Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: You might not know Robert Smigel’s face, but you know his hand. The writer and performer behind Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, Smigel has been telling dirty jokes inside a dirty puppet since the canine’s first appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1997. Since then, Triumph has taken Smigel to the oddest of places, including the Westminster Dog Show, Eminem’s “Ass Like That” music video, and the 2004 Democratic National Convention, from which he was ultimately ejected. Triumph has even released his own record—2003’s Come Poop With Me—which features cameos from Jack Black, Maya Rudolph, and Adam Sandler.
Speaking of Sandler: Smigel has also appeared, dog-less, in a number of Sandler projects, starting with 1995’s Billy Madison. He penned two Hotel Transylvania movies, as well as You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. The duo’s relationship started during Smigel’s decade-or-so run in the Saturday Night Live writing room, which helped cement his friendships with Dana Carvey and Conan O’Brien, both of whom he’d go on to work for when they launched their own talk shows.
Obviously, Smigel’s comedy bona fides are legit. It’s in part why he was approached to work on his latest project: Fox’s “puppets perform sketches about the news” series Let’s Be Real, the finale of which will air this Thursday, May 20. We talked to Smigel about his job there, as well as some of his other gigs both in front of and behind the camera for our latest edition of Random Roles.
The A.V. Club: Let’s Be Real is an adaptation of an existing show in France. How did you find it, and how did you decide to adapt the show?
Robert Smigel: So there’s a French group called Canal+, and they apparently have been producing a sort of Spitting Image-like show [called Les Guignols] for 25 years, and it’s very topical. Anyway, a company called Propagate bought the rights to this thing, even though I don’t quite understand what that means. It’s not like Spitting Image never existed, so I’m not sure why anybody needed the rights to it, but they bought the rights and so they hired some people to [create the format].
Fox was very interested in doing the show, so they made a pilot presentation with some people and took it out, but they didn’t think it was working. My manager called me and said he brought me up to them and they were very interested. I watched the pilot and I was like, “No, not in the least.” I mean, I love puppets, obviously, but I was like… puppets? I’d much rather watch some funny people play Trump and Putin. There was some sketch about those two and I just thought actors would bring so much more life to it. When you’re doing it with puppets, you’re working in a void and it’s just so cold and biting.
So I’m having this conversation and I’m saying no, and then and then I say, “I mean, if if humans could be in it, too, with the puppets, like as sort of foils for these celebrity puppets, then I could see maybe, you know… If you had a Tucker Carlson puppet interviewing the real Beto O’Rourke or whoever was in the news at that time, that could be funny, maybe.” And then I said, “What if you had a puppet Alec Baldwin going out to a real restaurant, and going outside and hassling real paparazzi,” that would be interesting and funny. By the end of the conversation I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Months later, I’m in a room with all these writers that I’ve assembled—great writers that I’ve worked with, mostly through the Conan show—and the French people come in who created the original show, and there’s nothing in common with what we’re doing. They come in and they’re showing me their puppets, and then they say, “One of the rules of our show is that the puppet never interact with that which is human,” like it’s some kind of rule that the puppet will melt to the ground if its eyes meet a human’s. But to me, that was like the only thing that made this funny and interesting.
Twenty years ago, I did a show for Comedy Central called TV Funhouse that was sort of meant to be a vehicle for more cartoons like the ones I was doing at the time on Saturday Night Live. But the interstitial part of the show was a bunch of animal puppets that were like mascots on a little kids type show, and they go off on their own adventures and walk out of the show every week and interact with real animals. The whole show was an extension of something I had already done with Triumph back then.
So, yeah. I guess I can’t tolerate puppets unless somebody on camera is 98 percent water or something like that.
AVC: When you think about it, that’s why something like The Muppet Show works.
RS: Oh my God, I absolutely love The Muppet Show. The Muppets Show had so much life to it, also, because of the guest star. My dream would have been creating a variety show around Triumph and other puppets. It would have lived in that universe like on TV Funhouse, where I created multiple animal puppets, but it wasn’t like The Muppet Show. It wasn’t plot driven. It was just pure silly entertainment.
