I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Few Observations on Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog

by Joe DeMartino
Sept. 30, 2017

1. He wasn’t very funny at the start

Triumph’s first appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien had him mocking the celebrity guest of the night. Robert Smigel, the humorist and Triumph’s “puppeteer” was positioned out of sight behind a mock stage, rendering Triumph mostly immobile. The jokes weren’t bad -- he started off with the now-famous “for me to poop on” bit and went from there -- but the whole setup seemed weirdly limiting. Insult comedy works best when the comic either jumps rapidly from subject to subject, cutting down his targets swiftly and moving on, or when he has a long time to build his insults out of the ruins of a single target’s ego. These early segments are heavy with potential, which is likely why they kept bringing the character back, but they really needed Triumph to get outside the studio.

2. Everyone ignores Robert Smigel

There is very little that’s subtle about Triumph. He’s a crappy hand puppet with a loud, heavily-accented voice who is there to rip you to shreds. He gets right in your face, so it’s easy to see why you’d concentrate on him for the duration of your interaction, but almost everybody seems to totally discount the guy voicing him. He’s right there! Smigel is quite literally an arm’s-length away, spouting off these absolutely devastating insults about you and yours. He insults an unborn child at a Star Wars showing once. Wouldn’t you think the kid’s mom would get mad at him for that? And yet the mere fact that he’s insulting people through a proxy--that everyone pretends that it’s Triumph and not Smigel who’s talking to them--seems to insulate him from harm. It’s like nothing that’s happening is even real, so long as you focus on the dog. It could also be that shooting the insults through Triumph is Smigel’s way of bringing the stage along with him. If you’re at a comedy show, you might expect to get insulted, but if you’re on the street, you need some reminder that this is showbiz. Else someone might take a swing at the curly-haired guy without a dog on his arm.

3. For the most part, Triumph goes after the right targets

It’s not difficult to go after Star Wars nerds. They’re somewhat high on the nerd totem pole*, but they seem to take themselves either way too seriously or not seriously enough. You’ve seen plenty of the first type, but the second type is actually more pernicious. Witness the grown man in one of these videos, on a street in New York, acting along to the part of Jar-Jar Binks as The Phanton Menace plays on a big screen TV. He’s having fun and not harming anyone, but it’s the kind of fun one could have by sitting around and picking one’s nose in public. If Triumph brings them even an ounce of self-awareness, then Smigel has done his job. Note that this objective wasn’t a possibility when he took on the 2008 election -- most of his targets have long since gone over to the abyss. Triumph was there to remind us that they’re the shit of the world.

*Roughly, it goes like this: video game nerds, sci-fi nerds, comic book nerds, fantasy nerds, anime nerds, cartoon nerds, and a black pit of nerddom where you go to conventions with the express purpose of correcting their obsessionscreators. We do not include science nerds in this rating system because they are molding the god damned future and deserve your respect and admiration.

4. Triumph making fun of you can actually be good for your image

I suspect Bon Jovi must be a pretty cool guy. I’m basing this entirely on how he reacts when Triumph makes fun of him, as he seems to take it all in good humor. That’s the thing about insult comics. In general, they’re not there to make fun of you specifically. You just happened to be there at the time. Don Rickles is the king of this type of comedy. His intro music is that of a bullfight. What does a bull have against you other than the fact that you’re in his way? Triumph makes fun of Bon Jovi and his fans alike. There’s no one on Earth who is immune to mockery, so why get your feelings hurt over it? Stand there and take it, laugh at your folly, and later, if you have the opportunity, invite the insult comic up to sing with you on stage. It’s very personal, but really, it’s nothing personal.  

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.