How Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Became the Best Political Satirist of 2016
“I did 15 (segments) in two weeks. I did it, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
This is Robert Smigel speaking in front of a studio audience in a midtown Manhattan studio on Wednesday night, talking about the dog puppet he just dragged around Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and directly into the faces of everyone from Ted Cruz to Killer Mike to Martin O’Malley for the last month.
Now he’s back in New York, standing in front of the Van Halen tribute band Fair Warning that he brought with him from the Midwest just to make one joke about balls and spandex. (They’ve already played “Janie’s Crying” twice in 20 minutes.)
Over the next five hours, he’ll sit underneath a desk and man Triumph the Insult Comic Dog for the first ever Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Election Special, which was produced by FunnyOrDie and will stream on Hulu starting Monday. The taping will be a beautiful, magnificent mess. He’s invited Alan Dershowitz of OJ Simpson trial fame, Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” YouTube fame, Ed Schultz, The Dell Guy, lobbyist and CNN commentator Hillary Rosen, American Idol’s 7th place finisher in 2007 Sanjaya, National Journal columnist Ron Fournier, and Blackwolf the Dragonmaster.
These people are all at one table together for almost five hours. Triumph will frequently cut off Schultz, who is a commentator on RT, midsentence on issues like gun control to hear from Blackwolf, whom Smigel had met more than a decade ago in line at a Star Wars convention. Dershowitz will get so fed up with being made fun of, he’ll walk out midway through the taping, and he’ll be promptly replaced by former MTV VJ Jesse Camp.
Before the show, Smigel tells me, “we have no fucking idea what we’re doing today,” and tells some people he might not use any of these studio segments for the special, after all. (It would be a shame, too, because then they'd have to throw out the best bit on the show, which features fake campaign books from each candidate. Mike Huckabee’s is simply called I Have Diarrhea.) At points, it feels more like performance art than anything else. It is a grueling, physically painful, sometimes tedious shoot.
But, depending on how it all comes together, it could be Triumph’s masterpiece.
Smigel has, as he says, had “his hand up the ass” of Triumph so long he would now legally be an adult, even in human years. Triumph made his debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien 18 years ago, and he’s been making fun of America’s fringe for years.
But this past month, Smigel put Triumph into the center of what may become the most watched election of all time. He was in every spin room in Iowa, at debates for both parties, and in so many coffee shops with Ted Cruz, his staff had to resort to repeatedly roughing up a puppet.
And it’s not only the best Triumph has ever been. It’s the best political commentary of maybe the craziest political season there has ever been.
At one point during the taping, Smigel asks for a second camera for a hard close-up on his Yugoslavian Mountain Hound snout.
“Like Colbert," he says, then remembers the audience is listening. “You got me. This is biting Colbert.”
But then he cuts to remote segments that take digs on everyone from Bernie Sanders (“Here’s what I think he has to do to win the election: live for six more months”) to Ben Carson (Smigel had Tim Meadows dress up as Carson, walk into an Iowa coffee shop, and have diners threaten to stab him to prove that belt buckles are stronger than knives. Really.)—and you realize something: This is better than Stephen Colbert now, since he’s been defanged by The Late Show. And Jon Stewart isn’t coming back anytime soon.
It’s probably better than anybody else going right now. He goes to great lengths to hit all sides—from a segment talking about the absurdity of the microaggression debate, to straight up telling Trump supporters that they’re simply uncomfortable with “brown people.”
Who knows what this show will look like when it arrives in its final form on Hulu on Monday, but the packaged segments are clear: It’s Triumph’s moment if he wants it.
He’s the only one who can pierce through the vile racism and extremism of the right and repellant smugness of the left. And it's because he’s a dog puppet with a hand up his ass.
We talked to Smigel before the taping on Wednesday. Here’s the chat in its entirety.
So how was Iowa?
It was the stupidest mission I’ve ever set this puppet on. Over the years I’ve carefully modulated the amount of appearances this thing makes because that’s sort of why people still laugh, I think? We never ran it into the ground when it became popular on Conan. We kind of held back and had it do maybe four, maybe three a year. So this month, I went to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina for about two and a half weeks, and shot about 15 eight-minute segments.
