When I ask Robert Smigel if he can believe he’s been making poop jokes with a dog puppet for 23 years, he replies, “Wow. No, I can’t.”
The New York City-born comedian debuted Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997 and since then it has been the most consistently hilarious presence in a career that has included multiple stints writing for Saturday Night Live and bit parts in the films of friends like Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, including this year’s The King of Staten Island.
“It’s the most stressful thing I do in my career,” Smigel admits of Triumph on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “And unfortunately the most successful. But it’s not really my nature. It’s my nature to push boundaries and bite the hand that feeds me. But for me to be physically confrontational, that is not me at all.”
Over the past two decades, Smigel has used Triumph to roast everyone from Star Wars nerds and Times Square mascots to politicians he clearly loathes like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. But the pandemic has kept him indoors, so like everyone else, he decided to find a way to bring his creation into the Zoom era.
“I’ve been wanting to do a Triumph-hosted quiz show for many years and it’s one of many ideas I just haven’t been able to sell, frustratingly,” he says. Earlier this month, Funny or Die came on board to help produce “Quarantine Squares,” an elaborate game show in which nine celebrities of varying fame levels tried to help raise money for essential workers by making jokes.
Joining comic actors like Ken Jeong, Jason Alexander and Susie Essman was a man who has oddly become Smigel’s best friend on Twitter: former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
“Scaramucci will do pretty much anything,” Smigel says of the short-lived Trump aide who also popped up on Celebrity Big Brother last year. “I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The guy who had nothing to lose was willing to say anything. And the guy who DMs me the most on Twitter.” He characterized their direct messages as, “‘Hey, anytime man, when are we doing another one?’ And, ‘Way to go man, you’re a genius!’ Same stuff he would say to Donald Trump, I’m sure.”
As much fun as he had making the Zoom game show, Smigel is eager to get Triumph back out on the road for the 2020 presidential election, as he has done in every campaign cycle since 2004.
“I mean, I wouldn’t go out tomorrow. that’s for sure,” he says. “There’s no way my wife would let me. She would never let me go to a Trump rally right now. Not in a million years.” The Republican National Convention at the end of the summer is another story, however. “I think it’s possible,” he hints.
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
How Triumph gets away with jokes no human comic could
“For one thing, it’s just inherently meaner for a human being to make fun of Star Wars fans then for an adorable fictional puppet. Plus there’s an extra layer of irony because Triumph’s got a bowtie and his cigar and his rhythm is very old school Catskills. So even though we try to write really funny jokes, the fact that Triumph adheres to this dinosaur kind of a conceit sort of lowers his status even more. So he becomes kind of like the jester. The kind of thing where you can make jokes in front of the king and the king’s not going to be offended. And a lot of times it works that way, but a lot of times we still piss people off.”
Why ‘The Ambiguously Gay Duo’ wouldn’t work in 2020
“I wouldn’t write it now. To be clear, the engine of that joke was our obsession with sexuality. The premise that I came up with was all about how the villains are obsessed with finding out whether these guys are gay or not, and they can’t get their evil work done because they’re too obsessed, staring at these guys. And the reason I thought it was so funny was because it’s not just homophobes who were obsessed, but everybody. This was just sport and titillation that was accepted and considered non-controversial in any way. It was kind of hilarious to me that these people who were supposedly progressive gave a shit at all. The bottom line point of the cartoon was, who gives a shit how they fuck? It doesn’t matter! It’s sad that this has to be something that people get defined by, but they have to, at this point, because they’re still fighting for basic human rights, still to this day. Thankfully there’s been an incredible amount of progress, but it’s not done. This is all stuff that needs to be in the rear-view mirror. It’s not there yet. But it’s a lot better than it was 20 years ago, thankfully. And for that reason, there’d be really no reason to write ‘The Ambiguously Gay Duo.’”
Why his SNL exit was ‘not pretty’
“I was asked to leave finally. I got to write there for eight years. Then I took a few years off doing other things, writing movies and then The Dana Carvey Show. I got to do the [TV Funhouse] cartoons for 11 years there. It was not pretty the way it ended, I gotta be honest. And it wasn’t Lorne [Michaels] at all, he was very gracious. They were looking to cut the budget. And then the writers’ strike hits and everything is stopped for a while. Because of the writers’ strike, I know that [then NBC president] Jeff Zucker in particular and NBC in general were looking to get rid of a lot of fat in their minds. Lorne didn’t have enough power, didn’t have enough juice to fight for it. And it really bothered me because I just didn’t think that was appropriate to let someone go, because A, I’d been there for 23 years, worked very hard, done a lot of good stuff for the show. And B, they actually knew that I had a child with autism and the expenses and difficulties that come with that. And here they’re just basically cutting me off, cutting off an income that I had planned for, for that year. And then within the same year, Conan [O’Brien] moved to Los Angeles. So the two gigs that I had counted on as my foundation financially and creatively were gone.”
How he thinks SNL has done satirizing Donald Trump
“I think it’s been up and down. It’s a hard one. I think it’s been hard for everybody in a way, because he’s such a sitting duck. Even during this terrible time, everything was focused on Trump. Like when the riots started, for weeks, I felt like all the late-night shows were still just making it all about Trump. And this problem has existed long before Donald Trump. And I’m not giving Trump any kind of free pass by any stretch of the imagination. But my problem was that I know he’s easy to make fun of, I do it as much as anybody when I’m doing Triumph. But if you’ve got a platform and all you’re going to make fun of is Donald Trump, then you’re giving cover to a lot of people. And you’re providing cover for a lot of corruption and racism that has existed way before Donald Trump. And I’m not saying that he doesn’t foment it at times and that he’s not a part of it, but it goes way beyond him. And to just make it all about Trump, you’re doing a disservice. It’s not as easy to make fun of lobbyists or the system of protection that’s inherent in our police force, but it’s gotta be done and absolutely with jokes.”
Look out for a bonus episode The Last Laugh podcast with Trump impersonator J-L Cauvin later this week.