CHICAGO — Brett Favre is late.
The Hall of Fame quarterback is running behind after his visit with the Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., so Robert Smigel and George Wendt have time to kill while they wait for him to jet to Chicago.
The duo is in the back of a motorhome near the Waldron parking deck outside Soldier Field, partially dressed for the NFL promo they are about to film.
Smigel, the comedian, writer and creator of “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog,” wears a Bears sweater over a blue Oxford shirt and a Cubs cap. Wendt, the actor best known as Norm from “Cheers,” dons a No. 9 Jim McMahon jersey over a collared shirt. Wendt’s face is clean-shaven at first, but soon Smigel directs an assistant as she pastes a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache over his top lip.
“Micromanaging the mustache,” Wendt says, elongating the short “A” in a clipped, nasally voice.
Smigel asks the woman to trim the sides.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “It’s not quite walrusy enough.”
Once the ‘stache is perfected, the Super Fans will be ready for their next adventure, a new bit for NBC to preview the Bears opener against the Packers on Thursday night.
At the time he crafted the characters that first appeared in a 1991 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, Smigel wasn’t sure if anyone outside of Chicago would appreciate the four sausage-eating, Mike Ditka-obsessed, Chicago-aggrandizing men that made up “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans.”
Twenty-eight years later, the characters — also played by actors Chris Farley and Mike Myers in the ‘90s — remain among the most notable pop-culture figures in the Bears 100-season history. Their catchphrase — “Da Bearsss” — has become an almost reflexive response among Chicagoans when talking about their football team. And the roles have given Smigel and Wendt a laundry list of experiences any Chicago sports fan would find fascinating.
They did the hula with Michael Jordan. They revved up hundreds of thousands of fans in Grant Park during Bulls championship celebrations. For a commercial shoot, Wendt received a massage from Ditka while wearing a towel and eating a sausage. They’ve done bits with Bears foes Aaron Rodgers and now Favre.
And one time, Smigel and Wendt recall, they performed at a playoff game.
After energizing the Soldier Field crowd before the Bears took on the Cowboys in 1991, they participated in a field-goal kicking competition at halftime. The late Farley went first, Wendt recalls, falling on his face in a mud puddle. The crowd roared.
“And then I have to follow Farley,” Smigel says. “And I’m like, why did we make this choice? How am I possibly going to get a cheer after Farley? The only thing I can do is make a field goal.”
Wendt had an idea: attempt the kick while holding a hot dog and a beer.
“You took a bite of the hot dog, a sip of the beer and kicked it through,” Wendt reminds him.
“That’s insane,” Smigel says. “I was wearing a sneaker like this, and it cleared. It was like a line drive, but it cleared. The crowd went crazy. And then George had the best idea again.”
It was a fake field goal. After some debate about how Wendt’s play unfolded, the duo decides on this: Farley snapped the ball. Smigel held it and then pitched it to Wendt, who went charging down the field.
“I got to the end zone and spiked it,” Wendt says. “And then I grabbed Farley and I head-butted him without a helmet. And that was a mistake. Because I was like, ‘Woooh.’”
Wendt rolls his eyes and shakes his head as if in a daze.
“I guarantee Farley felt nothing,” Smigel says. “But it was only two in the afternoon, so George, he had a way to go.”
The Super Fans’ antics at Soldier Field came at the height of their popularity. Little did Smigel know they’d still be an active part of Chicago sports lore today.
Here’s the thing: Smigel, the brains behind the Super Fans, isn’t even a Chicago native. He grew up in New York City, where he resides today. But he came to a certain Midwestern town in the early 1980s to study improv at the Players Workshop. He conceived the characters while attending games at the city’s iconic ballparks.
He first visited Wrigley Field — “I realized that all of the fun was happening in the bleachers, screaming ‘left field sucks’ and throwing balls back” — and then Comiskey Park.
“That’s where I really saw all these guys with Mike Ditka walrus mustaches that were their badge of virility,” he says. “And they were wearing these aviator shades that we still wear. And it was like a uniform. … And they just had this whiff of arrogance about them.