AVC: We did this oral history recently about Wonder Showzen, and the creators were talking about how when you have a puppet, there a sort of illusion where you know the person holding the puppet is using a puppet and saying whatever the puppet’s saying, but you somehow believe the puppet’s saying it all the same.
RS: Yes and the reaction of the person is totally different.
It’s been one of the things that separates Triumph as an insult comedian as it were, because he’s got so many things to protect him and to protect the person he’s insulting so they know that it’s all just nonsense. He’s not real, and there’s a whole layer of irony attached to this guy, like a bow tie and a cigar. He’s mocking a kind of Borscht Belt schtick that’s fairly unthreatening at this point, and he’s almost like a low status court jester who can just get away with saying stuff because he’s inherently ridiculous already. So that’s enjoyable.
Comedians always say that their stuff is born out of anger and I love that. I love being able to do stuff that can have a point and be biting on some level but that doesn’t feel angry and is silly, like Marx Brothers kind of stuff.
AVC: And there is something about you wearing this awful dog puppet, too. It’s not a great puppet.
RS: Oh God, yeah. The level of puppetry is so groundbreakingly shitty. It’s probably disarming to see the cheesy operations at hand.
I remember the time I had to ask Jennifer Lopez if I could make fun of her during a commercial break at the VMAs, and I have to think that the only reason she said yes was because I looked so pathetic, just like this guy in his 40s, on my knees with this puppet. Because I was getting in position, I had to be on my knees and was just, you know, “Is it okay if my dog makes a joke?” She said something like, “Is it going to be about my butt?” And I’m like, “Maybe? I mean, it’s a dog.” And then she was like, “All right, you’re pathetic. How can I say no to you?”
AVC: It’s kind of amazing the places that Triumph has gone. He’s been everywhere! What has been the most surreal or weird “how did I get here?” moment you’ve had?
RS: Recently I would have to say when Ted Cruz wanted to talk to Triumph. I had no expectation that that would happen. I did a piece for Colbert a couple of years ago when Beto O’Rourke was running against Cruz, and the piece was meant to run the night before midterms. I went out there with a crew and some writers and all I thought I was going to do was cover both campaigns, Cruz and Beto, and that would be enough because there’s a lot you can say about Ted Cruz without having to meet the guy. But I’m at this Cruz rally, and he’s glad-handing everybody afterward on this big stage and one of the writers pretended that… he was Cruz’s age, basically—actually he’s older—but he said, “We went to Harvard together!” He’s literally just bullshitting, just trying to get Ted Cruz’s attention. Ted Cruz was talking to a million other people on stage, but the writer says, “Hey! Triumph’s here!” and Ted Cruz literally, like, suddenly started paying attention. And then he saw me and waved his hand over with a big, smirking grin like, “this is going to be a battle of wits to remember.” He thinks he’s very funny and very smart, Harvard educated, and he thought he would represent himself well, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to do that.
Here I was surrounded by all these Ted Cruz supporters who just had nothing but hatred in their eyes and then there’s Ted Cruz. Somehow he threw me a softball that got probably the biggest response either ever got. It was a catharsis in itself in the theater. It was this exchange where Cruz thought he had check-mated me because he said, “Just remember! It was the Democrats who had you neutered” and everybody around him chuckled heartily. He’s literally giggling like a little schoolgirl because he made a funny, but thankfully, it was kind of a softball. I was just like, “Yes, I support spaying and neutering, just like Trump did to you.” He literally went “d’oh” just like Homer Simpson.
That was that was one of those moments where I was like, “How did this happen?” I was just grateful to get out of there. It was intimidating.
I’ll tell you about another one really quick. It was a couple of years earlier, and we’re in New Hampshire and we’re doing this ridiculous piece about Chris Christie. I decided to cover Iowa and New Hampshire because I thought it would be fascinating because you have such access to candidates, because they’re going to coffee shops and diners all the time. They’re so accessible. So I thought it would be an amazing experience to get up close to people.
