It takes a certain constitution to do confrontational comedy. For Robert Smigel, himself an established and respected comedy writer and performer, the character of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog has provided an outlet for his love of making people uncomfortable for almost two decades. The crude (in both senses) hand puppet—identified by reliable sources as a Montenegrin Mountain Hound—sports a caustic Eastern European accent, an ever-present cigar that falls out whenever Smigel moves the dog’s mouth, and a repertoire of hacky catchphrases (“For me to poop on,” “I keed, I keed”) culled from the dregs of a Friars Club dais. Shoving a microphone in the faces of people most likely to provide fodder for Smigel’s taste for mischief, Triumph is at once a show business parody of lazy insult comics and a mouthpiece for Smigel’s own love of same.
He’s also a reliably potent instrument of chaos, a foul-mouthed, hump-happy gadfly whose position as Smigel’s fearless comedy avatar sees him provoking his subjects into squirmy shock or outright fury. Especially vulnerable to Triumph’s teeth are those with a single-minded passion for a particular subject and/or those whose narrow adherence to a seemingly hypocritical point of view leave their belly open to a Borscht Belt dog puppet without boundaries.
So the current presidential election scene, filled as it is with seemingly nothing but hidebound political partisans with little room in their worldview for perspective, is essentially just a field of exposed bellies. The Hulu-Funny Or Die co-production Triumph’s Election Special 2016 gives Smigel’s alter ego 84 minutes to crap all over the political landscape, and, if his aim is scattershot, then he makes up for it in sheer volume.
Through judicious editing and Smigel and his writers’ prodigious gags (often improvised on the fly) the special keeps the jokes coming at such a pace that there’s no time to reflect on a misfire or a cheap shot before the next one arrives. Coupling that with the cringe factor inherent in Triumph’s shtick, and the whole enterprise is a bit exhausting—and exhausted by the time the last two, and weakest, segments arrive. But, as ever, Smigel’s chutzpah in forcing confrontations with pols, supporters, and even the candidates themselves is never dull, and he wisely breaks up the traditional Triumph interviews with some remote and in-studio segments that change comic speeds.
The best and most provocative of these is one where Triumph barely appears at all. Introducing the segment from his Daily Show-style Hulu command center, Triumph states, “We sent multiple robotic white women to pose as Fox News reporters and see just what people are willing to believe.” And what candidates’ placard-holding supporters are all-too willing to believe from the lips of supposed media figures is a lot. When the actresses playing the correspondents expertly claim, for example, that President Obama plans to amend the Pledge Of Allegiance to include Muhammad, Vishnu, and all other deities, a middle-aged Marco Rubio supporter indignantly cry, “Not on our watch!,” while a Donald Trump booster barely stumbles before rushing to defend the candidate even though he’s reported to have dumped an elderly protester in a wheelchair into a porta-potty “head-first.” As always, these person-on-the-street interviews walk the queasy line between making valid satirical points and simply pointing and laughing at easy targets, but as the segment goes on it’s harder to find sympathy for the guy who excitedly responds to a report that Trump has advocated the sterilization of all Puerto Ricans “until we can figure this thing out” with “I think he’s just saying what we all think,” and another snapping, “I think he hasn’t gone far enough.” To their credit, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul are against the idea, although Santorum is seemingly willing to believe Trump may have actually said it. (Which says more about Trump than Santorum, to be fair.) When Triumph finally shows up to reveal the gag to as part of a show entitled “People Are Incredible Gullible And Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Vote,” he comforts an abashed old lady with his signature “I keed,” but the comic power of the piece remains.
Not all the targets are as well chosen or well realized. While Smigel mostly adheres to the “equal opportunity offender” line all insult comics claim as their shield, he punches down as often as not. Literally every Chris Christie jab is a fat joke, including an overlong bit where his Christie advance man—er, dog—advises a diner campaign stop to chain up their cake display and to test their toilets by attempting to flush several raw chickens in preparation for the New Jersey governor’s needs. (The Fox News bit where Christie supporters are told that the governor has gotten stuck in a school chair does earn guilty laughs for commitment by actually wheeling out a lookalike on a gurney in the background, ample frame still wedged in the desk, while his supporters attempt to maintain their composure.) Similarly, Hillary Clinton is taken to task for her appearance more than once (a young Clinton supporter angrily tries to tell Triumph off for “dirty journalism” which is both ridiculous and accurate). Plus, in Triumph’s incessant riffing, Bernie Sanders is old, Carly Fiorina is unattractive, and so on. Triumph’s divided pedigree as both political satirist and parody of bad comics is partly behind the easy shots, but Smigel clearly knows that part of his creation’s appeal is in saying superficially mean-spirited things for the shock value.
