“Alpha male, veteran journalist”
Rob Riggle’s traumatic embodiment and satiric authenticity

by Anna Froula

In March 2008, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (TDSWJS) sent its veteran reporter Rob Riggle undercover to get the scoop on what he calls “the Marines’ toughest fight yet,” i.e., the protests against a recruitment office in Berkeley, CA.[1] [open notes in new window] The segment’s introduction makes Riggle’s veteran status explicit by displaying a picture of himself in Marine fatigues before he dons his hippie disguise. Here, he satirizes the lack of knowledge about the ground truth of war, exemplified in one protester’s statement that he “kinda felt like probably the Iraqis felt being occupied here in Berkeley.” Riggle’s sarcastic voiceover mockingly affirms this view by juxtaposing shots of people enjoying the beautiful weather in Berkeley against the rubble and explosions of the Baghdad warzone.

When another interviewee complains that the Marines “are recruiting people for mass murder,” Riggle’s reaction shots invoke the trope of the enraged veteran with a twitchy eye and grimace that culminate in him excusing himself—twice—to karate kick boards in two while screaming, “HIPPIES!” and to throw himself through a wall. His coverage of Code Pink protesters “hugging for a peaceful world” includes an interview with a young member who explains that free speech must be protected. When Riggle interrupts by musing ironically, “If only there was an organization sworn to defend that free speech,” she beams at him and agrees. While a few of his other TDSWJS colleagues have performed this loudmouth, alpha male role persona while exposing social foibles and hypocrisies, Riggle’s status of Marine Reserve during this segment sharpens its satirical edge.

An angry Riggle kicks a board in two after his interviewee describes Marine recruitment as being for “mass murder.” An incensed Riggle throws himself through a wall.

Riggle’s 2006-2008 tenure on TDSWJS solidified his often physically threatening persona for the show’s viewership.[2] While Riggle has continued to make occasional appearances on the show since his departure in 2008, his regular role coincided with a period in which the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq by military force was widely viewed as strategically unwise at best and intentionally misleading at worst. The satiric news program often traded on Riggle’s experience in combat zones to sharpen the show’s satirical criticism of the military occupations in the Middle East. Furthermore, his tenure on the show also shared a cultural moment when portrayals of traumatized war veterans were ubiquitous in television and film.[3] Riggle’s performances within this time frame tended not just to criticize the war’s architects, a recurring theme on TDSWJS, but also, as exemplified by the “Marines in Berkley” segment, to target leftist protest strategies that directed anger toward service personnel rather than the architects of war.

Today Rob Riggle is a familiar face in TV sitcoms, comedic films, and FOX NFL, Dos Equis, and KFC commercials, working steadily with over 100 acting credits to his name.The retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel launched his television career on Saturday Night Live (SNL) after his return from Afghanistan in 2004 as a comic persona that is often deeply embedded in the traumatic stereotype of the returning veteran. Some of his performances implicitly draw from his military background—e.g., his President of the Navy in the parodic show about cops fighting terrorism in San Diego, NTSF:SD:SUV (Cartoon Network, 2011-2013); Lt. John McClellan in Funny or Die’s The Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama bin Laden (Nick Corirossi and Charles Ingram, 2011); and, most recently, his Lt. Colonel Max Bowers in 2018’s 12 Strong (Nicoli Fuglsig).[4] However, his role as a satiric journalist on TDSWJS explicitly invoked his military authority in that program’s emphatic critique of the Bush administration’s rhetoric about the military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is especially significant about the public persona known as “Rob Riggle” is not simply that it satirizes certain representations of and rationalizations about war but that it combines both the comic and tragic edges of the war veteran persona into a single figure who means more precisely because he has been over there.

Riggle primarily served as a Public Information Officer (PIO), or the public relations’ face of the Marines to the press and politicians. PIOs bear the reputation of being preppy outliers among combat-experienced veterans; even so, his service in dangerous and unpredictable war zones marks him as a rarity in the contemporary entertainment industry. This essay maintains that his military history offers a critical set of readings of the characters he plays and that the intertextuality among his roles and war experience specifically provides a double-edged commentary on interpretations of the “war on terror,” its veterans, and the ways in which they experience trauma and moral injury—or the stereotype of being traumatized.[5] His military history adds a metatextual layer of authority to his satiric perspectives on war but also makes his portrayals of traumatized veterans significant even if they do not draw on actual experience.

