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?’”
“That was a life highlight. I was exhausted by the time I went to the concert because I was also headlining a show at Bonnaroo. I did, like, four shows and I almost had no voice left – if you watch it, for a third of it Triumph sounds like he’s croaking because those segments were shot on a Sunday of a three-day weekend. I finally went to Springsteen and I got there kind of late. I worked my way over to the aisle and people were nice enough to let me go to the aisle. I thought maybe I’d shoot some stuff with my phone, Triumph yelling at the stage or something in case we need it. So then Springsteen is walking down this aisle, which is his walkway for certain songs. He’s doing ‘Waiting on a Sunny Day’ and he kind of sees me first and he has this big smile on his face – because he knows me from Max Weinberg and he had appeared on Conan a number of times and had met him at SNL. And then he sees the puppet and immediately he takes on this sense of purpose – all while he’s singing. He comes up right to Triumph and I sing along. I felt like 15 years younger in like 30 seconds.
“I called my wife and I had to tell her about this. And then we are into the encores and the last thing on my mind is that this could possibly happen again. Now it’s ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ and he’s walking down the aisle and I’m there and I see him looking at me and I’m thinking, No, he’s not going to do this again. But he did. And them they were nice enough to let us use the clip.
“John Oliver was there, too. A bunch of people from The Daily Show were there. I saw him after and he’s like, ‘You’re my hero! You’re my hero!’”
The Michael Jackson Trial
“Keep in mind, every comedian on the planet was making the same jokes that Triumph was. There was a consensus in the comedy world that this was something to make fun of. And that, perhaps, he was guilty. So, Triumph was doing his part. There were people from all over the world there in various over-the-top outfits and holding up signs defending their beloved pop icon. And very quickly, the people who recognized Triumph started spreading the word.
“I don’t want to dismiss them because they were very passionate in their cause and they were very smart. When I would get someone who was actually a willing interview and roll the cameras and start talking to them, they would start chanting, ‘fuck, fuck, fuck,’ to ruin the audio. I had to go back with my crew and writers a second day just to try again because we got so little the first day. This time we brought suntan lotion and water, just trying to suck up and to make people feel like we were all in this together. It’s our job to be the cynical assholes. We admired their resourcefulness. By the second day we got enough to ‘discredit the pop legend’ and we went off on our merry way.”
“In 2001, we went to Honolulu to cover the American Idol cattle call audition line. People from everywhere traveled there to stand in line to audition: good singers on the whole, so you could tell they really have to work to sift out the William Hungs. So we mostly made fun of the corny pop stylings and their eagerness to perpetuate the generally shitty state of pop music that was big on that show.
“We were outside, but it technically wasn’t a public area – it was being leased by Fox for these auditions, so they were able to throw us out just for being us. They tried to claim they were responding to complaints from people we spoke to and we tried to call bullshit since everyone was thanking us and angling to be interviewed.
“But then I remembered seeing the local NBC station studios off the highway and I had the idea to go there and complain on the news about being thrown out – so we left, and sure enough, the local news show was all for it. They produced a whole packaged story and treated it seriously, with an interview of Triumph, who was appropriately indignant and self-righteous.
“We were ready to leave but then the producer asked us if we’d like Triumph to do the weather – the regular weatherman was out that night. And, of course, we said yes because it was live TV and what’s funnier and duller than forecasting Hawaii weather? Not to mention pooping on the anchorman’s hair.”
“That’s up there with Springsteen as one of those nights I could just ask to do this. At this point we had one more Hulu special to do and I couldn’t wait for the election to be over, I was sick of it at that point. I was already exhausted by Trump humor. So I’m watching Game 6 at home and it suddenly occurs to me I could just ask and they would fly me to Game 7. I was very invested in the Cubs. I have a big history with Chicago. I went there to learn comedy and I love that city. So the Cubs have always been the team I wanted to see win, even as much as the Mets. Then I thought about it: Let’s just go to Wrigley Field because, win or lose, it will be more compelling. I actually thought it might be funnier. If the Cubs lost, it would be funnier to be in Chicago then to be in Cleveland and see the Cubs lose. And if the Cubs won, it would be an unbelievable night, which it turned out to be.
