academy Award to “Caddyshack,” because they were overlooked in 1980.

Jason: Thank you! 

Rob: We’re going to get some payback for that. 

Jason: Still, hypothetically, if you had to do the remake, would you want to play Rodney Dangerfield’s role? He was such a legend. 

Rob: He was so great. I always wish I had an opportunity to meet him, but it was just before my time. I mean, “Back to School,” “Caddyshack,” “Easy Money” — those are all solid gold, and that was just toward the end of his life and career.

Rob Riggle Studio Pic

Jason: “Easy Money” is the best.  

Rob: Then you look at the body of work he did that probably nobody really saw. All the stand-up, the grinding and the touring. Back then, in the old days, it wasn’t like it is today where they had clubs and stuff. You had to go to burlesque shows or do comedy in the backs of bars. I have a lot of respect for those old-school guys who paved the road for the rest of us.

Jason: How much of his movie acting do you think was improvised?

Rob: Tons, I’m sure. Most of the best stuff in movies usually is. There’s always a good script that you have to work off, so there’s a funny scene taking place, but within that, so much stuff gets improvised. If you’re working with a cast and a director that appreciates and loves improv, like Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, then you get to improvise your ass off. There’s rules, too. You can’t just say the craziest thing possible if it doesn’t lead anywhere! When we were at the Catalina Wine Mixer (“Step Brothers”), I tell Will that I don’t like his face, and he needs to change it. We were just making up stuff, and I was trying to make him laugh. He was dying… I was dying and could barely get through it.

Jason: Wait, hold the phone! I’m having a super-fan moment. Is it true that in the 2016 Ryder Cup’s celebrity golf match, you played with “Snake” Plissken?

Rob: Oh, my God.  

Jason: Actually, never mind “Snake” Plissken. Let’s say Captain Ron, right?

Rob: Why not?

Jason: Kurt Russell, man. How was that? “Captain Ron” was my favorite, by the way.

Rob: Wyatt Earp — “Skin that smoke wagon and let’s go to work.” That’s what I told him every time he pulled out his driver. He’s the best. We still play golf in California. He’s a friend. As a matter of fact, I’m doing a golf tournament (the Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic) in California to support the Semper Fi Fund. He was the first guy I invited, and he said yes. Kurt Russell was my hero growing up — “Big Trouble in Little China,” Jack Burton, yeah.

Jason: Isn’t he just the coolest guy in the world? I know I’m kissing his ass right now, but I’m dead serious. 

Rob: I do the same thing. I still play golf with him, and we’ll go out, and I’ll find myself just staring at him because I’m like, “I’m playing golf with one of my childhood icons.” He’s one of the greats. I mean, he’s been doing it since he was a kid. Did you know that the last thing that Walt Disney ever wrote down, right before he died, was “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper?

Jason: No. What?

Rob: And then he died. 

Jason: That’s so strange. You’re shitting me.

Rob: That’s the last thing Walt Disney did. Honestly, no one knows why, either. Kurt was under contract with Disney at the time, but it’s one of those weird trivia facts.

Jason: That must be tough for Kurt Russell? What was Walt Disney trying to say? Was it, “Kurt Russell’s a fucking asshole”? Was it, “Kurt Russell, my inheritance goes to you”? Oh my God, how does he live without knowing?

Rob: Exactly! Yeah, but Kurt is so iconic. He pulls off everything he does. 

Jason: OK, since we are currently talking about 80’s icons, let me hit you with this question. It’s 1988, you are 18 years old. What big-hair band tour bus would you have jumped on without hesitation?

Rob: Without hesitation? (Laughing.) In 1988? Man, I would have to say, Guns N’ Roses. I would’ve jumped on that bus.

Jason: Jesus, who wouldn’t!  All right, next hard-hitting question. You’re out drinking. It’s late, and you want food. What’s your go-to guilty pleasure? And don’t say fucking KFC because I’ll raise the bullshit flag! I mean, unless you’re under contract and have to say KFC.

Rob: Honestly, this is a real dilemma because I usually had two back in the day. 

Jason: I got you … back in the day, before sponsors.

Rob: Back in the day, it depended on the kind of hangover I wanted and what part of the country I was in. Generally speaking, it was either White Castle or Taco Bell. Ah, those were late nights, though. I think we’ve all heard the phrase, “Nothing good happens after midnight.”