Anyway, we did this ridiculous thing where we pretended that Chris Christie was going to go to a diner and we were warning them of all these things they had to do. I brought these two guys and [as Triumph] was like, “Hi, I’m Governor Christie’s adviser, and we’re here to scout the place before the governor comes in.” It was like, “Okay, so you’re going to need to put the padlock on this cake display. The governor’s liable to put his fist through the glass. When you serve the governor, use an open palm, because otherwise he’s liable to bite your hand off.” It was just ridiculous. Anyway, we do this whole thing and we don’t have an ending. So we’re sitting in the back room of the diner thinking about ideas, and the manager walks in and says, “Chris Christie’s here.” It was called the Airport Diner in New Hampshire, in Manchester, and it turned out that because there was a huge snowstorm, he had to go back to Jersey for a photo op like he was handling the crisis. “I’m leaving my campaign to go to…” So we get our gear and start shooting, and we just saw him walking out of the bathroom with his jacket off. He’s just got Humpty Dumpty high water of the pants all the way up to his belly button, and then I decided, “I’ve got to do this as a reporter,” so we go into the bathroom like I was covering a hurricane or something like a reporter. It’s my responsibility to determine what happened in there. It is so childish. Then it turned out someone else was in there, so I interviewed him like he was a hurricane survivor who had to save his family. Then we walk out of the bathroom, and we see that Chris Christie is at a booth now drinking a milkshake. So we had Triumph just pass by [non-chalantly] saying, “ Everything’s good here. Nobody’s fat.” And then that was the ending.
It was amazing. The craziest thing that’s ever happened was doing an entire piece on Chris Christie and then Chris Christie shows up, with all the places where he could have been.
AVC: One of the most popular Triumph videos on YouTube is the one where you and Jack McBrayer work the counter at the Wiener’s Circle in Chicago.
RS: The original idea I had was for Conan to be the person to go with me, because Conan was going to Chicago for a week and I had always wanted to do the Wiener’s Circle. I had thought about it for years, because I knew the place very well. I used to live a few blocks away from where it was before they figured out the gimmick of humiliating their customers.
So I suggested the idea, but Conan had a lot of other things to deal with, so then I came up with Jack McBrayer.
We shot that at like 2:00 in the morning. All these people are coming in and then at the end—it looks like people are shocked, but I asked all the people if there was anyone who wanted to have some fake vomit on them. There’s this moment where Triumph bites into a hot dog after toasting, like “everybody’s friends now.” Triumph takes a bite of one of their hot dogs, and he instantly throws up the second he bites into it. I asked people, because I wasn’t going to put this crap on people without their permission, and shockingly, like ten people were like, “sure.” But then one guy had no idea how much vomit it was going to be, and he looks so pissed in the video, which is fantastic. You just see him get it really good. Triumph is just gratuitously like… it starts with just the normal vomit positions but then he’s just moving around for no reason. No one’s ever vomited that way. But it was too funny not to do it, just “Oh my God, I can’t control myself.” And that one guy was so angry looking, but then afterwards he was cool, and just as a gesture of solidarity, I hugged everybody who had got vomited on so that I could get it all over myself, too.
AVC: When you first started doing Triumph, did you think, “This is good. This is a real winner”?
RS: Well, it was definitely meant to be a one-off, because it was a version of a bit that we’d already done I don’t know how many times on Conan. It all came out of this bit that I did, because I was so “we don’t want to do what Letterman does,” and “we’re replacing Letterman, so we can’t do that kind of found humor with stagehands or reality-based humor.” I loved writing surreal, silly shit anyway.
So then there were these dog puppets that my wife had found at a furniture shop when we were newlyweds looking for furniture. I saw one of them in the shop and put it on, because the realism of the dog’s face was so funny to me. I immediately started sniffing her ass with the puppet in the store, and she was fine with it because she’s a lunatic like I am. Then, she surprised me with like seven puppets for my birthday.