As a successful actor, Riggle has been a significant figure in making the veteran visible in a nation in which 1% of U.S. citizens serve in combat zones. Ultimately, this essay analyzes the ways in which his multiple roles, from roughly 2006-2010, often trafficked in troubling stereotypes of the veteran to bring visibility to the kinds of invisible suffering war veterans can experience. His stock character of the loud alpha male can be read as bearing parodic signifiers of policies, practices, and results of the “war on terror” and its legacies, such as torture, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and “stop loss”— a policy that extends a service member’s active duty service involuntarily. This persona thus interrogates the gap between claims to “support the troops” and actual material conditions experienced by the military in the Bush years of the “war on terror.” Thus his performances might touch on the 2004 revelations of U.S. torture at Abu Graib prison in Iraq, the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center—which came under fire in 2007 after reports of neglected patients and vermin-infested living conditions—or lack of body armor needed for protection from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the early stages of military operations in Iraq.

Critics of the Iraq War often pointed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s 2004 response to a soldier who highlighted the problem of the lack of proper armor during the invasion and early days of the occupation. Confronting the politician, the soldier explained, “We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that has already been shot up, dropped, busted—picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles go into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us North.” Rumsfeld responded, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” a statement which was roundly denounced as flippant and even insulting to men and women in uniform.[6]

In what follows, I first offer a short history of Riggle’s military career and entrance into comedy. I then examine his satiric critiques of the Bush administration and Congressional handling of the torture scandal and treatment of military personnel on TDSWJS. Next I discuss his TDSWJS segments broadcast from his 2007 USO tour to Iraq. I contextualize his satiric personas with some of his belligerent supporting roles in films around the same time period. Finally, I discuss the ways that Riggle made the struggles of the returning veteran legible in the TV sitcom Gary Unmarried (CBS, 2008-2010), albeit in a contained sitcom format that raised important issues only to punctuate them with a laugh track. These texts are fairly ephemeral, especially ten years later, but excavating his persona from them allows for an important snapshot of how U.S. culture mediates portrayals of its veterans within its longest wars. Riggle’s varied roles that trade on his military experience offer multiple versions of veteran narratives, military masculinities, and military bearings. In short, he performs as a veteran narrative multiverse.
A brief history

Though Riggle claims to keep his two worlds of comedy and military separate, his entrance into both coincided from the start. Voted “Most Humorous” in high school, the theater and film major at the University of Kansas enlisted in the Marine Corps, in part, because his path of study, as he told Marc Maron in a 2011 interview, “meant I was going to be a waiter.”[7] Yet having been bullied until he hit puberty in the tenth grade, he also admits that he was drawn to the Corps as a masculine proving ground: “There’s also something in the male psyche about that question, ‘can I hack it? Can I do it? What would I do in that situation?’”[8] In 1990 Riggle attended Officer Training School and was poised to earn his pilot’s wings, but he realized that doing so would further delay his dreams of a second career in comedy. Instead, he completed Defense Information School and was deployed to Liberia, then Kosovo.[9] In total, he received several awards for serving in the Marines for twenty-three years: nine years of active duty and fourteen more in the reserves.

Riggle as Lt. John McClellan on Funny or Die’s The Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama bin Laden.   Riggle as his former commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Colonel Max Bowers, in 12 Strong (Warner Bros., 2018).

Riggle moved to New York City, serving as the Marine’s Deputy Director of Public Affairs and studying method acting and working with the improv comedy troupes Respecto Montalban and Upright Citizens’ Brigade in his spare time. In 2000, Riggle left active Marine duty and joined the Reserves. On September 11, 2001, however, the Corps activated his unit, and he spent the next week on search-and-rescue duty at the World Trade Center with the “Bucket Brigades,” sifting through the rubble with his hands for a week. He then volunteered for active duty and was deployed to Afghanistan, as he explained to Maron, “taking out the Taliban, taking out al-Qaeda.”[10] It was there he served under Lt. Colonel Max Bowers, whom he would eventually play in 2017’s 12 Strong (Nicolai Fulgsig).

