“Turns out you can rent a tank!” says Robert Smigel. “It costs something like $5,000, and we blew our big production budget on the tank.”
The last time Smigel and I talked back in March, he was backstage at the first Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Election Special wondering what the hell was about to happen during the taping of his own show that was starting in just 20 minutes. That taping was an enormous mess. O.J. Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who was there to be fucked with, realized exactly that about an hour in and bolted midway through the taping. (He was replaced by Sanjaya from American Idol.) Smigel’s beard kept rubbing against the microphone and there was no way to edit it out. The guests and audience were exhausted.
And, at the end of all of it, what did Smigel get out of it? Hulu’s first comedy Emmy nomination. It was a masterpiece. It was the best bit of longform political satire of 2016, and nothing else came close.
Now, the production budget is a little bigger for the second one, Triumph’s Summer Election Special, where Smigel and his dog puppet say ruthlessly revolting and true things directly to the faces of everyone from Don Lemon to Donald Trump supporters.
No more beard-to-mic problems this time. Now he has a tank. An actual goddamn tank. And he uses it to drive through a predominantly black neighborhood near Cleveland to pretend to be Donald Trump, where he screams from a megaphone and only makes a single appendage visible.
“Look at his tiny hand!” one of the residents yells.
There are a lot more gags than that. There’s a horrifying, soon-to-be-viral real-life focus group of Trump supporters watching Smigel-made Trump campaign ads that float new policy positions, like a vending machine for handguns in every single one of America’s women’s bathrooms. (“That’s real! Every aspect of it!”) There’s a Hamilton parody with a black Benjamin Franklin impersonator that might be the squirmiest, funniest 90 seconds of Triumph’s entire career, even though he’s barely in the shot.
But the summer special might be even better than the first one, if just for this one joke: “Ivanka is home with the baby because it’s very difficult to breastfeed when your father is trying to videotape you.”
It’s the gutsiest political humor of 2016. And Smigel told The Daily Beast he’s “shocked” by the Emmy nom—but that it was also quietly well over a decade in the making.
Daily Beast: Well, damn, this one is just as funny as the first one.
Robert Smigel (voice of Triumph): This is what Triumph has to offer. The only reason I wanted to get into the political thing was because I don’t think anybody else was saying things to their faces. With a lot of people, this is something a little different. I liked the idea that Triumph is apolitical and above it. He likes to shit on both sides equally. It’s hard sometimes, since Trump gets funnier and funnier.
Yeah, it seems like extremists are becoming even more extreme earlier in the cycle than they ever have.
Extremists are very funny, if you just approach it from a comedy place. Extremists are funny from both sides if you’re just willing to look for it. Like the kids in New Hampshire [from the first special, where Triumph made college students squirm when confronted with their own safe space guidelines], or the most fanatical Ted Cruz supporters. The truth is, I’m more scared of [fanatical Cruz supporters] than the Trump supporters. They appeal to the center to maintain power, so they’re funny in their own way. You have divorce yourself from it. I just want Triumph to be funny.
This one seemed harder because everyone on the convention floor—especially, to their credit, Republican delegates—wanted to be made fun of by Triumph.
It’s very different. It’s a challenge, taking selfies with people and still trying to get footage. I was the only celebrity that anyone has access to. Nobody else was anywhere near the delegates. They’re all upstairs in media centers. I was just roaming the floor and constantly being asked, as the only celebrity, for selfies.
So it is a challenge. It’s double-edged because it’s great to have more access, but you only get more access when you’re considered a thing. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of all people, went out of their way to get us into the debate for the last special. I got access completely through the DNC, but our cameraman came late, so we contacted Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s closest aides, and they actually came out of the building to help us get in. It’s come a long way from being thrown out almost reflexively back in 2004.
Wait, so you’ve been thinking of doing a Triumph comedy movie since 2004?
There’d been a couple of times when I wanted to test the waters. The Farrelly Brothers wanted to try in 2004 and that was a very polarized, very funny year in that regard—with Kerry against Bush. Karl Rove was going full bore and turning gay marriage into a polarizing issue. The war was going on. That one fell through. Four years later, I went with Conan’s people to the 2008 conventions. NBC News helped us out, and it was the polar opposite. “Tim Pawlenty wants to see if you’ll speak with him.” That kind of thing.