The Westminster Dog Show was like a week later, and I had this idea of “Letterman does Westminster dogs just running down the aisles of the theater because that’s his kind of humor,” and it’s really funny. We’ll say we have Westminster dogs but we’ll just present these puppets and have them sing the song from The Bodyguard or do ridiculous talents and throw bouquets at them like they do a dog show and give them crazy names like Champion’s Triumph. That was a real dog’s name.
So, anyway, it got to be literally four years into this bit, and we’ve already done almost everything we’ve done, like the dog who can saw another dog in half, or a dog who can light its farts, or a dog who does a Jack Nicholson impersonation and his paw over his forehead and pulls his hair back like Jack Nicholson impersonators do. And then one day in the shower, I just thought, “oh, it would be funny to do an insult comic.”
I called the head writer and said, “Do we want to do another Westminster, because I have a really funny idea, like a dog who’s an insult comic and all he’s got is paying a compliment and then saying ‘for me to poop on,’ and that’s the whole act.” He really liked it, so we wrote a couple of other bits for it, and we did it and then this guy, Frank Smiley, who was there—he was a segment producer who also became a writer—he said to me, “This is going to be big. It’s really funny. It’s going to be huge.”
We realized that the dog could actually provide catharsis for the audience because Conan is hilarious, but he doesn’t like making fun of people much, especially directly. He doesn’t want to be that kind of host. He wants to be polite. But meanwhile, the audience has to sit through two acts of John Tesh with Conan just being nice to him. So [as Triumph] I can come out and it’s like, “thank you, finally.” So for like a couple of years that was enough, and he was the most popular character on the show just for doing that, just for shitting on the first guest midway through the show. And then Mike Sweeney, who was the new head writer at the time suggested trying to actually go to Westminster and covering it as Triumph, and that just changed everything.
AVC: And somehow they let you in.
RS: You know what? They actually didn’t. They were mad, because Andy Richter had apparently covered Westminster a couple of years earlier, and they weren’t happy about it somehow, so they were trying to freeze us out.Then Jordan Schlansky—you know who that is, right? He’s this crazy, goofy, weird guy who Conan’s constantly making fun of—but he was actually a field producer for the show back then and he came up with the idea that we were going to go through the back entrance and we were going to get these fake passes that said NBC and act like we know what we’re doing. He would say it in a very Jordan way. “It’s not actual legitimate deception because we are, in fact, employees of NBC,” but he got us in.
So, people always wonder, “What the hell does Jordan Schlansky do for that show?” but as far as I’m concerned, he can coast for the rest of his career, because if he hadn’t gotten us in, we might never have attempted another Triumph. And honestly, none of us knew how funny it was going to be. A lot of people would have just given up, but Jordan is a mad man. He devised this whole scheme to get us in there and make it happen.
Saturday Night Live (1985-2011)—writer, producer
AVC: Speaking of Conan, he had Bob Odenkirk on his podcast recently. They were talking about how you guys wrote together, and Odenkirk told this story about some late night session, and you were all throwing darts at the wall.
RS: That’s so funny because I was talking to Howard Stern about that today.
It was a Thursday night, which is one of the nights where the writers stay up late because they’re rewriting all the sketches. Somebody discovered these balls, and you could open them up and they were all gooey inside.
AVC: Odenkirk said that they stuck to the wall and kind of rolled down.
RS: It doesn’t sound that exciting now, but I guess it felt very new to us, the technology of whatever it was back then.
It became just complete havoc, just throwing shit against the wall and laughing. Somebody took a video of it, and I saw it a year ago, and I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. This video is from literally 30 years ago. Everybody is just fucking around having a great time throwing these things and the video is slowly panning around the room, and then I see myself and I’ve got my head in the scripts. I’m at a table looking at the script that’s supposed to get a pass.
It just broke my heart, because I know that I just have that side of me where I just get overwhelmed by the task at hand and can’t let go of it. It’s an aspect of my personality, and I’m sure to some degree it’s what made me a really good producer of my own material because I can focus and stuff, but it did make me really sad because I remember that night and how crazy it was. I had forgotten that I was so consumed with whatever task was at hand that I couldn’t fully enjoy it.