Riggle considered training to become a pilot for the Marines in the 90s. In the wake of September 11, 2001, Riggle served in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

When Riggle returned to the United States in 2002, he also returned to the Upright Citizens’ Brigade and in 2004 joined the cast of Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975- ) for a year. After SNL released him, purportedly because it did not know what to do with his “tall, vaguely menacing, but ultimately hilarious Superman/soldier hybrid,” he moved to Los Angeles to shop scripts and auditioned for TDSWJS, which would raise his comedic profile and give him a coast-to-coast commute.[11] In 2013 Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserve, and he has worked steadily, garnering support roles in film and television. More recently, We Are the Mighty, a media brand run by military personnel and veterans, named Riggle as one of its “Veterans to Watch in 2017,” citing his advocacy work for veterans.[12]

At 6’3”, 235, Riggle has playfully acknowledged that he has been typecast as a “bigger white funny yelling guy.” A broad sampling of his early fictional roles include a thundering gang leader in a satire of America’s post-9/11 domestic paranoia of Muslims in the comedy Terrorists (Jay Martel, 2004), a raging, corporate bully who punctuates threats by shouting, “POW!,” on Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008); a cop who torments Will Ferrell’s police-officer accountant into firing his weapon in the office via a “desk pop” in The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010), and an R. Lee Ermey-styled demon drill sergeant at Fort Hell on Ugly Americans (David M. Stern and Devin Clark, 2010-2012), to name a few. Riggle has been working steadily; more recently, his career has moved into sports comedy, with his weekly “Riggle’s Picks” that showcase a skit featuring him playfully mocking a team on FOX’s NFL, and drama with his roles in Big Miracle (Ken Kwapis, 2012) and 12 Strong.[14]

Riggle screams at his recruits as a drill sergeant in the “GI Twayne” episode of Ugly Americans (Comedy Central, 2010-2012). Riggle conducts a “Singalong Sideline” as one of his Riggle’s Pics on Fox NFL Sunday.

“One reporter that destroys the competition”

While TDSWJS frequently labels its correspondents with mock distinguished expert titles to satirize corporate news’ claims to its guests’ expertise, Riggle’s Senior Military Analyst added critical depth to the show’s analysis of how the Bush administration—and its supporters—propagandized the military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Riggle’s performances subverted the logic of the “war on terror”—such as when he clearly calls Bush a “motherfucker,” despite being bleeped out, for diverting resources from the war in Afghanistan into an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. For anti-war viewers long frustrated with the Bush administration’s “Support the Troops” platitudes and handling of Iraq and its impact on U.S. service personnel and their families, many viewers took pleasure in seeing a veteran and Reserve Marine refusing to be a political prop and calling out the Commander in Chief.

Riggle crawls military style with a microphone bayonet. Riggle looms over Brian William after forcing him to pay the satiric reporter compliments.
Riggle punches fellow The Daily Show with Jon Stewart reporter Aasif Mandvi. Riggle sprays from his “freakishly large musk glands.”

Riggle’s faux journalist also exploited his physically threatening persona. In “The News Better Run,” a 2008 segment featuring this “alpha reporter,” a voiceover intones, “Forged in the fires of war, he’s one reporter who destroys the competition.”[15] The montage of short scenes that follows features Riggle hurling a TV, which is playing a Wolf Blitzer segment, from the roof of a building; crawling military-style under a series of Obama and McCain campaign signs while carrying a microphone bayonet between his teeth; looming sinisterly over Brian Williams after the NBC anchor reports, “Rob Riggle is one of the finest reporters I’ve ever met”; flexing to show off his “freakishly large musk glands”; punching fellow TDSWJS correspondent Aasif Mandvi—whose “Senior Muslim Correspondent” persona plays on his Indian and Muslim identities—in the face; and typing with two pistols (and accidentally firing one). The image of Riggle crawling through the trenches of the 2008 election posits politics as warfare and suggests that combat prepares mock reporters for the culture war that plays out in U.S. political discourse. Yet, this segment also invokes the traumatized veteran trope of uncontrollable rage—against Blitzer and a cowering Williams.

