How do you make fun of an election that’s already a parody of itself?
If you’re Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers, you knock it back with wry observance. If you’re Samantha Bee or John Oliver, you channel outrage into teachable moments. If you’re Amy Schumer, you channel outrage into calling Donald Trump “an orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.”
If you’re Triumph the Insult Comic, you put a cigar in that filthy little canine mouth of yours, grab your puppy-paw microphone, and go find politically minded people to heckle. In his series of Triumph’s Election Watch specials this year for Hulu, Triumph has trolled former DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, CBS News’s Bob Schieffer and Hillary Clinton supporters. His best bits, though, are a pair of focus groups—one with New Hampshire college students and the other with Trump supporters—that are shocking and hilarious pieces of political theater. If you have issues with runaway political correctness or voters who can be manipulated into ridiculous and frankly scary positions, by all means watch.
Triumph creator and alter ego Robert Smigel spoke with Playboy.com about his bad dog and his take on the funniest election in history.
The Trump focus group stripped away what little faith I still had in humanity, so thanks for that.
Come back! Come back! [Laughs.] The primary goal for that was just to be funny and not to say that every Trump reporter says those kinds of things. When I’ve gone to Trump rallies, I have found a lot of rational people who are just frustrated and looking for reform. I was actually afraid that the people at those rallies would be foaming at the mouth—I actually had security at those rallies—and I found that the overwhelming majority of people were just frustrated middle-class people. Trump stands out to them with the usual spiel about lowering taxes and evangelical lightning rods like Planned Parenthood. Trump attracted a lot of people with a message of reform the way Bernie Sanders did on the left.
The political correctness sketch was pretty jarring too.
People like Ann Coulter were retweeting the political correctness sketch I did with the college kids in New Hampshire. I found it hilarious that the right wing was embracing my comedy in a way they never had before. One of the reasons I went to Hulu is that they wanted to use the web and not keep all of it behind the paywall, so most of those clips are on YouTube.
Political correctness has gone in weird directions. Ellen Degeneres’s pretty harmless Twitter bit about Usain Bolt stirred up the PC crowd, but Donald Trump says people are getting too worked up about him calling women fat pigs. What is happening there?
Ellen obviously didn’t mean anything by it, but it’s not inconceivable that some people would be offended by it. Ultimately, it’s just comedy. It’s interesting to me that people take my political correctness sketch as propaganda or a serious point about these kids. There were incredibly vile comments on the YouTube page about those college students. I wanted to make the point that you can mock political correctness and people wanting to come up with some clunky term for “poor,” but they’re right about some things. Political correctness is, in some ways, a glib term for progress.
Do younger people you come across know who Triumph is?
It’s funny. I’ll get people in their 30s who tell me how important Triumph was to their childhood, which makes me feel old, and they were seeing him mostly on Conan O’Brien’s Late Show on NBC. College kids know Conan only for his TBS show, and I’ve only done Triumph a few times on his TBS show. When I went to New Hampshire, I’d say half the kids knew who Triumph was.
You have a lot of writers credited on those specials. How does that work? Do you use a writers’ room? Do people send you jokes?
A lot of the writers are people I’ve worked with over the years, so we hired a core group of two or three people to come on the road with me and four or five more who were in a room generating ideas. Once we had the ideas we wanted to do, the other writers would send us jokes when they had the time to do it. I’d say, “We’re going to a Trump rally. Send me Trump jokes.”
Do you have a backstory in your mind for Triumph, or do you see him more transparently as a device for telling jokes?
Triumph has been around for almost 20 years, going back to Conan’s NBC show. He started as a character on a completely different bit, where we would present the champions from Westminster. My wife and I had found all of these different dog puppets, so we would have a dog singing a song from The Bodyguard or two dogs playing banjos or a dog doing a Jack Nicholson impression. A few years later, when I wasn’t even with the show anymore, I called Conan’s head writer and said I had an idea to do an insult comic with a very limited act who keeps saying “for me to poop on” at the end of his jokes, and that became a recurring bit. Conan is one of the funniest guys I know, but he’s very polite in his interviews. He could have someone like David Hasselhoff on as a guest, and Triumph could come on next and just unleash. [Laughs.] After a couple of years, we started doing field pieces like going to the actual Westminster dog show.
When you do a bit with Triumph, do people intuitively talk to Triumph instead of to you?
Some people just cannot look at the puppet, but a lot of people play the game and talk to him.
You made the joke to Chuck Todd in one of the specials that NBC News has principles like a prostitute who won’t kiss on the mouth. I’m surprised people like him will talk to you on camera knowing that you’re going to take a direct shot at them.
Media people all know Triumph. They’re the easiest people to talk to and savvy enough to know that they’re better off being a good sport than running away. Although, I’ve tried to get Fox News people to talk to Triumph and they just do not bend.
Was Ted Cruz the person you annoyed the most?
I gave him the hardest time. Ted Cruz would make eight stops a day and give identical speeches, which was such a contrast to Donald Trump who says whatever’s on his mind. Ted Cruz’s speeches were verbatim down to the pauses, so I thought it would be fun to follow him from stop to stop and mock that. The access that you get in early states like New Hampshire and Iowa is so different than what you can get at this point in the election, and the Ted Cruz piece perfectly encapsulates that. There’s a moment—and the cameraman captures it beautifully—when Ted Cruz locks eyes with Triumph for just a second. [Laughs.] You can see this What the fuck? on his face, and then he expertly goes right back into his routine. It’s beautiful.