“It was like: ‘Dat’s right. Bob Avellini, my friendt. All-Pro this year. Da Bearsss.’ “
It wasn’t until 1988 — three years after “SNL” hired Smigel as a writer — that the characters made their first appearance at a small theater in Chicago.
Smigel and several other “SNL” writers — among them Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien — came to Chicago during the Writers Guild of America strike and that summer staged a revue titled “Happy Happy Good Show” at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater.
They wrote a version of the characters sitting in lawn chairs in a backyard. While the skit played well in front of Chicago audiences, Smigel and Odenkirk worried it wouldn’t have the same appeal nationally, so they pocketed it — until actor Joe Mantegna, a Chicago native, was host of “SNL” on Jan. 12, 1991.
Odenkirk insisted they unveil it.
Roughly 14 hours before kickoff of a Bears-Giants playoff game played nine miles from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans” made its “SNL” debut.
The scene opens outside a restaurant — Ditka’s, naturally — and around a table inside sit, from right to left, Bill Swerski (Mantegna), Pat Arnold (Myers), Todd O’Connor (Farley) and Carl Wollarski (Smigel), all dressed in Bears garb with thick mustaches, the last three wearing sunglasses. At Odenkirk’s suggestion, the set mimicked that of “The Sports Writers on TV” — the Chicago-based show in which Bill Gleason, Bill Jauss, Ben Bentley and Rick Telander held a weekly roundtable in a cigar-smoke-filled room.
“And I’m like, Oh, OK, then we can have predictions, like Bears 62-3,” Smigel says. “Once that clicked in for me, we were off to the races.”
Swerski introduces himself and his friends, setting the scene in Chicago: “Home, of course, to a certain football team which has carved out a special place in da pantheon of professional football grace, that team which is known the world over as, Da Bears.” The four raise their beer-filled mugs and repeat Swerski’s last words: “Da Bearsss,” putting particular emphasis on the “S.”
Swerski then takes predictions from his friends, all of whom pick the Bears in a rout (the Giants won 31-3). The discussion then shifts to hypotheticals.
“What if all of the Bears were all 14 inches tall. … What’s the score of today’s game?” Swerski asks as a waitress delivers Chicago delicacies: bratwurst, polish sausage, knackwurst and pork chops.
“Bears 18, Giants 10,” Arnold says without hesitation. “And that would finally be a good game.”
Says Wollarski: “Dat would be a good game. Mini-Bears 24, Giants 14.”
“What about Ditka?” O’Connor asks. “Would he be mini too?”
“No, he would be full-grown,” Swerski says.
“Oh, then, uh … mini-Bears 31, Giants 7,” O’Connor predicts.
“When they presented it to me, I laughed and thought, ‘Oh, this is cute. They’re doing something that actually addresses the fact that’s my hometown,’ “ Mantegna said last week from his home in Burbank, Calif. “I got the chance to go into my Chicago accent, not having to alter it in any way, like I was talking to my friends on the West Side. It was a lot of fun.”
On May 18, a few months after the first skit, Wendt — still working on “Cheers” — was going to host the “SNL” season finale. The door opened for the next “Super Fans” appearance with another Chicago native.
Wendt, played Bob Swerski, who was “sitting in for my brudder Bill, who is still recovering from that dreadful heart attack.”
Wendt filled in seamlessly, taking predictions for the next day’s Bulls-Pistons playoff game — consensus: “Da Bullsss” — and the upcoming Indianapolis 500 — “Rick Mearsss.” Swerski asks what would happen if the Bears were to enter the 500 — in a bus.
“Is Ditka driving?” Wollarski asks.
“Of course,” Swerski says.
“Then I like Da Bearsss,” Wollarski answers matter-of-factly.
From there, Wendt says, “it took on a life of its own.”
Of course, with the Ditka Bears being past their prime and the Michael Jordan-led Bulls entering theirs, the Super Fans skits for the next few years changed focus. The Bulls that June won the first of their six NBA championships, and Jordan in July invited Wendt, Smigel and Farley to perform as the Super Fans for a “Salute to Michael Jordan” fundraiser at the Chicago Theatre.
