Larry Wilmore’s cancellation confirmed that late-night political satire is experiencing an awkward phase. Sure, Daily Show alumni like Samantha Bee and John Oliver are killing it in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, but their shows only pop up once a week, which helps them cut through peak television’s endless tide of new subjects. And then there’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the former Late Night with Conan O’Brien sideshow act whose creator, Robert Smigel, went on a solo political tour for Hulu with Triumph’s Election Special 2016 in February. His infrequency is even greater, but that only plays to his strengths.
Hence the wisecracking mutt’s latest, Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016. The 65-minute adventure, which Smigel and his Funny or Die collaborators filmed at the Republican and Democratic conventions and released on Aug. 11, has a much better chance of attaining relevancy in a market saturated with comics, pundits and puppets hoping to make any kind of mark. (Or, considering Triumph’s oft-quoted “for me to poop on” catchphrase, a literal mark.) What’s more, tighter editing and better off-the-cuff bits allow it to improve on its predecessor.
Then again, most of what makes Triumph Triumph only looks like it’s random. Smigel is skilled at concealing how the sausage gets made — be it through copious amounts of research, writing or clever editing. Viewers can’t see this process in action, which Uproxx witnessed firsthand in Philadelphia while interviewing the character, since man-on-the-street comedy requires ample time for collection and post-production. But Triumph’s team excels at it, and the quality of Summer Election Special‘s scripted and unscripted segments demonstrates what great creative minds can do given adequate time, quick wit and a canvas as ridiculous as American politics.
Consider the two best moments from the entire special. The first, a 12-minute “Focus Group” gag placed squarely in the middle of the special, purports to offer a window into the minds of Trump’s constituency. “We brought these actual Trump supporters to this actual focus group research center,” Triumph explains, “to watch these actual fake Trump campaign ads.” Whether or not the location used was a legitimate research station, the people who agreed to participate (and, presumably, go and stay on camera following the gag’s reveal) are real. Also real: the nonplussed college students Triumph interviewed for the first special’s “A Conversation with Young Voters,” in which the dog insulted coeds while discussing trigger warnings and safe spaces.
The result? A treasure trove of spit-take-producing quotes about Porta Potty traps designed to ensnare illegal Mexican immigrants, handgun dispensers in women’s public restrooms, and questions about Hillary Clinton’s gender. After all, as one of the persons interviewed argues, Trump is “surrounding himself with advisers, intelligent people” to polish his otherwise “nutty” ideas. “It has to start somewhere,” he claims, all the while not realizing the ads he’s defending are fake. Maybe this kind of “gotcha!” comedy like is more pedestrian than anything, but it’s Triumph’s bread and butter.
So many of the hour’s segments from the convention floors in Cleveland and Philadelphia play out like the special’s second best bit. Donning what looks like chicken-flavored ramen noodles in disguise as the then recently embarrassed Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Triumph jumps from one batch of ardent Bernie Sanders supporters to another. He admonishes them for neglecting Clinton’s status as the presumptive nominee, and demands they remove problematic signs. The whole thing is silly, but wonderful all the same, especially since, between interviews with media personalities and conversations with random passersby, Summer Election Special teems with the kinds of gags Triumph’s fans have come to expect since his Late Night days, when he cut his canines trolling Westminster, Star Wars and Québec.
Repetitive shots of a plastic dog puppet with a man’s arm sticking out of its rear aren’t enough to distract viewers from the same problem that plagued its forerunner: the framing device. The most confusing aspect of the program is its attempt to transform Triumph, a supporting character created to supplement a different show altogether, into the host. When combing the field for easily suggestible interviewees, famous faces and opportunities to roast others on the spot, Smigel’s character performs like no other sh*t-talking fake dog on television. When the former Saturday Night Live writer tries to moderate a “Hulu mega panel” of journalists, the “Dell Dude” and ex-politician Barney Frank, however, nothing happens. These inserted elements feel more like a clumsy version of jam-packed CNN panel than a parody of one.
Fortunately, they bookend brilliant pieces of comedy — bits like a dunk tank occupied by a same-sex couple and a Middle Eastern man antagonizing players in Cleveland, or a Ben Franklin actor ruining people’s historical tours in Philadelphia — into something akin to an election field report on Conan. Biting routines like these are precisely what viewers inundated with political satire need right now, and if Summer Election Special and its predecessor are any indication, Triumph won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016 is available to stream on Hulu. In the meantime, check out a preview.