Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Gets Away With More Than Robert Smigel Ever Could

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Gets Away With More Than Robert Smigel Ever Could

Robert Smigel came up with the idea for Let's Make a Poop a few years back, a Jeopardy!-style game show with an eclectic panel of celebrity contestants hosted by Smigel’s longtime associate, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. “I did one show in Brooklyn that’s on YouTube with Lawrence O’Donnell, Pete Davidson and Anthony Scaramucci,” Smigel told me. “That was back in late 2019. I was planning on a regular live podcast that I was gonna do in theaters. And then the pandemic happened.”

And that was that for Let’s Make A Poop — at least for a while. Smigel turned his attention to Leo, the animated comedy he wrote and directed with Adam Sandler, a project that took years of post-pandemic attention. But in January, Smigel was asked to perform at San Francisco’s Sketchfest alongside a certain polka-playing funny man, giving him a chance to revive the game show and “passive-aggressively poop on Weird Al. I really enjoyed praising him for songs that don’t exist but perhaps could have.” 

In one of the special’s best bits, other Sketchfest comics like Tom LennonAmber Ruffin and Dave Hill pop in to perform parodies of Weird Al parodies. “I thought it would be really funny just to pound this into the ground,” Smigel admits. Now Let’s Make a Poop, complete with celeb contestants Weird Al, Rob Schneider and Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, is available on YouTube for the people. “It was so much fun and the most enjoyable live Triumph show that I’ve done in 20 years since we recorded ‘Come Poop With Me,’” Smigel says. “The video captures the glorious train wreck quality that we felt that night.”

I recently spoke to Smigel about the special, Triumph’s place as our national court jester and why puppets and cartoons get away with so much more than Eminem ever could.

There’s a Jeopardy!-style clue in Let’s Make a Poop that I thought was pretty apt: “Despite being around for decades, being made of molded plastic and having no penis, he’s more more popular than ever.” Why does Triumph have so much appeal after all these years?

Well, he still looks great. Rubber don’t crack. That actually is a little part of it — the character doesn’t have to age, especially someone like Triumph who relies on being impish and silly. You know, there are certain people who made their living playing youthful characters and then when they get older, it becomes harder for them. Triumph doesn’t have that problem. His jokes were old from day one, his style of jokes, and certainly his delivery was old-fashioned even back then. So he’s kind of timeless, you know?

Triumph gets away with a lot of jokes. Can Triumph say things in front of an audience that Robert Smigel can’t? 

Oh my god, yes. I mean, you come off so much less mean when you’re speaking through a cute little dog puppet with a bow tie. In medieval times, that was the logic behind the court jester. He was so low status. He wore this ridiculous outfit. But it allowed him to take shots at people in higher positions and get away with it because he was so unthreatening on his own. And that’s how Triumph comes across, just a cute little dog puppet. Eminem wrote a whole song about it 20 years ago complaining that he can’t get away with the shit that Triumph can get away with.

In the 2000s and well into the 2010s, roasting was a dominant form of comedy. That has really died down, but Triumph was dishing it out pretty good on Let’s Make A Poop.

Roasting has become more of a challenge because comedy’s evolving and there are fewer things you can say. I’m not complaining at all about it. I’m just stating that as a fact. There are some people who are still doing quite well with it, but I also think that part of what Triumph does, like we’ve discussed, he’s kind of surreal and low status at the same time. He’s cute and unthreatening. But my favorite types of Triumph jokes are the ones that come off as passive-aggressive as opposed to direct and caustic.

Triumph was very popular for Conan (O’Brien) for a couple of years, even before he ever did a remote segment. But once he became Conan’s reporter, it became even funnier to me, partly because a lot of his insults would be in the form of a question. When you’re talking to the Star Wars kid who's dressed as Darth Vader and Triumph says, “Which button do you press to tell your parents to come pick you up?” It’s so much funnier to me when you can pose an insult in that passive-aggressive dressing as opposed to just calling someone a nerd.

Triumph does that a lot. He’s gleeful and happy; it’s all just a game. There’s so little anger behind it, which I like. This is just one character that I came up with in my career as a comedy writer, and then I ended up playing. But it doesn’t define my style of comedy. That’s why I have writers help me with the insults. I can do it, but it’s not the thing I do as a comedy writer necessarily. 

I enjoy Triumph the most when everybody’s having a good time. I understand why the audience likes when I go up to Ted Cruz and fuck with him. I get that and I’ll continue to do that, but personally, I enjoy it when everybody’s in on the joke.