Jason: Right!

Rob: I’d always be like, “Yeah, grandpa. Tell it to your church choir.” Now I’m like, “You’re damn right. It makes sense to me.”

Jason: The joys of getting old. OK, let’s talk about something more in the here and now. Every Sunday on Fox there’s “Riggle’s Picks.” You do this hilarious skit which includes your NFL picks. What I want to know about is the dark side of Fantasy Football, all right? You’re making these picks … 

Rob: Wait, there’s a dark side of Fantasy Football?

Jason: Oh, are you kidding me? Look, you make these picks on national TV. Now, guys like me say, “Oh, damn. Riggle says it’s good. I’m going to take his pick. I’m dropping $1,000 on this one.” Does anybody come back to you like, “You asshole — why’d you make me pick the Titans?”

Rob: Here’s a good thing about that. I’m picking against four Hall of Famers. You’ve got Coach Jimmy Johnson, Michael Strahan, Howie Long, and you’ve got Terry Bradshaw. 

Jason: Terry’s my hero by the way. 

Rob: That’s who I’m picking against, right?

Jason: Yeah. 

Rob: They make their picks, too. If you choose to follow the comedian’s picks instead of the four Hall of Famers, that’s on you, man. I can’t help you with that.

Jason: You make a good point. Hey, can I tell you my all-time favorite Rob Riggle line?

Rob: Hit me. 

Jason: (Dramatic pause.) “I fucking shot Bin Laden!” (Laughs.) I was in the military when that came out, and I would say that was played more throughout the barracks than anything else. It was so good, man. 

Rob: Funny story — we got Bin Laden on a Sunday night, and the next morning I had a meeting with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. We were in there to talk about possibly developing a TV show, but screw that, all we could talk about was “We got Bin Laden.” I remember in that conversation I said, “Could you imagine if you were the guy who shot someone like Hitler?” You just killed the most evil man on planet Earth at that time. You wouldn’t have to buy a drink anywhere in America.

Jason: Right. You’d be a total hero.

Rob: I said to them, “These SEALs, the way they operate, you’ll never know who did it, though.” You could be standing in an elevator next to the guy, and trust me, he doesn’t look like The Rock. He looks like an accountant. So, I said, “You’ll never know who the guy was … wait! We ought to do a sketch with ‘Funny or Die.’” That same Monday, we went and wrote the skit. They started assembling a cast and a crew on Tuesday. We shot it Wednesday, edited it Wednesday night, and then posted it either Thursday or Friday of that week. 

Jason: And you nailed it!

Rob: It didn’t take long for word to get back to me through certain friends and channels that the SEALS on the mission had seen it. I was like, “Oh, God. How did they take it?” Thank goodness, they said they all loved it!

Jason: It’s just so damn funny. Speaking of troops, you do a lot of USO stuff. I think I saw you doing a show in Hawaii last year. I remember saying to myself that I spent 20 years in the Marines and never saw a USO show. Now, these damn Air Force kids get to hang out with Rob Riggle and The Rock?

Rob: Isn’t that how it always works? Those fucking guys in Garrison …

Jason: Right? 

Rob: … they get all the sweetheart deals. (Laughing.) They’re always in fat city! The operators get shit.

Jason: I’m so jealous. You enjoy doing these shows?

Rob: I do, and to your point, every time I was deployed, every time I was forward, I never got a show.

Jason: Me, neither. (Laughing.) 

Rob: So, it was a little pledge I made to myself that if I ever got into a position to entertain the troops, I would do it without hesitation.

Jason: It’s what these guys deserve, man. 

Rob: Absolutely! It’s an honor.

Jason: Well, we appreciate it! You’re also connected to the VFW a little bit, right?

Rob: (Smiling.) Dare I say I’m in the VFW Hall of Fame?

Jason: Wait, what?

Rob: At the last national convention, maybe you missed it. 

Jason: I love going to the VFW — the smoke in the air, the dark wood paneling. The décor in there hasn’t been upgraded since Vietnam, and I’m like, “I’m cool with that. Just keep it.”