Smigel was told that event gave Jordan the confidence to host “Saturday Night Live.”
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Jordan hosted the season premiere in September of 1991, and it concluded with one of the more memorable scenes in Super Fans lore.
O’Connor (Farley), wearing a hula skirt, stands to perform a ritual in honor of the Bulls. He takes off his Bears jacket, revealing a coconut bra over a sleeveless red Bulls T-shirt.
“Todd, when was the last time you performed this ritual?” Swerski asks.
Says O’Connor: “Jan. 26, 1986, when Da Bears won the Super Bowl.”
Within seconds — and after O’Connor suffers his second heart attack of the episode — Jordan and the Super Fans join O’Connor, shimmying while repeatedly saying: “Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bulls.”
The inspiration did, in fact, come from the night of the Super Bowl, when Smigel was watching CNN at 4 a.m.
“And there was a guy on Rush Street who was wearing, I swear to God, the coconut bra on the boobs, and the hula skirt and the shades and the mustache, and he’s just, he’s (whispers) just doing this (dance),” Smigel says.
Smigel gets up to imitate the dance, keeping his feet in place while slightly swaying his hips and shimmying his arms with his fists clenched.
“He’s not smiling,” Smigel continues. “And all I could think was just, ‘Bears, Bears, Bears.’ … He’s got to shimmy 300 times for Ditka or he’s a bad fan. It was one of the most beautiful things.”
Of all the “SNL” sketches, though, Wendt’s favorite is when he played the host of a game show called “Bob Swerski’s Quiz Masters.” The categories in the “Jeopardy!”-like show were: Bears, Ditka, Bulls, Famous Ditkas through History, Ditka-tionary and Grab Bag. At the end of the game, it comes down to the final Quiz Master question: Bears vs. Bulls.
“Farley nearly exploded,” Wendt says. “What was the correct answer?”
“Farley had written this beautiful essay about,” Smigel says, going into character, “such a conflagration of talent must never take place for the purposes of ultimate destruction and imbalance in the universe. That kind of thing.”
“That is correct!” Wendt recalls. “He gets five minutes in the cheese-fry booth!”
Of all the experiences the sketch brought Smigel and Wendt, perhaps the most surreal was their meeting in the bathroom of a hotel room before boarding a bus to a Bulls championship celebration in Grant Park.
Smigel was sitting on the toilet while Wendt brushed his teeth, trying to teach him the verses to one of three songs they wrote for the 1992, 1993 and 1996 rallies.
“And I’m like, ‘Nnn-hnn,’ “ Wendt says, mimicking brushing his teeth. “And he’s also on a cellphone teaching it to a guitar player who we hired at the same time. And we’re about to walk out in front of 300,000 people.”
“It’s focus,” Smigel says in character. “Dat is focus, my friendt.”
The Bears and Bulls helped the characters take hold in Chicago culture by welcoming them.
Along with the Bears playoff game, Smigel and Wendt say they also revved up the crowd before the Bulls’ 1992 Game 6 victory over the Trail Blazers to clinch the NBA championship at Chicago Stadium. At the Grant Park celebrations, they sang songs taking shots at Bulls opponents — “It was never in doubt, my friendt, my friendt,” they crowed in 1992 — once performing dressed as Dennis Rodman. They only wore out their welcome, they claim, after they passed around a church-collection basket at a rally, joking they needed to help team Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf pay to retain his players.
Ditka himself also embraced the characters.
He remarkably participated in a 1993 “SNL” sketch from his home just four days after the Bears fired him, reading a letter that the Super Fans wrote to the Bears about their outrage. He has appeared with them at various events since, including a reading of a never-produced Super Fans movie script and the State Farm commercial in which Wendt dreamed Ditka was giving him a massage while he laid his face on a sausage pillow.
“We were pretty big nationally,” Ditka said. “A lot of people were doing things on the Bears, but what they did, it was kind of cute. It really was. It depicted the way a lot of people looked at their fans. I met some of the guys, so when they said they wanted to do the skit, I had no problem with it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I thought it was pretty funny.
