In October of 2009, Saturday Night Live ran a commercial for a fictional dog food that made an atypical marketing decision. The main selling point: “Mostly Garbage is cheaper than other dog foods.”
Instead of pretending that Mostly Garbage is filled with the best things your loyal companion could ever eat, the product’s spokesman—portrayed by Jason Sudeikis, now known as Ted Lasso himself—focuses on what customers could buy with the money they’d save by feeding their pups literal refuse. Among them: “heat for your house or food for your children.” And how does “Mostly Garbage” keep its costs down? Well, it’s mostly made of garbage.
As purveyors of fresh, human-grade food for dogs, we’re big fans of the sketch. So we tracked down its writer, Simon Rich, to talk about its origins. As it turns out, Rich might be our first interview subject who sees dogs mainly as a source of content. “Even though I’ve never been a lover of actual real-life dogs,” he told us over the phone, “I’m definitely grateful to them for material, and feel lucky to have them in the world—if only to write jokes about.”
And Rich has written a lot about dogs over the years, even though we discovered in our talk that he didn’t grow up around dogs and spent a long time fearing them. In addition to “Mostly Garbage,” he’s included pieces about dogs in Hits and Misses, Free Range Chickens, and The Last Girlfriend on Earth, and—with Marika Sawyer and noted dog person John Mulaney—co-wrote the deranged Saturday Night Live sketch “Rocket Dog,” in which pups wearing rocket packs meet untimely ends to the blaring chorus of Tom Cochrane’s 1991 hit “Life is a Highway.” Don’t worry, no dogs were harmed in the filming of the sketch.
Rich took some time to share his memories of writing and filming “Mostly Garbage,” insights about the mysteries of human-canine actor chemistry, and how he stalls his daughters when they ask for a dog of their own.
Simon Rich’s most recent book of short stories, New Teeth, is now available in paperback.
Digest: Did you grow up with dogs?
Simon Rich: So I grew up in New York City. I never had a dog, and in fact I had a great fear of dogs.
Yes. Because I didn’t really interact with any dogs growing up. All my friends lived in apartments. Not only did I not have a dog—I didn’t know anybody who had a dog.
Editor’s note: Like many employees at The Farmer’s Dog, this writer lives with a dog in New York City. It’s great!
What do you remember about working with the dog in “Mostly Garbage?”
I remember that the dog was so photogenic, but it was hard to get the dog and Jason to connect. That’s just a chemistry thing. That’s neither of their faults, it just wasn’t working for whatever reason. And the last shot of the shoot required Jason and the dog to nuzzle. And I remember that taking an inordinate number of takes.
On Frasier, they would hide liver paté behind John Mahoney’s ear. Did you have to resort to a trick like that?
I don’t think it came to that. But that was the last shot of the day, and it definitely took at least a few tries.
What got it done?
I don’t remember what sealed the deal, but eventually the dog got there.
Specifically it’s the shot where they say “every nuzzle,” and they have to get in really close. But it’s a lot to ask of a dog to be so intimate with a fictional owner.
Was the dog’s blind trust in the person as he’s being served trash part of the humor?
It was important for us to make sure that you know the dog is going to be fine—that was high on the list, of course, that the dog should always look absolutely cool with what’s going on. Otherwise, I don’t think the audience would have rolled with the premise. And I remember there being riboflavin, right? We give the dog riboflavin.
A lot of your writing in New Teeth is about parenting changing someone’s perspective on life. Are you seeing dogs differently now through the eyes of your daughters?
Yes. They absolutely love dogs, and ask for dogs all the time. And what I’ve told them is that they can have a dog when they’re 21 years old. And, luckily, they’re not proficient enough in math to know how long that is.
How old are they?
The oldest one is in kindergarten.
Wow, 21 is a long time away.
But she doesn’t really know that. She’s starting to sense that it will be longer than she initially hoped.
So bringing a dog into your family is something that you are trying to avoid.
Yes, but it’ll probably be a losing battle. And I would say… I don’t know if I would describe myself as a dog lover, but I definitely am less pathologically frightened of them now than I used to be.
I’m glad that you are on that path.
I definitely think that they should eat regular food.
You are on the record that it is wrong to feed dogs garbage.
It is wrong to feed dogs garbage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.