Rob: Well, sadly, it’s a generational thing. You had these World War II and Korean vets that wanted to reconnect, and they had these great halls. The Vietnam vets didn’t necessarily want that, though. They were treated terribly, so they didn’t come back. They wanted to forget. So, a lot of those things kind of fell into disrepair or just weren’t kept up. Now, we have a whole new young generation of veterans. This group is now injecting life back into these American Legions and VFWs, and you’re seeing a rebirth in these posts, which is kind of fun because money’s being put into it. You go in there, there’s young people, and you feel a connection to them. The old guys are still there, and the Vietnam guys are coming back out of the woodwork and starting to deal with whatever they’re dealing with.

12 Strong, Chris Hemsworth

Jason: Yes, they don’t have to box it up anymore.

Rob: Right, and they can bond, and they can talk about their service without any shame. I think it’s a great thing.

Jason: Amen! Let’s talk about “12 Strong,” your new movie that hits theaters Jan. 19.

Rob: What a great cast. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer war movie, based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton. It’s got Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña — just some really great actors. 

Jason: It’s a serious role for you, right?

Rob: Yeah. It’s a straight role, which is unusual for me since I do comedic acting. Look, I trained in acting as well, so it’s nice to take that side for a walk every now and then.

Jason: You play a real-life character named Colonel Max Bowers. I heard you also have a real connection with him?

Rob: I do. On Nov. 10, 2001, I got orders to Central Command. I reported on Nov. 17 to CENTCOM and went straight over to Afghanistan; ended up joining the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group as an augmentee. I was a Marine in an Army unit, but it’s all a big purple force. I did public affairs and civil affairs work, and I worked directly for Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers. He was the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 5th Group at the time. I worked on his command element and it was great.

I did all kinds of stuff, worked out in the population of Mazar-e Sharif. We still hadn’t taken the southern part of the country at that point. I think Camp Rhino was just getting set up there. Now, I get to play Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers, my old boss, in the film. Talk about a small world.

12 Strong, military

Jason: To me, that’s exciting. You were there, and it’s an interesting story and connection.

Rob: I met a lot of the guys, because we were living in an abandoned Turkish high school on the outskirts of town. It was at a compound. It had no power or running water. We took the buckets of ice cold water and we’d do cat baths in the morning. That was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t living in a ditch, but it was a very Spartan existence in the early days. 

Jason: There’s something about an experience like that. I remember the same thing in Iraq. I went 39 days at one point without even showering.

Rob: I did something close to that. I did 30-some days in Albania and Kosovo.

Jason: Yeah, but now I’m such pussy. I’ll go out and shoot, and when I come back I’m like, “I got dust all over me.” (Laughs.) I look back and I wonder, “Man, how did I do that?” But then I think that we had no choice. You’re there, and then after a week everybody stinks, so it doesn’t matter. It’s very primitive. 

Rob: Primitive, but 100-percent worth it. 

Jason: Damn straight. Anything to keep America safe. Are you married with kids?

Rob: I’m married with kids. 

Jason: Do you go all Clark Griswold during Christmas? I picture you saying, “Hey listen, unravel that giant ball of lights, we’re fucking going to do this right!”

Rob: Oh, yeah. My thing is road trips, though. It’s unit time. Everybody strap in. We’re going to have fun if it kills us. I’m like, “Road trip! Do we have the snacks? Okay. Here’s where we’re stopping. Everybody pee.” I got everybody on lock, because I freaking love to road trip. 

Jason: I knew I was close with the National Lampoon reference. OK, last question. I love asking Marines this. Finish this sentence: “I’m deathly afraid of …”

Rob: Nothing. 

Jason: Really? I was thinking unemployment.

Rob: I think we’re lucky because we’re Marines. We’ll always work and we’ll always find something to do. We’ll always have purpose, because we’ll go find it or else we’ll create it. (Laughs.) Maybe the one thing I’m scared of is taxes?

Jason: There you go. All right. Yeah, the old Wesley Snipes thing. I love Wesley Snipes. Damn Uncle Sam took down Blade.

Rob: And communism. Taxes and communism. Deathly afraid of communism. 

Jason: Spoken like a true Jarhead. 


Check out all of Rob’s upcoming films and also follow him daily on social media at Lastly, make sure to listen to our podcast with Rob Riggle HERE on Skillset Live!

Leave a Reply