A lot of people tell you that places like SNL are “not as much fun as it should be” because it’s very competitive and stressful, but on that night, everyone was able to let go of whatever burdens they were carrying, except for me. I’d like to think that at some point I got up and had fun because I was, in my memory of that night. I didn’t remember being such a gloomy Gus.
AVC: While at SNL you did write a number of songs for Sandler, including “The Thanksgiving Song.”
RS: Well, I’ve written a lot of different songs with Sandler, but two of the songs I’ve written with Sandler are two of his most filthy songs.
One is a pretty famous one called “At A Medium Pace,” which is from his first album, I think. I didn’t write any lyrics, but I had the idea. There was an old corny country music song called “Lay Down Beside Me,” and I said what if you do a song like that, but then it gets into very specific depraved sexual requests, but he’s still singing it tenderly. And Sandler just went off and wrote the whole song, which I would not have been capable of doing because I had a girlfriend, and I just didn’t live in that world at that time. Like, if you’ve ever tried to conjure up the imagery that comes up in that song…
And then he had an idea for a song, which was a really funny idea about a guy who is married to a sex worker… It’s a very reverential song about how proud he is of being her husband, because the title of the song is “She Comes Home To Me.” I wrote it like a Sinatra song, and it’s just all these examples of things this woman does for a living, but he’s so proud that he gets to call her his wife. He’s the one that gets to go antiquing with her. She has sex with hundreds of men, but they never get to enjoy her homemade vegetable soup. It’s bragging about all these sweet romantic husband and wife connections, and it’s great. It’s so funny and he got to do it on Chris Rock’s show and it’s an incredible performance. He got a big band and it’s hilarious.
I used to write jingles at SNL all the time, too. I was sort of guilty of starting something at SNL which was the whole trend toward, if there was a recurring character, they had a theme song. I don’t know how many reruns you’ve watched of old SNL, but like, you know how with characters like Pat, with Julia Sweeney—I didn’t write that, but after a couple of years, everybody was doing that. You would have a character and the character would get a jingle written about them for a montage. And I started that. You know, it started funny to me, but then it just became this reflex move that everybody did and I think people started being annoyed by it. But it started with a song called Mr. Short Term Memory. It was a sketch idea that was Conan’s idea, but I wrote it with him and some other writers, and I wrote the jingle for that. Also, along with other writers, I wrote a number called “Not Going To Phone It In Tonight,” which was a Steve Martin opening number.
Now I’m writing a musical with Sandler. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about it, but it’s going to be a Netflix animated movie, and I wrote all these songs for it. It’s very silly. It’s for kids, but hopefully everyone will find it funny.
AVC: You’ve really worked with Sandler for a long time now. You’re practically a lifer at Happy Madison.
RS: I got to see him audition for SNL at a comedy club in Chicago with Chris Rock on the same night. I was like sort of a coproducer at that time, so I got to see the beginning process. Chris was finally chosen that during that trip as well, and he was very exciting, but Adam was somebody I just bonded with very quickly. With other people, it was about comedy, and some aspect of our personalities, like Conan and I like to look at people through the lens of… We’re both a little alienated in a way where we like that sort of detached, turning people into cartoons kind of thing.
Sandler and I bonded in a completely different way. Maybe it was because we’re both from Jewish families that were very close knit, and so we sort of had a lot in common that way and laughed at the same kind of human things. That was sort of the genesis, but Adam’s incredibly silly and nonsensical. He’s very underrated just as a writer.
AVC: He’s also incredibly loyal. He works with the same people over and over again—including you.
RS: I like to say that he’s my best friend in show business, but it’s almost a farce because there are probably literally 15 people who feel the same way. He’s just given me so much support and he’s had a really positive impact on my life personally as well as professionally.
RS: This is so funny because I read this column and it’s usually about different roles people play, so I was like, “Really? Are they going to be interested in my role as the dentist” or whatever?