“They got a lot of mileage out of it. That’s OK with me. I don’t think it was making fun as much as just that’s what it was. At that time, we became bigger than ourselves.”
Chicago ate it up — thanks in part, Wendt, Smigel and Mantegna say, to radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier. A WLUP-AM/FM DJ, Brandmeier fell in love with the skit and repeatedly aired clips during his popular morning show.
“Those guys were superstars,” Brandmeier says. “For them to say that I had anything to do with that is beyond kind and probably a little misleading. It’s one of those things that got out there, and yes, we played it because they were great. And we just kept playing it.”
Of course, not everybody loved the Super Fans.
A 1992 Tribune article entitled “Da Skit: A case of cultural indigestion” quoted city government and cultural leaders lamenting how the sketch dumbed down the image of Chicago.
“I think people were sensitive because there was ‘Blues Brothers,’ but there had never been a sketch specifically about Chicago, and here we were parodying a very specific subset,” Smigel says. “They were like, ‘They’re going to think everybody’s from Bridgeport.’ You know? It was sort of insulting to South Siders that people were offended.”
“I’m from the South Side,” Wendt says. “I don’t talk like that.”
“He’s from Beverly,” Smigel says, turning into character. “Da classiest part of da South Side.”
But even haters can’t deny the sketch’s impact.
Longtime Chicago broadcaster Chuck Swirsky, the current play-by-play voice of the Bulls, remembers his phone ringing continuously after the first episode aired. He hadn’t seen it, but everyone was excited that the Super Fans had used a version of his name.
A couple of weeks later, as he walked into an arena to broadcast a DePaul basketball game in Maryland, a radio engineer greeted him with “Da Bears.” Only a year ago at a social function, he received another such greeting.
“He didn’t say hello, he just said, ‘Hey, Swirsky! Da Bears,’ “ Swirsky says. “It’s embedded in the history of the Bears and what the Bears have meant not only to our city but also the fan base. They can relate to this group of actors. Because it’s us.”
Want to feel really old? Poll current Bears players on their familiarity with the Super Fans.
“Oh, with that fat guy with the mustache?” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I’ve never seen it.”
“That old-school stuff?” left tackle Charles Leno said. “I’ve seen it on TV every once in a while, but I don’t know much about it.”
So maybe the sketches are no longer popular among a younger generation, though neither of those players is from Chicago, where variations of the phrase “Da Bears” have graced billboards and T-shirts and radio bits for decades.
“What’s interesting is, to this day, if you said, ‘Da Bears,’ people would get it,” Mantegna says. “Young people probably don’t even know that it was started because of that skit. But they’ll know, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the thing: Da Bears. Da Cubs. Da Sox. Da Bulls.’ “
The 100th season of the NFL and the Bears has given rise to a Super Fans comeback.
NBC will air portions of the recent sketch filmed with Favre when the Bears kick off against the Packers on Thursday night. The full bit, which will run about four minutes, is available through NBC Sports and “Saturday Night Live” social media accounts Tuesday.
Before they performed at the Illinois bicentennial gala last year, Smigel hired Chicago writers to help him keep his jokes current. And the recent Soldier Field sketch contains the most currently painful joke there is for Bears fans.
While sitting at a table piled with meat, Wendt and Smigel examine a Bears kicker teddy bear that they say is sold in Green Bay.
When Smigel squeezes the stuffed animal, it robotically says, “double doink.”
“Too soon,” Smigel says.
Smigel and Wendt also joined Peyton Manning this summer for an episode of “Peyton’s Places,” a new ESPN series in which Manning travels the country to revisit memorable people, sites and events throughout NFL history.
And Streeterville bar Timothy O’Toole’s is opening a pop-up bar Thursday night called “Swerski’s,” which will have decor, props and food devoted to the Super Fans.
“It’s insane,” Smigel says. “Just the idea of working at SNL was insane. And then the fact that it stuck in Chicago all these years … “
Plus they have the continued support of the one that matters.
“I’m happy for them,” Ditka said. “They should keep bringing it back. Who knows, they may never forget who I am.”
Forget Da Coach? Impossible, my friendt.