I had to hire more writers because it’s just too much. Normally on Conan, a week at least goes into planning each of the two or three [appearances] we do. And here, we’re at the mercy of opportunity. Candidates are turning us down right and left. We’re getting thrown out of places or we’re getting rejected. We weren’t allowed to go to the Republican debates. We went to the Democratic debate. The Republicans, we kind of had to chase down. And we did. We went to a lot of town halls. We went to a number of meet and greets. We scrounged together material. We did some stuff that was off the campaign but political. We went to a gun show in Iowa.
In New Hampshire, we went to a school and talked to kids about microaggressions because that seems like something needs to be addressed. I thought it would be good because I didn’t want the whole thing to be just about making fun of the Republican candidates.
It’s interesting that you say you portioned out Triumph’s appearances over time because it felt to me like you always searched out the rare fringe event.
To freak show-like events, yes.
But now it seems like pretty much everything has become a freak show event.
On some level, yes. And we sort of play with that, too. It’s so amusing to me how the media focuses only on the mistakes. If you go on CNN after a debate, they’ll literally show Jeb Bush and Trump yelling at each other and they’ll cut it off right before the actual answer to the question, the actual policy. “Nobody wants that part!”
So we play with that. You’ll see a piece where we had a bunch of reporters report things as if they were real just to play on the media’s desire to spread the off-point stuff, and also to enjoy the phenomenon of self-righteousness—just how much people enjoy being self-righteous in expressing their opinions.
It does feel like the Internet is one big self-righteousness machine at this point.
Yeah, it’s just like reality shows. It’s serving a different purpose. Reality shows came about. And they became popular because it allows you to feel better about yourself by passing judgment on real people, who are freaks. And now Twitter has become the same thing where if Drake Bell says something inappropriate, it trends. People haven’t thought about Drake Bell in about 70 years, and he could appear in a movie and be fantastic but he wouldn’t get 1/8th of the attention he got for saying… I don’t even remember what he said. But I remember seeing him one day trending on Twitter for some comment that people just could not wait to attack.
So we play with that here, since I didn’t want the whole hour to be just Triumph’s voice dominating all the comedy. So I figured out ways with the writers to have Triumph scheme and manipulate people and stories to create a different kind of comedy.
So is this just the one hour for Hulu—or are you eventually going to do more?
So I was initially offered Netflix, too, and I chose Hulu. They’re wonderful people. They’ve been incredibly supportive and have had so much faith in this. But also, they just really seemed like they wanted to do a series. I’d like to do some kind of series with Triumph and other kinds of comedy. This looks like a jumping off point.
This seems like the time for it. There are, I’d say, about seven voices I can think of that can kind of pierce through this everyone is angry no matter what moment. You—or Triumph—just runs at some frequency that doesn’t pay mind to it.
What I like about Triumph is that he’s kind of harmless at the same time. Because it’s a puppet and he’s so silly inherently, and he doesn’t come off nearly as mean spirited or angry as a lot of other insult comedy does. And there’s a lot of silly physical humor that goes with it. And childish humor that goes with it that isn’t really possible with a full human being. Sometimes people don’t see past that and they don’t realize that there is a lot of intelligent satire that’s going on at the same time, but that’s okay.
Honestly, maybe in the room they don’t. But it doesn’t show up on screen that way.
With some people, since he’s so Borscht Belty in his delivery… he’s like a parody of a hack, on some level. I had the same problem with the (Adult Swim) sitcom (The Jack & Triumph Show). People would shut off just because it was a multicam. They thought it couldn’t possibly be anything but tacky because it’s a multicam.
They didn’t understand it was playing on convention.
It was completely subverting the multicam thing. I was very excited to do it, but I kind of quit that show. We weren’t canceled, just for the record. I could tell that it wasn’t gonna work on Adult Swim. I didn’t want to waste the character. I had a 20-episode guarantee and I got out after the first seven. I worked out a buyout because I didn’t want to spend all of that capital on something that wasn’t going to work out.
Part of Triumph is that he needs to take people by surprise and when the whole point of Adult Swim is just to fuck with stuff…
Yeah, on any other network, it would’ve been the craziest show on there. I knew that going in and I went for a 20-episode guarantee and I misjudged it. I should’ve just taken a shot and stood out as crazy as opposed to the opposite.
And the Election Special is that.
Everybody is gonna understand what I’m doing here. This is a lot like what I’ve done for 18 years—shoot remotes. This what people know they like about Triumph. It doesn’t test the audience the same way the sitcom does.
So do you have a moral of the story from your trip?