“I did this bit where we bring a goat to Wrigley Field and have Triumph fuck it to erase the curse. So we get there and we couldn’t get into a bar because we got there so late. And it didn’t matter we were from Conan or Hulu, they were like, ‘No.’ They just didn’t care. So we spent the whole night walking around Wrigleyville. So the animal handler arrives with the goat, Triumph fucks the goat, and there are enough drunk people around to chant, ‘Fuck that goat.’ Basically saying, ‘Fuck that curse.’
“And it was all well and good. And then one drunk female fan, a middle-aged lady decided she wanted to fuck the goat as well. So, that happened. And then the goat was set free. But then a few innings later – and in my heart I know it’s Joe Maddon’s fault – but they hit a three run homer and there’s a tiny part of me that thought, No, it’s not because of the goat, please. And if they lost, I’m not showing the goat and hopefully everyone would be too drunk to remember there’s a goat being fucked in the vicinity. They would turn Triumph into a scapegoat. In my heart, I knew bringing a goat to a stadium couldn’t affect something happening in Cleveland. But I was worried about someone else might think so. Thankfully, it all worked out.
“At a certain point, I was just consumed with just what was going on. We were going in people’s houses and we watched the game until those people threw us out. They realized they were either drunk or high and didn’t want their parents to see them on camera. They just didn’t want a camera on them, even if it meant talking to Triumph.
“And then when they won, it was an amazing feeling just to be there. I had this puppet and I had a camera – and nobody gave a shit that it was Triumph. Half the people were pushing Triumph out of the way just so they could chant into the camera.”
“For the first Hulu special, we wanted to have fun with those meet-and-greets that candidates do in Iowa and New Hampshire – where they seem to visit every diner in the state until everyone is sick of them. We wanted to go to a diner right before Chris Christie was scheduled to visit and have Triumph act like part of his advance team – eager to prepare the place for Christie. For example: padlocking the cake display. Then once Christie showed up and started speaking, we were going to do stuff like order thirty pizzas from a nearby place and have them delivered ‘for the governor.’ Yes, blistering political satire. Unfortunately, our travel schedule didn’t time with Christie’s and he had no meet-and-greets scheduled when we were in New Hampshire.
“So, in a rare instance of faking a setup, we chose to go to a diner where Christie had already visited and just do the advance team bit anyway – as if we were showing up before Christie. We wouldn’t get to have Triumph actually be with Christie, but we’d figure out an ending to the bit later.
“The next day we showed up at the Airport Diner and shot for an hour and had a great time, but we still hadn’t thought of a satisfying ending. We were all sitting in the back room, mulling what to do, when the manager suddenly walked in and told us, ‘Christie’s here.’ It turned out, because of a massive snowstorm in New Jersey, Christie had to fly back to look like he was ‘governorial’, or whatever the governor word is for ‘presidential.’ On top of this, we were told he was in the bathroom, which for Triumph is the comedy equivalent of five winning Powerball tickets.
“Triumph entered the bathroom after Christie exited and basically acted like Anderson Cooper covering a hurricane. After we finished the bit, I couldn’t resist actually saying ‘hi’ to Christie, who was sitting at a booth with some aides sipping a milkshake. He had no idea who we were, but felt comfortable enough to gripe about having to leave in thick of the campaign because of media pressure. He said, ‘They’re gonna plow the snow. There’s nothing I can do there that I couldn’t do here.’
“I joked, ‘At least you’ll get some photo ops.’ ‘You’re damn right,’ he answered. Suddenly, I loved this man for being so honest to a stranger with a puppet. Then we went off to shoot our next segment of the day, which involved a fake Chris Christie being sawed out of school chair he was stuck in.”
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.