I never really liked doing the roasts. I never really felt like Triumph fit into those, partly because the structure narrows down the kind of jokes you can make. I felt like, well, Triumph is not going to be that much more special than anybody else if he’s just delivering roast jokes. It’s different when you’re roaming around the red carpet and asking questions in a mock-serious manner. That’s always been more interesting and funny to me.

Last week, Triumph tweeted out (TV Funhouse cartoon) Conspiracy Theory Rock, which is an annual tradition.

It’s so strange. It’s probably one of the least funny cartoons I did. And it’s the most famous at this point, I would say — that and the Ambiguously Gay Duo. It’s the one that pops up on the internet more than any other so I like to post a better copy than someone posting this shitty YouTube version that they uploaded from television. If you’re going to have a conspiracy theory, it might as well look pretty.

I don’t have a Robert handle on (X/Twitter). I like just speaking through Triumph most of the time, and every now and then, if I have something serious to say, I will write “RS” to let people know that this isn’t coming from Triumph. Most of the time, I just like to fuck around, not take it too seriously.

In Let’s Make A Poop, you had Rob Schneider up there taking a lot of ribbing because he talks a lot about comedians fear of cancel culture. But you also had Triumph saying, “Hey, if you do trans jokes, you can get three Netflix specials.” Where are you landing on all of this? 

That particular joke was a little dig at how some comedians get rewarded for saying inflammatory things because it draws attention. And the irony behind that. Everybody just defends it as free speech, but sometimes people poke the bear because they know it’s going to get a reaction. And whether or not its particularly funny, or whether or not it’s particularly constructive, they’ll do it anyway because they know that they’re going to get rewarded on some level. It’s safe enough that they’re not going to get thrown off and provocative enough that it’s gonna get people talking and get eyes on the comedy special.

There are a few Chappelle jokes in there. (Laughs) I’m not gonna deny it.

People who watch Let's Make a Poop need to stick with it for the Blackwolf the Dragonmaster video at the end. Can you remind everybody who that guy was?

He was the gentleman that I met at the opening of Attack of the Clones in 2002. The most crazed fans lined up days in advance, and it was a perfect place for Triumph to go after people. And this kid in a wizard’s outfit was not in line, he was just looking for attention. He was so funny to me because he was so committed to his character, so seemingly crazy, but at the same time really articulate and intelligent. I found him fascinating. A couple of years later, I went to the VMAs, I did the red carpet and I brought Blackwolf. I don’t even remember why, I just thought it would be funny to have him interact with The White Stripes or whoever.

And then I wrote a comedy album, and I had an idea for a song all about Blackwolf, which is one of my favorite songs on the album. I had to ask the show to track him down. I called him personally, and I was like, “Okay, he’s going to have my number now, this wacky kid who dresses like a wizard.” And sure enough, he did call me constantly after that.

Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with work and wanting to be a good dad and husband that I kind of drop out and don’t talk to any of my friends. I just get consumed by my immediate tasks at hand. Blackwolf ended up being the person I spoke to most because he called me so often. He insisted that he was a medieval wizard, but he was 1,000 percent invested and aware of pop culture, updating me on the status of the year’s Grammy Awards and the fact that longtime producer Pierre Cossette was stepping down. It’s not the kind of thing a medieval wizard would normally concern himself with. I just found this hysterical.

I had him do other remote segments with me when I did the Hulu shows. I did a whole series of political specials for Hulu with Triumph when Trump ran in 2016, and Blackwolf was my announcer. I insisted that he participate in the round-table discussions with real pundits Alan Dershowitz and Carl Bernstein.

Then, a year and a half ago, I had not heard from him for a while. I called his number, and his brother picked up and told me he passed away. It was really, really sad, and I miss him.

When you played his video, I was expecting to laugh because hes really funny. But I was taken aback by how poignant I found that whole thing. 

It’s so insightful and inspiring and beautiful and funny, but funny is like fourth. I’m very grateful that it exists. It’s amazing how it encourages people to not be afraid to be individuals and follow their imagination. He states it so beautifully, and it’s a real gift that he left. I just want people to see it. It’s so meaningful.

There’s a less poignant tribute at the end to Trixie from the Westminster Dog Show. 

To be honest, I’m not sure Triumph remembers her name. But he insisted on putting that in because I guess he remembers that particular lay. Out of all the other ones he had at Westminster, somehow Trixie stood out.


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