From Saturday Night Live to This Is 40 and Hotel Transylvania, Robert Smigel has made a name for himself in comedy writing, acting and producing. But he’s best known as the creator and voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed canine that has verbally abused Star Wars and Bon Jovi fans, award show attendees and politicians to hilarious effect. In Triumph’s Summer Election Special, premiering August 11 (Thursday) on Hulu, Smigel takes Triumph to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to stir up trouble on both sides of the aisle. Here, Smigel reveals what to expect and shares some surprising, little-known facts about his favorite puppet.
“It’s funny: When we first came up with Triumph, I thought it was a one-off.”
You debuted Triumph on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997. Why do you think he’s remained so popular?
He’s saying jokes that are nasty and that people want to hear, but he’s kind of adorable. He’s a puppet, and there’s this level of absurdity also that even makes the bad jokes funny because it’s not a real person. There’s this layer of irony that remains after all these years. It’s funny: When we first came up with Triumph, I thought it was a one-off. I had the idea that day in the shower, called the [Conan] head writer that afternoon, and I thought that was going to be it. I was terrified of doing more than 10 minutes of Triumph for years. I honestly didn’t know if people would want to see Triumph for an hour. There was a DVD that ran of the best of Triumph that ended up being very successful on streaming television, and that encouraged me.
Where did you get the idea to cover the election?
I was trying to figure out bigger things to do. Then last summer Trump entered the race and the Wall Street Journal referred to him as Trump the Insult Comic Dog, so did [MSNBC’s] Lawrence O’Donnell, and I started to realize that now that the tone of politics is taking this nasty turn, it might be funny to see how Triumph fits in. In the first election special, one of my favorite bits was Triumph coaching Mike Huckabee on various insults, trying to get him to say nasty things. There are other people doing political satire, but what I felt we could offer that was different is he’s confrontational. He talks directly to the people.
What kind of things do you do in it?
We make fun of both sides. We do a lot of cynical pranks, both in and out of the convention and around Cleveland and Philadelphia. We did a great bit in Philadelphia with Ben Franklin impersonators. It’s one of my favorite bits in the special. We brought a fake Telemundo reporter to the RNC. There was one prank that involved someone making fun of Cleveland, and a guy in his 50s looked like he was gonna cry. It was like a prizefight, and I had to run in and stop it.
People know Triumph so well now that it’s like a challenge to be the gatecrasher. The media are all more than happy to talk to Triumph, so I had to figure out ways to be a pain in the ass. So we did a lot of photo bombing, because CNN and NBC and Fox Business, they’re all on the floor of the convention. We were just trying to cause trouble somehow. I enjoy getting thrown out once in a while.
Is there a line you won’t cross with Triumph?
Yes, sure. There are things I’ve always felt were just too much—imitating deaf people or the handicapped. That always just seemed needless, even though I break this rule with certain people that I don’t think would be offended. I don’t like hitting on women’s looks particularly, just because I think it’s an unfair system in terms of what people are forced to live up to in terms of standards.
The Triumph Election Special you did in February on the primaries was nominated for an Emmy. Are you going to the ceremony?
Yeah. I’ll probably bring Triumph just to be an asshole. I’ll probably make a remote out of it. That’s what I did when Triumph was nominated for a Grammy.
How many Triumph puppets have there been over the years?
What’s interesting is the company went out of business, like five years after I found the first puppet at a furniture store. There was a rack of incredibly realistic‑looking dogs and other animals, and I pulled one out, put it on my arm and sniffed my wife’s ass with it in the middle of the store, and she found it really funny. She’s the perfect woman. I was scrambling on eBay for years to find new ones. We’ve made a mold of it, and that’s how we make new ones now.
Do you think the Smithsonian will ever ask for one?
I don’t know if the Smithsonian will, but David Copperfield called me on my cell phone and asked for a Triumph because he has a museum of magic and ventriloquism. I sent him one.
“We were just trying to cause trouble somehow. I enjoy getting thrown out once in a while.”
What inspired Triumph’s accent?
The voice is based on an Eastern European accent that I’ve been doing with dogs since I was a kid. My mom’s whole side of her family was first-generation Russian immigrants, and I just always imagined dogs talking that way.
Do you ever find yourself doing Triumph without the puppet?
Yeah, it’s funny. When I’m doing it during a rehearsal, I’ll be behind a desk and they’ll say “OK, cut,” and I’ll still be moving my hand unconsciously even though I’m talking as myself.
You once said you keep Triumph in a Duane Reade plastic bag.
Now I have a backpack. If he’s not in the backpack, he’s in a little basket. I try very hard not to be obnoxious with it. I read stories about how [ventriloquist] Edgar Bergen used to hold [his daughter] Candace on one knee and [his puppet] Charlie McCarthy on the other and make them talk to each other. I don’t want to be that person.