I suppose I should congratulate you on your Emmy nomination! [It’s for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Variety Special.] Did you ever think this was going to happen?
No. I didn’t think I was gonna get nominated at all. Even as they sent out the [press materials], I was shocked at the reviews we got. I’m never very comfortable with it. I think the difference is, the show doesn’t take politics all that seriously. Not as much as, say, Jon Stewart, or people who have a point of view.
People like Conan exist in that world, where the primary goal was to be completely silly and not affect anyone’s opinions in any way. In the process of making this show, I accidentally made a point or two I suppose. When I was pitching Triumph to different networks, the last thing that ever occurred to me to say was, “If you’re interested in gaining some class and some Emmy nominations, this is the ticket.” I kind of liked that it’s the opposite. I was surprised. But the thing I liked best was it was Hulu’s first nomination. I was very happy for them. They were so excited about it. They had the most persistent interest and the most faith that I could do longform and that we could work together, and it paid off.
So is this going to be a thing that continues on Hulu after the election?
We still haven’t nailed that down. We’re definitely going to be doing more stuff with the election—even sooner than that. We have a compilation of the stuff that didn’t get into this special. This one’s more like an hour.
I think the most pressing question I have for you is: How the hell did you get access to a tank?
Turns out you can rent a tank! We have amazing segment producers. It’s really hard [to rent a tank]. It costs something like $5,000, and we blew our big production budget on the tank. We drove it around in Euclid, Ohio. And pretty quickly people figured out it was a goof.
This one’s been a little harder thematically for me. I really enjoyed the gimmick behind the first one: Let’s cover these absurdly intimate campaigns in early primary states that are such an anomaly, politically. And this is the complete opposite. Everybody in the world converges on them. How are we going to be original on this one? There are a bunch of bits that didn’t even involve the convention that we shot that will hopefully be in the next one.
That focus group where you test the campaign ads and proposals to Trump fans [one features an electric fence on the Mexican border that shocks all Mexicans who are wearing government-issued necklaces if they attempt to cross over, which all of the focus group’s participants roundly endorse]—how did you find those people? How’d that happen?
That’s real! We employed a real focus group with real Trump supporters. Every aspect of it. That was the one where everything was completely straight except the actual product analyzed. That’s the piece that I assume people will talk about. I’m not sure what people will say about it.
Well, the last time we talked, we chatted a little bit about how you and I both believe that these people have real concerns that often have to get bundled in with the rest of Trump’s ideas.
That’s the thing: We’re not out there with them. This is all we see from them. Everything’s filtered through the media, so I’m loath to pass judgment on them. Reading about them on Huffington Post and cnn.com—it’s never going to be as it is. At the bottom of every Huffington Post article, there’s that disclaimer: “Trump is a xenophobe and a misogynist.” It falls into self-parody at times. And I’m not defending anybody, but it’s sometimes amusing to see some media outlets fall over themselves to make points about Trump that backfire.
It seems like it’s gotten even worse over the last few months.
It’s pretty insane right now. We have one guy saying crazy shit every day and, with the other one, there’s new revelations every day. You just wonder… I assume that all she has to do is not get thrown in jail. It seems like the craziest thing—imagining pundits seriously talking about this, that if she can avoid being indicted, she’ll be the next president.
The response for this thing, I don’t know what it is about it, has been basically universal praise. That’s not easy in comedy.
I don’t think I’ve ever done a project that had this kind of reaction. People usually find something to hate about it. Now I have to live up to that first one, and I’m already bracing myself for the inevitable comparisons. I was sort of mystified by the response. When I say I was shocked, I mean, I stand by everything that I’ve done, but people have had such a hunger for stuff with a point of view that they’ve often dismissed stuff that is purely silly. And that’s fine, as long as I can keep getting paid to do it. This was just shocking. I didn’t expect it because I wasn’t taking a stand one way or the other. It was kind of nice to see that people appreciated that approach as well.