Nowhere is this dichotomy so evident as in Triumph’s detour to the University of New Hampshire, where he grills a roomful of college students on the subject of “political correctness.” For every successful jab that pops an overinflated concept of acceptable language—noting that the university’s guidelines suggest replacing the term “poor people” with an 18-word jumble of jargon, he deadpans, “It’s as simple as that”—Smigel goes for the easy laugh or the outrageous broadside. Two of the young women are clearly uncomfortable at separate sexual innuendoes which, after all, are actually coming from a middle-aged man humping their legs with a horny dog puppet.
Similarly, the special’s final bit, with former SNL-er Tim Meadows made up to look like Ben Carson and interacting with patrons of an Iowa diner fizzles. Triumph’s stated intent of seeing if “the people deciding our next president can tell the difference between one black person and another,” instead becomes an exercise of politely dubious Iowans watching the game Meadows acting in increasingly weird ways. The piece culminates with Meadows’ Carson requesting a presumable plant reenact the adolescent stabbing incident the candidate has touted as evidence of his toughness, which serves no purpose other than to make a few nice people think they’ve just witnessed a bloody knife attack. And his final act, singing the national anthem at a sporting event in Carson’s signature sleepy singsong, doesn’t make a point other than that Ben Carson sure talks funny. (Compare it to the similar scene in Borat that melded public spectacle with satire to much greater effect.)
Triumph’s routine works best when there’s a tingle of audaciousness that comes from a comedian with that puppet on his hand commanding the attention of someone in a position of power. Few of the actual candidates deign to talk to Triumph/Smigel—Mike Huckabee comes off best, oddly, as he plays along even to the extent of accepting debate prep putdown advice in a private session. As odious as much of what he says is (Triumph claims he’s referred to as “a homophobic pufferfish”), Huckabee at least seems to have a sense of humor, even if his feeble attempts to come up with one-liners of his own elicit a sorrowful “Oh, dear God” from his would-be tutor. Conversely, the other candidates—rightly or wrongly—assume their time would be better spent talking to anyone but a comedian with his hand up a fake dog, forcing Smigel to employ ordinary-looking infiltrators to deliver his insults for him. A very game lady in a wheelchair asks a Sanders operative “If Sanders is here, who’s going to bring Marty back to the future?” before unexpectedly jumping up and running out of the room, leaving a very confused crowd looking after her.
Smigel’s audaciousness and ability to think on his feet (even with one hand occupied) can be exhilarating when everything aligns just right. It’s infectious when an aide to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is caught laughing even as his boss tries to deflect yet another Clinton joke, or when a Cruz supporter can’t help himself when the dog offers, in response to Cruz’s stump speech about “Judeo-Christian values,” a whispered “especially Christian.” An escalating national debt tote board provides the inspiration for Smigel and the offscreen writers to riff for a solid three or four minutes, the jokes coming faster and faster. And in a studio segment where a collection of actual political experts and marginal media figures such as the ”Chocolate Rain” guy and that wizard cosplayer from the famous Star Wars segment, Smigel wrings the biggest laugh by simply taking a beat after American Idol spectacle Sanjaya Malakar sputters through an inarticulate point to deadpan, “Continue.”
In the end, 84 minutes of Triumph is a lot of Triumph, but Triumph’s Election Special 2016 works more often than it doesn’t, riding its canine comic’s (sure, and Robert Smigel’s) relentless pursuit of yucks to uncomfortable, even insightful, effect.
- Triumph, after seeing Ted Cruz signing a supporter’s firearm: “He’s never going to wash that gun.”
- Other claims various voters believed: Cruz pushed a child into a swimming pool. Clinton advocates roaming “abortion vans” in poor neighborhoods (with free ice cream). Trump did an entire speech in an insulting Asian accent. Planned Parenthood is distributing a flier urging teens to engage in fisting rather than intercourse. A Jeb Bush speech included a rant including, “Mommy said this would be easy. Mommy said if I were elected President, I would be able to lick the bowl.”
- Triumph to Huckabee: “You’re polling at five per cent, and that’s including the entire Duggar family.”
- Also: “How do you concentrate over the sound of your employees typing their resumes?”
- And again: “You can’t just write this off like evolution or books or logical reasoning.”
- “I’m gonna give you a three-day waiting period to think of your answer.”