‘Triumph’s Election Special’ Is Great, Even If It Doesn’t Quite Feel Like Its Own Show

triumph's election special review
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If you don’t know who Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is, not to worry. Most of the hilariously offensive, cigar-smoking puppet’s original segments from the Late Night with Conan O’Brien have been uploaded to YouTube for all to see. These are great for a quick refresher, but not really necessary for watching the character’s new joint venture with Hulu and Funny or DieTriumph’s Election Special 2016. The 85-minute media and political satire premiered Monday on Hulu, and while many of its bits have been previewed officially (and otherwise) around the web, it packs plenty of new material to keep fans of writer and comedian Robert Smigel’s creation entertained.

Yet longtime fans of and newcomers to Triumph will feel the same feeling as soon as he delivers his first joke 20 seconds in — confusion. That’s because, unlike the character’s usual appearances on ConanTriumph’s Election Special 2016 is all about him. These aren’t separate vignettes meant for another late night talk show or comedy program. So, why are people clapping? Is that canned laughter, or a “live” studio audience? And if it’s the latter, are they simply sitting in a physical studio watching clip after clip? Being that the special begins with a remote from the New Hampshire First in the Nation Town Hall, it’s difficult to decipher what the format — if any — will be.

At least until the three-and-a-half-minute opener concludes, then transitions via a Daily Show-inspired intro to Triumph sitting behind (and Smigel squatting under) a large desk. Fair Warning, “Chicago’s leading Van Halen cover band,” provides an infrequent post-joke rim shot while presumably entertaining the crowd between takes. (The group also features prominently in a Donald Trump-themed bit later on in the show.) Meanwhile, the audience cheers from the stands before the stage. Considering the evidence presented to the viewers at home, Triumph’s Election Special 2016 looks, acts and poops like any other mashup of a talk show and a news magazine program. Much like those genres’ extant Comedy Central parodies — The Daily Show and The Nightly Show — it cobbles together field reports about the election and related stories, connects these with Triumph’s behind-the-desk machinations, and even throws in a panel discussion for good measure.

Nothing about Triumph’s Election Special 2016 is new, and that’s okay. The puppet being the center of attention for the entire show is strange, but that’s only because of how Smigel has generally used the character in the past. Besides, he’s still Triumph, and Smigel didn’t set out to make any major changes to the sh*t-talking dog. The puppeteer merely saw an opportunity to expand the usual one-segment-at-a-time approach into multiple remotes and make an entire special out of it. For fans who’ve followed the character since his famous appearances at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show and the premiere of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, it’s like getting a feature-length version of what Triumph does best. As for Triumph novices, especially younger viewers used to the past exploits of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and the present shenanigans of Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore), the political satire will seem familiar.

Except, of course, for the fact that everything is spearheaded — anchor, onsite reporter and all — by a talking, plastic dog with a ragged voice. Not that anything about that is bad news, because Triumph is at his best whenever he’s lampooning politicians, political aides, media personalities and bloggers to their faces. Whether it’s the NBC News-YouTube Democratic Debate held in Charleston, South Carolina, or a Trump rally in Muscatine, Iowa, no one is safe from (nor always aware of) Smigel’s on-the-spot jabs.

There are far too many standouts to discuss in detail, so here’s a bullet list of some of Triumph’s more memorable, head-turning bits:

  • Using an actress in a wheelchair (who isn’t disabled) to pester Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s press teams.
  • Following the Ted Cruz press bus (and accompanying entourage) between campaign stops with his own “Cruz 2016” bus and a Triumph-mounted personal drone.
  • Hosting a panel with real pundits (Alan Dershowitz, Ed Schultz, Hilary Rosen and Ron Fournier) and a bunch of randos (seventh-place American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar, former MTV VJ Jesse Camp, “Chocolate Rain” singer Tay Zonday and “Dell Dude” actor Ben Curtis). That, and Blackwolf the Dragonmaster — the “wizard” who appeared in Triumph’s Star Wars segment for Late Night.
  • Trolling a bunch of University of New Hampshire students for the school’s nationally renowned emphasis on so-called “trigger warnings.”
  • Ambushing unsuspecting Iowans with Tim Meadows in costume as Ben Carson. (His impression is spot-the-f*ck-on.)

As is the case with any sort of compilation, some of Triumph’s interviews are better than others. Considering the sheer volume of material executive producers Smigel, Conan O’Brien and Funny or Die crammed into the show, however, the fact that so many of them are good is a literal triumph. And while the format still feels weird for the character, the content it contains is strong enough to help fans and greenhorns alike ignore such a shortcoming.

Triumph’s Election Special 2016 is available to stream on Hulu. In the meantime, check out a preview.