The Insane Story Behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s Epic Ted Cruz Takedown
Robert Smigel explains how he got the Texas senator to embarrass himself and reveals the moment he cut out because he worried it would make Cruz look too good.
It was easily one of the greatest moments in the two-decade history of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
In the days leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Stephen Colbert sent his old friend Robert Smigel down to Texas to report on the heated Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke as his infamous puppet character.
“We went to Texas with no expectation of talking to either candidate,” Smigel reveals on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “I thought I was just going to make fun of the supporters and make Ted Cruz jokes and that would be the end of it. I never thought in a million years that Ted Cruz would come up to me and be willing to speak.”
By this point, Smigel had ample experience trying to wrangle candidates on the campaign trail, dating back to his first political convention in 2004 when he teamed up with Michael Moore to crash Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News broadcast. In 2016, Triumph landed his own series of election specials on Hulu in which he brutally roasted candidates like Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie to their faces. Earlier this month, he ripped Anthony Scaramucci a new one on his “Quarantine Squares” game show.
He knew that Cruz and his team were aware of Triumph because they had spent a good amount of time during the 2016 cycle chasing him around New Hampshire. “Ted Cruz is like a lightning rod,” Smigel says. “He’s one of the most hated people in the Senate. I think a lot of Republicans hate him too. But they deal with him.” Smigel was careful not to disrupt Cruz’s campaign events in 2016, but he says it was enough for his team to be “very upset” with him after a few days.
“I would try to chase him with a question when he would run into the bus,” he says. “And it was working, it was really funny and we were getting gold.” Eventually, someone on his team got a call from the Cruz camp. “They want to know what it’s going to take for you to stop showing up at every event,” Smigel was told. An interview was on the table, but Smigel turned them down.
“I said, you know what? I like the way this is working,” he says, laughing. “And so we just continued chasing him and amping it up.”
So when Cruz heard Triumph calling his name in Texas two years later, he actually “lit up,” Smigel says. “Ted Cruz thinks he’s funny,” the comedian says of the biggest Simpsons fan in the Senate. “And apparently he thought that he could hold his own and all would be fine, you know? So he made a very big, grandiose gesture of welcoming Triumph.”
After Triumph shouted out lines like, “You can’t ignore me, Ted, I’m not overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming!” Cruz sidled over and flashed a smile, saying, “Welcome to Texas.”
“It was very, very stressful for me because I had no expectation that I was going to get to talk to Ted Cruz,” Smigel says. “We write a lot of jokes in advance, but I never put together a section of what I would say to Ted Cruz.” He also knew he didn’t want to say “anything that’s going to be too gross or dark or anything that he could use as ammo.”
The campaign event was held shortly after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the Senate. “And if you’ll recall, they love to play the victim anytime they can,” Smigel says, noting that conservatives had started complaining about “the mob” coming after them around the time Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was confronted by activists in an elevator.
“The mob is what they labeled the people who are against rape, basically,” he jokes. “People who want to see at least a fair exploration of what this guy did before he gets a lifetime appointment. So I didn’t want to do anything to feed that narrative.”
One of the “crasser” jokes that Smigel considered but ditched was something along the lines of, “When Trump hugged you at the rally…was he technically grabbing another pussy?” But then Cruz gave him a gift. “He had this checkmate smile on his face,” Smigel recalls. “He thinks he’s got me.”
“Just remember, it wasn’t the Republicans, it was the Democrats that took you into the vet to get fixed,” Cruz told him.
“I don’t even know exactly what it meant, but it got a huge laugh among everybody around him,” Smigel tells me. “And he’s just got a big smile, shoulders are starting to vibrate and he’s nodding and like, you know, checkmate. But it turned out it was actually a softball.”
As Cruz’s staff and supporters started to applaud, Triumph shot back, “I support spaying and neutering, just like Trump did to you!”
“And then some people did laugh because they had to, and he laughed,” Smigel says. “And he actually went, ‘Ahh!’ Like, you got me. And I gave him credit for that.”
The final piece, which also included a hilarious chat with O’Rourke, ended up airing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the night before the election and has since racked up nearly three million views on YouTube—more than the total number of votes Cruz ended up beating his opponent by the next day.
“I haven’t ever said this and I’m going to regret it,” Smigel adds. “But as a joke, Triumph—I high-fived him with my paw. Because I thought it would look funny.”
But then he decided to cut it out of the final video.
“That’ll be the freeze frame that they pull,” he thought at the time. “We live in this internet world where one moment can be pulled out of context and redefine anything. And so I was like, you know, on the one hand I liked that he was a good sport about it. But I think that’s going to come across anyway. I don’t need a bunch of jerks using this against me somehow.”
Look out for a bonus episode The Last Laugh podcast with Trump impersonator J-L Cauvin later this week.