Riggle also deployed his military experience against political figureheads playing politics with the GI Bill. In this segment, entitled “C*A*S*H,” Stewart juxtaposes clips of politicians and pundits—John McCain, Dick Cheney, Tony Snow, Lindsay Graham, Judd Gregg, and George W. Bush—“support[ing] the troops” with a list of the military issues that directly contradict their claims, including the lack of body armor and funding to treat PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other mental disorders.[16] Stewart then outlines Senator Jim Webb’s proposed bill to offer recruits tuition “at the best public college in [their] state[s]” for three years of service. After footage of McCain alleging that Webb’s bill would ultimately harm the military if funded, Stewart shows a montage of military recruitment advertisements depicting the military as, in his words, a “fast track to college.”[17] Then, against images of a science fiction-inspired Marine recruitment commercial portraying a Marine sword-fighting a fire monster, Stewart rhetorically asks if such combat fantasies motivate Marines to enlist. Riggle interrupts via phone call, explaining that he indeed joined the Marines “because I thought I was gonna fight a fire monster. I didn’t know they could fake that shit with computers!” His adoption of the dumb grunt stereotype for laughs nonetheless underscores the cynicism of politicians who deploy “support the troops” rhetoric but actively work to limit the support these troops receive for service rendered.

In particular, the segment contrasts McCain, the late Vietnam veteran and Arizona Senator who famously spent five years as a Prisoner of War in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, with fellow Vietnam veteran Webb and his revised, more generous GI Bill. While this high-profile veteran stand-off invites chuckles, it further highlights the complexities of veteran representation. We see this particularly in a former POW running for the position of Commander in Chief at the time while attempting to reconcile not supporting veterans of the current wars and their educational goals; McCain argued that the bill would disincentivize service members from becoming noncommissioned officers, whom he envisioned as “the backbone of all the services.”[18]    

Under the aegis of satire, Riggle also questioned the chain of command up to the President himself for sending his fellow service members into war over false claims. In that respect, he serves as a surrogate for military members who have no such voice—the dead, wounded, traumatized, brain-injured, and suicide victims but also those on active duty who are prohibited from articulating specific positions on policy matters. By dubbing him Foreign Policy Analyst, TDSWJS empowered Riggle to criticize the 2007 assessment of the war in Iraq that President Bush made after visiting the country for six hours.[19] When Stewart wonders if Bush had enough time to “make sense of such a complex situation,” Riggle replies by brandishing a mug emblazoned with the sign of corporate geopolitical victory: “Burger King, Iraq.” Referencing the exporting of U.S. fast food to a war zone as an empty signifier of success, Riggle assures Stewart, “I knew Iraq was a success story the minute I landed in Baghdad. If a Burger King mug doesn’t say we won, nothing does.” Riggle’s insider status also lends credibility to his countering the “with us or against us” rhetoric implemented by the Bush administration and its supporters against detractors of its policies.

Reporting on an April 2008 Pentagon and US Government Accountability Office assessment of progress in the “war on terror,” Riggle announces:

“In the U.S. war on terror, we’ve been walking in a fucking circle. […] In 2001 there was a memo: ‘Bin Laden determined to attack the United states from a safe haven in Afghanistan.’ Now, seven years and seven billion dollars later, we get a new memo saying, ‘Bin Laden determined to attack the United States from a safe haven somewhere around Afghanistan.’ We’re right back where we started! We could have gotten here by doing nothing!”[20]

Directly challenging Bush’s sense of accomplishment, the veteran continues by comparing his leadership style to a family road trip gone horribly wrong:

“I knew this motherfucker didn’t know where he was going. […] America was just in the back seat acting like, ‘I don’t think this was the way to defeat al-Qaeda,’ and he’s like [in a Bush voice] ‘I know what I’m doing. Heh heh. I know a short cut through Iraq. Everybody come on now, just trust me.’ We’re all like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we should ask for directions. Y’know, I’m pretty sure al-Qaeda’s the other way,’ and he’s like, ‘SHUT UP! SHUT UP! What the hell? I’ll dump your ass in Yemen! You’re just like your mother! Keep your hand off the radio, goddamit!’”[21]

At his tirade’s end, a visibly frustrated Riggle sarcastically responds to Stewart’s question about what the President might change in light of this intel. “This’ll be a wakeup call,” he grumbles. “If there’s anything this President responds to, it’s written criticism.” Riggle’s trademark jocularity fades after he calls out the former President for his famous lack of curiosity about details and preference for easily digestible information rather than the nuances of war that matter, especially to the men and women serving as agents of state aggression.