I’ve gotta be honest with you: Iowa, I spent the most time in—and I really like people in Iowa. The Trump supporters, there were some nutty people there, but a lot of them were reasonable people—even the ones who were supporting him. A lot of people were there for the show. I’m not sure Trump even realized how many people were there for the spectacle.
I told people he’s not gonna necessarily win because of his crowds. I could tell from the crowds that a lot of people were saying they were undecided and that they were there for the spectacle. He ran a very unconventional campaign where he wouldn’t do what Iowans expect, which is to meet them face to face and talk to them at coffee shops and gas stations and things.
He did put on a more entertaining show than anyone else because he changed up his act all the time. Ted Cruz was literally word-for-word. I saw six in a row. And you’ll see Triumph’s mouthing the words because he’s watched it six times.
Trump’s the opposite. What I started to worry about on his behalf was that he wasn’t talking about policy, he was just talking about how great the polls are and how great the crowds are. He was just encouraging people that “we’re gonna win!” Or he was making people feel like they were part of a big movement without talking enough about policy. That’s what made me start to think he may be overestimating what these crowds mean. Because that’s all he did was draw great crowds.
Rubio was the dark horse, I thought.
So you nailed Iowa.
I could tell from talking to people and from watching Rubio that he was going to surprise. He had a very charismatic delivery and he kept making this point that he could beat Hillary Clinton, that he was The One. And if you watch Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, it seems plausible that he might be right. I think people in Iowa are starting worry about that—which of these guys can actually win.
I was shocked when it turned out I was right. Because I had told Frank Luntz, “Rubio is gonna surprise people.” And I was kind of shocked that I was right about it because I’m basically running around with my hand in a puppet’s ass.
But I guess all you have to do is listen to people and it’s not that hard to figure out. That’s what I came away from it with. A lot of the people were very thoughtful, very involved, and harder to make fun of than I thought.
Watching it, it seems like these people—especially at Trump rallies—really just wanted some community.
Iowa, in particular, the people seemed very cool. I love the Midwest anyway. Des Moines is a really nice place. [In a Trump voice] I love the Iowans, what can I say? I love them! They’re wonderful people! I love the Japanese! I love the Mexicans!
We might do a thing today—we have no fucking idea what we’re doing. I have had no time to prepare for tonight. All I’ve been doing is remotes and this thing has to happen today because it has to be on Hulu by Monday. I don’t know what you’re gonna be seeing, but we have ideas where we have Trump call in and we’ll have Trump sitting on the floor, and when I close my mouth, I’m supposed to do Trump.
We have this insane panel. Alan Dershowitz, Ed Schultz, Ron Fournier, Hillary Rosen, but also The Dell Dude and Sanjaya was supposed to make it. Tay Zonday of Chocolate Rain fame and Jesse Camp. Do you know Jesse Camp?
Yes. What the fuck kind of Rolodex is this?
These are guys that were on my sitcom. The excuse is, “What? They’re my friends! I support the unemployed!” Who else? Oh, and Blackwolf, who was the wizard on the Star Wars line when I went with Triumph a few years ago. He’s here. He’ll just be in the panel.
And yet you don’t really have a plan for them.
I’m just gonna ask them serious questions and give Blackwolf as much time as I give Alan Dershowitz.
Triumph has always bridged that generational thing. Old people love Triumph because he delivers jokes in a traditional way and he’s cranky. He’s old-school that way. That’s always been the case since I’ve started Triumph. People always tell me, “My parents love it, too!” I still do it on TBS on Conan, but now it’s that there are kids that don’t know Triumph. That’s weird.
Now, those who are like 25 and over are the ones who get excited when they see it. And a lot of kids are like, “huh, what’s that?” A fairly low percentage of kids now know who Triumph is.
So do the kids who are seeing it for the first time react in the same way?
You know, it’s interesting, kids are less and less tolerant of meanness nowadays. But I feel as long as the targets are kind of deserved, it’s okay. We screened a lot of this stuff yesterday and there were definitely jokes that I could see were crossing the line, but a very low percentage. We got very big laughs for the most part.
But you’re mean with utility.
But you know how it is. Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld said they don’t even want to play colleges because kids are so sensitive. The micro aggressions bit we did was interesting because I told the kids, “Act like you believe in what you’re doing and saying,” so they might have actually gone a bit too far. I can’t tell how that one actually plays because usually people laugh when they’re being made fun of. These kids were trying to hold it in. It might still be funny, but I was happy that we went there and gave it a shot—trying to bridge that question of what’s going too far.