Co-Writer & Co-Director Robert Smigel On Adam Sandler Collaboration In Netflix Comedy


  • Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler reunite for their 16th collaboration in the animated comedy Leo, which delivers both goofy humor and heartfelt storytelling.
  • Leo features a star-studded ensemble cast including Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Rob Schneider, and more, making it a treat for all ages.
  • Smigel discusses the creative process behind Leo, including the initial concept and the balance between adult-oriented humor and kid-friendly jokes.

Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler are back together with Leo. Having first met each other during their Saturday Night Live days, the Netflix animated comedy marks the 16th major collaboration between Smigel and Sandler, with the former starring in everything from Billy Madison to Punch-Drunk Love while also co-writing Hotel Transylvania, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and directing The Week Of.

Alongside Sandler, who also co-wrote the movie, and Smigel, the ensemble Leo cast includes Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Rob Schneider, Allison Strong, Jo Koy, Sadie and Sunny Sandler, Coulter Ibanez, Bryant Tardy, Corey J., Ethan Smigel, Tienya Safko and Roey Smigel. Retaining much of the goofy humor of their previous collaborations as well as some of the heartfelt storytelling of the animated genre, Sandler, Smigel and co-directors Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim have crafted a meaningful treat for all ages.

Related: Leo Ending Explained

Ahead of the movie’s release, Screen Rant interviewed co-writer/co-director Robert Smigel to discuss Leo, his frequent collaborations with Adam Sandler and how he balanced self-aware humor with kid-friendly jokes.

Robert Smigel Talks Leo

Leo uses a phone in his tank in Leo

Screen Rant: I’m really excited to talk about this movie, it is such a heartwarming film from start to finish. I’ve obviously been a big admirer of your work for years.

Robert Smigel: It’s not necessarily obvious. [Laughs] Not everybody is.

I have plenty of your movies on my shelves, I just didn’t get the time to put them up! You and Adam go back a long time. When did the concept for Leo first come about for you guys, and when did you start putting it together?

Robert Smigel: So Adam, right before we started making The Week of for Netflix five years ago, he had told me he was thinking of like, “I want to make a musical buddy. I want to make a musical, like a Grease for kids, an elementary school musical,” and that sounded cool. But then I dove into The Week Of, and then when he was done with it, suddenly it was like, “I took a shot at it.” [Chuckles] I was like, “What, I thought we were gonna [try together]?” So anyway, he and Paul Sado worked on the idea for a while, and it was a cute script. But it was not this, there wasn’t any class pet giving advice, it was a completely different story, other than it was fifth graders over the course of a year.

There are a couple of things we pulled from it for this, like the concepts, anyway, of a kid who has a drone following him, and the crazy kindergartners, that concept that they’re like almost otherworldly. But otherwise, there was like one little thing about a narrator that happened three times in the movie, and then at the very end, it’s revealed the narrator was a snake in the room, and that’s what triggered, “Oh, well, wait. What if the class pet has all this wisdom, and he’s been doing it for 70 years, and he’s sick of being in this room, but he’s just jaded? And he and his cellmate just pigeonhole every kid at the beginning of every year, ‘Okay, here’s the always-sick kid, and should-have-stayed-home kid,’ that kind of thing. They’re just so cynical about the whole thing, and then his life changes when he accidentally has to start giving a kid advice.”

What really hit it for me comedically was thinking that, because I had kids in fourth grade at the time who had actually had a couple of pregnant teachers who were switched with substitutes to mixed results. [Chuckles] But I just love the idea of a lizard, the class pet, giving advice, and these kids, some of their problems, could be so minute like, “Oh, my God, I can’t be in band class, because I wear high waters, and people are gonna see my shins,” you know, that kind of stuff. Everything is elevated when you’re that age, and it’s funny to adults, but to kids, it’s the most important thing in the world. So, I love that as a starting point, and then having the problems get more and more real and potentially serious, to the point where, finally, Leo doesn’t have a solution, so he just listened to the girl whose parents are divorced and Grandpa died.

I love that creative process that you took, it works out really well in for the film. Before I let you go, I also would love to hear the balance of adult-oriented humor with kids-oriented humor, because you have meta humor, fourth-wall breaks. What is it like balancing that?

Robert Smigel: I’ll tell you what, I read the reviews, because I’m crazy. Adam doesn’t read any reviews. The only thing that gets me nuts is when people say the movie can’t decide whether it wants to do this or that, and like the whole point is that I’m doing all of it. I think a majority of it everybody’s gonna like, and yes, there’s stuff that fall out of the Venn diagram that, okay, like the Groucho Marx one, or the dad who’s turning the light switch on and off and bragging about [his wealth]. I think my kids understood what entitled parents were like when they were in fourth grade, we would laugh about it, so I think, yes, we’re making fun of so many aspects of growing up from the parent side of it to the administrative side of it, to the kids side of it.

What I like most is that most of it is grounded in reality, even though it’s silly, but even like when he tips the stop watches, that’s grounded in reality, that’s something parents understand, when you can’t remember if you’re supposed to tip the plumber in the suburbs, or whatever it is, the electrician who comes in, it’s that kind of thing. I just like to draw from every tool I have, and yes, I like creating — there were some surreal moments in Hotel Transylvania 2, like when he was watching Twilight on the airplane. But, I like throwing in everything, and we did enough previews where we took out the ones that we really didn’t feel worked enough for enough people in the audience, but we tested it, and we left in a lot. And I love that about the movie, that it has many different kinds of humor in it.

About Leo

Actor and comedian Adam Sandler (Hotel Transylvania, The Wedding Singer) delivers signature laughs in this coming-of-age animated musical comedy about the last year of elementary school – as seen through the eyes of a class pet. Jaded 74-year-old lizard Leo (Sandler) has been stuck in the same Florida classroom for decades with his terrarium-mate turtle (Bill Burr). When he learns he only has one year left to live, he plans to escape to experience life on the outside but instead gets caught up in the problems of his anxious students — including an impossibly mean substitute teacher. It ends up being the strangest but most rewarding bucket list ever…

Check out our other Leo interviews here:

Leo is now streaming on Netflix.

Source: Screen Rant Plus

  • Leo Netflix 2023 Movie Poster


    Release Date:

    Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim

    Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sunny Sandler, Sadie Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jackie Sandler, Stephanie Hsu, Jo Koy


    102 Minutes

    Animation, Comedy

    Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, Paul Sado

    Netflix Animation, Happy Madison Productions



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