He's gone from a randomly discovered hand puppet in a New York furniture store to an enduring, instantly recognizable icon of cleverly crafted insults on par with Don Rickles.
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog makes his triumphant return with "Triumph's Summer Election Special," his second politically minded excursion -- available August 11th on Hulu -- where he finds the current state of the presidential election a ripe target ... for him to poop on!
During a recent visit to the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, Robert Smigel -- Triumph's creator, lead writer/improviser and vocal ego -- admitted that it's been a long, strange road from Triumph's early appearances as a one-off gag on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" 19 years ago to his emergence as a comedy brand all his own.
"Triumph used to just appear in the middle of Conan's show as Conan would have guests on, like John Tesh and William Shatner," said Smigel, a veteran writer/producer for O'Brien and "Saturday Night Live," previously best known for his animated sketches "Saturday TV Funhouse" and recurring segments like "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." "And Conan is hilarious, but one of the most polite hosts, so Triumph provided catharsis by saying whatever the audience was waiting to hear to John Tesh."
"And then we went to Westminster [Kennel Club Dog Show] a couple of times," he says of Triumph's early remote shoots, including a blistering funny roast of "Star Wars" fans waiting in line to see the first showings of "Attack of the Clones," which became early viral sensations in the early days of the Internet. "I completely improvised it, and then when we decided to do more of these, I was like, "We should write some jokes, maybe, in advance, just to see." And jokes are great, so what I do now is I'm improvising in the moment, but I have a bunch of jokes as well."
Today, following the success of this year's earlier election-themed special, Triumph is on the road again, visiting recent debates, conventions, and broadcasts, where the bow-tied host's acerbic comments that undercut the heated, contentious tone of the current political climate.
"I think his voice fits right in, actually," said Smigel. "That was sort of what attracted me to covering it. I've never really done anything like this before. I've done Triumph for almost 20 years, but three or four times a year I would appear on 'Conan,' and I was trying to figure out things to do, bigger things to do, and I wanted to do a Las Vegas special."
"But then last summer [Donald] Trump entered the race and the Wall Street Journal referred to him as 'Trump the Insult Comic Dog,'" chuckled Smigel. "I just started to realize that now that the tone of politics is taking this nasty turn, it might be funny to see how Triumph fits in."
"In the first special, one of my favorite bits was Triumph actually gave Mike Huckabee advice on how to debate," Smigel reveals. "It was like a debate prep scene, and Triumph was coaching Mike Huckabee on various insults trying to get him to say nasty things. And I would give him jokes. It was amazing what Mike Huckabee was willing to read and what he wasn't willing to read. I'm just diving in because it feels like the right time."
Smigel joined Moviefone and a small group of journalists for a further look at the current state of Triumph Nation.
What do you think captured people's minds and still continues to? Why is he still so popular?
Robert Smigel: When we first came up with Triumph, I thought it was a one-off. I thought I was going to do it that day. I had the idea that day in the shower, called the head writer, did it that afternoon, and I thought that was going to be it.
I think it's just that he's saying jokes that are nasty and that people want to hear, but he's kind of adorable because he's a puppet and there's this level of absurdity also that even makes the bad jokes funny because it's like, it's not a real person. There's just this whole layer of irony that remains after all these years.
Does Triumph feel like any competition at all with Donald Trump for taking his act?
That's sort of what got me into this: a think piece is about Trump becoming an insult comedian running for president. So Triumph was wanting to get a piece of that action.
How did Triumph like Philadelphia? Was there anything Triumph enjoyed?
He found it 70% less repulsive than Cleveland. No, I love Philadelphia! We did a great bit in historic Philadelphia with Ben Franklin impersonators. It's one of my favorite bits in the new special.
Have you ever been worried that you'd almost pushed somebody over the edge? Like somebody was actually getting really upset and offended by Triumph?
It actually happened in this special. I'm not sure what we're going to show, but there was one prank that I don't want to give away, but it involved somebody making fun of Cleveland at one point, and a guy in his 50s literally looked like he was going to cry. It was like a prize fight. It was like Ali/Holmes and I had to run in and stop it. I wanted him to know ... I didn't want it to go on any longer.
We ended up with so much material. I honestly don't know what's going to be in the show. A lot of it will probably end up on the web as extras.
Is it going to be equal opportunity skewering on both sides?
Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons I felt ... because so many people are doing great political satire, but what I felt we could offer that was different was ... he's confrontational. He talks directly to the people, not just rants to them through his audience. Then, secondly, that he works hard to make fun of both sides. Oddly enough, he's above it all.
Do you ever get in a zone with Triumph where it's like he's almost doing the talking? You're sort of channeling this imaginary canine?
You know what's funny? What happens is when I'm like doing it in the middle of a rehearsal, I'll be behind a desk or something. Then it's like, "Okay cut." Then, "Robert, do you want another take?" And I'll still be moving my hand, just unconsciously, even though I'm talking as myself.
I've had this weird experience interviewing the Muppets where you start to actually relate to the Muppet as an actual being. Do people do that with Triumph too? They start almost ignoring that you're there?
Well, that's what they're supposed to do. Most people, a lot of people, look at me, and I always find that fascinating. Which type of person looks at me, and who looks at the puppet? I imagine it's the inherently hammier people who know to look at the puppet.
You used to keep him in a Duane Reade bag, right?
Well, now I have a backpack, an actual backpack. If he's not in the backpack, he's just in a little basket with some other Triumphs.
He doesn't occupy a prized place on your mantle?
No, no. I try very hard not to ... I've read stories about how like Edgar Bergen used to hold Candice Bergen on one leg, and Charlie McCarthy on the other and make them talk to each other. I don't want to be that [person] ... "Would you like to meet him?"
Does he have a special care routine, so that when the Smithsonian calls and asks for Triumph ... ?
I don't know if the Smithsonian will ever call! But David Copperfield, this is the strangest thing ever, just I get a call on my cell phone. "Hello Robert, it's David Copperfield ... " Like, he magically got my number. And then he asked for a Triumph because he has a museum of magic and ventriloquism. So that's about the best I can help.
Did you send him one?
I think I did, yeah.
It seems like the "Star Wars" segment on Conan, and its early viral quality, had a lot to do with turning Triumph into an icon.
Because of the straight men, that's what makes it so funny. There's not a second you can't not laugh because, even if I'm not talking, there's so much to look at. They're so funny, those guys. There's also my favorite experience doing Triumph. Such good sports. Just the greatest day ever.