Twenty years ago this week, the iteration of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog that we know today first appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “The bit started as a Westminster talent show,” remembers Robert Smigel, the man who sticks his hand into Triumph, about early iterations of Triumph from the early days of Conan’s Late Night, “I didn’t suggest an insult comic until four years later.”
A lot has changed for Triumph over the last 20 years – maybe most notably that with Smigel’s deal with Hulu, there’s finally been a mold made of Triumph so that he can be replaced easily. “They do wear out fairly rapidly,” says Smigel. “Sniffing butts with a rubber puppet tends to lead to an accelerated deterioration.”
(Before, getting a new Triumph wasn’t an easy task. A company in Mexico originally produced the puppets. Later, an optometrist in New York City, a fan of Triumph, bought up the remaining supply, forcing Smigel to have to buy them from him. For years Smiglel didn’t want this information known for fear that with some notoriety the optometrist might raise the rates. With the mold, this has become a moot point.)
In celebration of twenty years of Triumph, Robert Smigel looks back at 20 years of, let’s say, some not often told behind the scenes Triumph stories. (In other words, we skip the infamous Attack of the Clones story because it’s been told numerous times before.) Ahead, Smigel shares stories of Triumph getting kicked of the Westminster Dog Show, the time Triumph sang with Bruce Springsteen, Triumph covering the Michael Jackson trial, Triumph meeting Chris Christie (in a clip that’s never previously been online) – and of course the time Triumph tried to fuck a goat during the final game of the 2016 World Series.
Westminster Dog Show
“Probably the most popular recurring character on Conan right now is Jordan Schlansky. The other big part of the joke is, ‘What does he do?’ And to be honest, I don’t know what he does on the show now. We didn’t do a remote until 1999 and Jordan was the field producer. We got permission to go to Westminster and we did all of this preparation and the day before or so, this guy calls and revokes permission. It was because Andy [Richter] had gone a few years earlier and they didn’t like it, or whatever. Jordan thought it was because they researched Triumph and realized it was a horrible idea.
(Note: the video above is from Triumph’s return to Westminster the following year. The first visit doesn’t appear to be online.)
“Jordan refused to let it go. Jordan printed up fake NBC identification because we couldn’t go with our own Late Night credentials. So Jordan printed up fake NBC identification, which he justified in his Jordan way, ‘Well, given we work for NBC, I don’t consider it any manner of trickery.’ He scoped out the dog show and told us to go and say we’re NBC, but to go through the back entrance. He found a loading dock and told everyone to go through the loading dock and proceed with confidence and a sense of purpose. So we walked up this ramp with out laminated credentials.
“So we’re in there and doing our thing – and we lasted a fairly long time. But Jordan never lost sight of the fact that we’d probably be thrown out. So we told the cameraman that, no matter what happens, keep shooting. And sure enough, Triumph finally offended a dog groomer. We got ejected. And then Jordan is bullshitting the person who is trying to throw us out saying, ‘But I spoke to this so and so.’ And he had, but that was the person who said we couldn’t come. In a very Jordan way, he was like, ‘Well, technically I feel justified in my statement. I wasn’t lying.’
“So the cameraman kept shooting and we had the great ending where someone finally put their hand on the camera and that was the end of the piece. And the piece was an enormous hit. If we had given up, I don’t know if we would have attempted more remotes. I don’t know if we come up with, ‘Well, why doesn’t he go bother people in line for Star Wars?’”