AVC: Well, you have acted quite a bit, but we cover writing, directing, and other jobs from time to time. As far as acting, though, you do have a role that some people might not recognize you for, and that’s as one of Bill Swerski’s Super Fans on SNL, or the “Da Bears” guys. What did you like about that role? If nothing else, the access to pork chops must have been outstanding.
RS: It’s funny because I try to keep kosher, so I couldn’t eat the regular baby back ribs, so I would always have a giant beef rib in my hand during that sketch, and that was great because it kind of calmed me down. I mean, I’m on Saturday Night Live doing a sketch. It really does help to have something to eat there.
That’s a good tip for young actors: Seek out roles where you can eat a giant beef rib. It really clears your head and gets you ready to react in the moment. Limit your roles to ones where you’re eating an object that’s at least five inches long and three inches wide, minimum. It gives you busy work, which is really helpful for me as an actor.
That was a walk in the park. I also got to wear sunglasses so I could read cue cards. I also didn’t have to worry about where he lives.
The most fun I had during that character was in Chicago, because Chicago is where people really went crazy for it and still do. I still do appearances with George Wendt. Like two years ago, Illinois had its bicentennial and they invited me and George Wendt to perform there. We met the governor, and we literally did ten minutes.
It’s hilarious how Chicago… I think they’re just so grateful for the attention. They’ve always had a little bit of a complex about New York and Los Angeles, so even though some people were offended by it, I think most people were just thrilled. It’s the equivalent of Regis Philbin’s reaction when Dana Carvey did him. It’s validation on some level, like “I was on Saturday Night Live!” It was like an entire city saying [assumes Chicago accent], “Hey, look at that. We’re a thing.”
AVC: I get it. I lived there for 12 years, and then I grew up in Cleveland, which is even worse. They’ll dedicate bus tours to movies no one has ever seen. Like, have you seen Draft Day with Kevin Costner? No, but everyone in Cleveland has.
RS: That’s so funny. It’s like how nowhere is the Blues Brothers more important in the pantheon than in Chicago. It’s up there with Gone With The Wind and Casablanca.
Wayne’s World 2 (1993)—“Concert Nerd”
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2011)—“Yari”
AVC: Speaking of Chicago, you and Bob Odenkirk play incredible concert nerds from the Chicago suburbs in Wayne’s World 2.
RS: A lot of people have discovered that movie lately. I think it’s on Netflix or something, but I’ve been hearing a lot about that movie lately.
That was just a throwaway one day shoot. [Wayne’s World 2 writers] Bonnie and Terry Turner were great writers at SNL and we really were considered—Bob, Conan, Greg Daniels, and myself were collectively called the nerds. So they just couldn’t resist casting us.
That was a fun day, but I will say there’s one role that was the most fun I’ve ever experienced in show business, so I’ll just talk about that.
Getting to be on Curb Your Enthusiasm may be the most fun experience in my whole career. I got to play a mechanic who sponsored a softball team that Larry David was on and it was the year he did a season in New York. I auditioned for this role with an Israeli accent because the guy’s name was Yari. I got the call later, and they said “Yeah, Larry wants you to do it, but just do Triumph’s voice.”
Then I show up and the premise was that the guy was supposed to be this overenthusiastic softball sponsor who pitches in the game, too, and then Larry screws up, because he lets a grounder go through his legs like Bill Buckner famously did against the Mets in 1986 when the Red Sox lost the World Series. So this guy goes bananas and then he doesn’t fix his car anymore. It’s that kind of thing.
But then when I got there, they asked me, “Would you mind giving the group a pep talk as your character?” The whole show is supposed to be improvising off a premise, but here I am being told this a half hour before we shot, and I just wanted to collect my thoughts about what this guy would say. But I got to do this incredibly vulgar speech. I asked Larry and the director, “Is it okay if I curse a little?” And they said “Yes, the more the better.”
You should Google that one. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, and Larry David paid me the best compliment ever by how much I was making him laugh. I loved Seinfeld so much, and making him laugh is just one of the highlights of my career.
It’s so crazy. I have done movies with Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach. I was the counselor in Marriage Story, and that’s very interesting. Jesus Christ.