How Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mocked me — but asked for permission first

First, the joke. In the middle of today at press tour, Adult Swim paneled “The Jack and Triumph Show,” an upcoming multi-cam sitcom starring Jack McBrayer and the show's creator Robert Smigel in his guise as Triumph the Insult Dog. Smigel began the panel hiding behind a chair and letting Triumph roast the room, which included this bit:

No, you guys are great. Lots of great people here. The great Alan Sepinwall. Yes. Used to be a New Jersey guy. Now he”s got his own column, “What”s Alan Watching?” Not his weight! Oh, snap. It”s okay. Alan”s a friend. Alan”s good. He”s actually taking care of himself. He”s on a strict diet of Matt Weiner”s asshole. Wait. That one needs a rim shot. It”s a joke. You all kiss Matt Weiner”s ass.

No, I”m honored to be here at the TCA, the Triple Chin Association, apparently.  Television critics. Come on, you sit on a couch. Interesting job. You sit on a couch, watching TV 10 hours a day. I hate to break it to you, that”s not a job. It”s a symptom of bipolar depressive disorder. The good news is your wives wouldn”t notice if you were out of work. Rim shots. I”ll try one more TV critic joke, and I”ll get the fuck out of here. You”re a misunderstood breed. Many in this industry say you”re bitter nobodies who get paid to destroy careers, but that”s not fair. You also get free tote bags featuring the cast members of “Glee” sent to you in the mail. 

Now, the truth: Smigel asked for my permission beforehand.

About five minutes before the panel started, Smigel wandered over carrying Triumph in an Old Navy bag (“I usually alternate between Old Navy and Duane Reade,” he explained during the panel. “It”s really all he deserves.”) and asked if I would mind being made fun of by Triumph. It took me about a half-second to say, “Of course not,” but Smigel still looked worried and asked, “Are you sure? Any kind of joke?” I insisted I could handle whatever he threw out, and he nodded and excused himself to do final prep. Five minutes later, I was checking an item off my bucket list, and getting publicly zinged by Triumph.

It turns out that the conversation Smigel and I had beforehand wasn't unusual.

“People kind of make an assumption that Triumph just rushes up to people in those remotes and assaults them,” he told the critics, after explaining I had granted permission. “I actually always ask people in advance before we put the camera in their face, 'Do you guys mind if we hurt your feelings?'

“It”s just something I”ve never wanted to be – like, an assault comedian,” he added. “I didn”t start that way. I wrote sketches for a zillion years, and this is just a character that came up 15 years into my career, or 12 years, and just evolved and became bigger than the rest of my career, pretty much. But I don”t take pleasure in hitting people who don”t want to be hit.”

On both “Late Night with Conan O'Brien” and now with “The Jack and Triumph Show” – which is mostly a traditional multi-cam comedy, but with sequences where Triumph goes out and about and interacts with both civilians and actors like Chris Meloni and Brent Spiner – Smigel and his other producers make sure to get not only permission, but signed releases from anyone mocked.

And as Triumph gained in popularity, permission became easier and easier to come by.

“My favorite one ever is the 'Star Wars' convention,” he said, “because the kids were practically lining up to be insulted by Triumph. It was like their Don Rickles. It”s the same when I met Don Rickles, it was incredibly exciting. He looked at me, and he said, 'Hello, Rabbi.' And I could not have been more excited. It was great.”

We haven't seen a full episode of “The Jack and Triumph Show,” but the clips looked promising – like a subversion of multi-cam sitcom cliches that also seemed to function well as an actual multi-cam sitcom, thanks to the presence of McBrayer and Triumph. Having been made part of the entertainment, I decided to ask Smigel a serious question about how he was approaching what's become a pretty maligned format.

“We have a big concern that people are going to just kind of look at the aesthetic and dismiss it, like, 'Oh, these guys,'” he admitted. “Jack was in, like, the best sitcom in the last 15 years, to me ('30 Rock'). But it was a very well done, single camera, sophisticated show. So there could easily be an assumption, when you look at it quickly, 'Oh, these guys are slumming in a multicam.' But to us, the whole point is to jump into a format that”s considered kind of lame in 2015 and mess with it. I wouldn”t call it a parody of a multi-cam, because we stick to the conventions, but I would say that we”re definitely having fun with the conventions at the same time, just by just by the fact that we”re inappropriate characters and behavior within a multi-cam, and messing with the conventions in terms of style.”

“The Jack and Triumph Show” premieres on February 20 at 11:30 p.m. Smigel also threw in a plug for “Night of a Thousand Stars,” his annual Comedy Central autism fundraiser that will air on March 8.