The 2016 election is an absolute circus, and there may be no one better at clowning the clowns than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. With Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016 and last February’s Primary Election Special, both airing on Hulu, the intrepid pup has been dragging his butt across the political carpet, from Iowa to New Hampshire, Philly’s Democratic National Convention to Cleveland’s Republican National Convention. The bipartisan badgerer has roasted Mike Huckabee, annoyed Ted Cruz and gone viral with videos toying with gullible Trump fans and sensitive college liberals alike — all while gleefully reveling in our current state of media anarchy. And today, Hulu is releasing a set of “Bonus Poop” that couldn’t fit into the robust, recent special.
Rolling Stone caught up with the hand behind the cigar, creator Robert Smigel, to talk about how a puppet gets access, what people get wrong about Trump, why Ted Cruz is like Louis C.K., and exactly how he mended his famous feud with Eminem.
In the credits to the Election Special, it was a little shocking to see such a massive writing team. With the remote shoots, you get this sort of image …
Of me doing everything off the top of my head.
You know, the first few remotes we did were improvised. When I went to Westminster the very first time, it was mostly improvised. But then I was like, “Let’s go back to Westminster, but this time write some jokes.” I have a core group of guys who I’ve known for years. We come in, have a couple of meetings, generate ideas. The reason there are so many names, there are a lot of people I’ve worked with who are great, who’ve got other jobs. … there’s a core of like seven or eight guys, who were here generating material. And then we have other people who simply email jokes when they have the time.
Given this pool of talent, there must be some completely batshit material.
I’m trying to think of anything that we held back on, because it was too inappropriate. Donald Trump in the tank, I almost killed that bit — because of all the tragedies that happened after we came up with the idea. There was that horrible three-day period of, you know, Minnesota, Baton Rouge. We were pretty much gonna kill it. Then a few weeks passed and Donald Trump said something crazy on Bill O’Riley’s show, to the effect of: “I can relate to the African American experience, because the system is rigged against them, the way it was against me, the Republican.” I thought, OK if I use that as the entryway of this sketch, than it’s clearly it’s all about this well-meaning person being tone-deaf and so we resuscitated it. The crazier the better, as far as I’m concerned.
I took a gamble on with this thing. I didn’t know how long Triumph would be able to sustain for an audience. I also didn’t know how I could produce these things in a way that would make me happy, because I love to go over every detail with a jeweler’s loupe when I’m editing these. I’ll take a couple of weeks to prepare and a couple of days to edit each remote. I used to do four a year; now I’m doing literally 15 in two weeks. The [first special] was the one I was inspired to do, because I was fascinated by the anomaly of having so much access to candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s so funny to me.
How did you get that access?
Anybody can. No, I’m serious. You’re talking about candidates who flood these states that have an inordinate amount of influence, because they’re the first primary states. So they just camp out there for months until everyone in the state is sick of them. That’s how much access they have. So I was like, this is fantastic for Triumph. It’s so easy to get close to these guys, and the nature of the campaign is so absurd. They’re going to coffee shops and shaking hands and having these meet and greets. Originally I thought I’ll get to go to town hall meetings and I’ll ask embarrassing, ridiculous questions in front of everybody and it’ll be funny and get publicity. And once I was there, I couldn’t do it. I just felt it was crossing a line in terms of, “Oh this isn’t really funny as much as you’re just being a pest.” And there was a certain respect that I just felt like I still had for the process. I know it’s all ridiculous on one level, but on the other level, it just wasn’t something I wanted to disrupt that way.
If only Donald Trump felt the same way about disrupting 240 years of American democracy.
I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about all that. I actually found him very refreshing, I have to admit, compared to the boiler plate speeches. Ted Cruz doesn’t change a syllable. Not a syllable, and he has these fake improvs, like a good comedian would. Like Louis [C.K.] always talks about how he improvises onstage and when he hits on something great, he’ll just recreate the improv. Ted Cruz is like literally doing that. I watched like five or six speeches in a row and he’s not changing a syllable. You could time the pause. That creepy kind of contrived approach was really fun to make fun of.
And honestly I found what Trump was doing … he just shows up, “How are you. What a day I had, oh my goodness. Did you hear what Hillary said.” It’s literally like watching Regis in the morning, just gossiping with the audience about what was on The Bachelor last night. I could totally buy why the audience was enjoying it so much, because it just felt way more honest.
I don’t mind sharing my politics because what’s important to me is that Triumph doesn’t have my politics. I keep Triumph making fun of everybody. That’s the reason I jumped into this thing, because [Trump] was being compared to Triumph. I saw the Wall Street Journal call him “Trump the Insult Comic Dog” and Lawrence O’Donnell wrote to me wanting me to be on the show, because he was calling Trump “the Insult Comic Dog.” And that’s what kind of got me thinking, maybe this is a good time to jump in and comment on how low our dialogue is sinking. That Mike Huckabee sketch sort of embodied that.
How did you get Huckabee to agree to be dressed down by Triumph?
That was amazing. We were in South Carolina for the Tea Party convention, which we ended up getting thrown out of. But while we were there one of the field producers said he was doing a pancake breakfast at some local restaurant. I was like, well, Huckabee and pancakes, this is too funny. Cheap fat jokes, here we come. So we show up with our cameras, and this guy, who is one of Huckabee’s top advisors, his name is Hogan Gidley — he actually recognized me without the puppet. He turned out to be this comedy nerd. So we’re talking and I’m like, “Yeah, so is it okay if I shoot some of this?” He’s like, “No. But I’ll let you talk to Governor Huckabee afterward” and pitched some stuff.
Huckabee actually has a great sense of humor, whether you agree with any of his policies or not. He was such a great sport. I was sort of shocked at what he was willing to read and what he wasn’t. He wasn’t willing to do anything that remotely sounded dirty. There was some Rick Santorum joke that was filthy and I ended up having to read it. But then he did this Carly Fiorina joke that had to do with “dog years” or something. [“Carly Fiorina is 61 years old — or in dog years, she’s 61 years old.”] It was pretty rough; it just wasn’t dirty. It’s always interesting what people find acceptable. To me, a dirty joke is way less offensive than the Carly Fiorina joke about dog years.
Have you met Trump in your years in the business?
Yes. A couple of times. I met Trump at SNL when he was a host in 2005. I wrote a cartoon that required a Trump voiceover — it actually got cut. It was Donald Trump trying out hand gesture for “You’re fired” into the mirror. In the middle there was a commercial for “Trump Toons.” It was like, Trump Popeye followed by Trump Flintstones. I don’t even remember what the joke was. He came in and he was very gracious and friendly. I told him my dad actually was a very successful aesthetic dentist and had done Ivanka’s teeth.
He’s like, “Are you sure it was Ivanka or my other daughter?” I met him a few years later at an autism benefit for a school that my son was at and I actually had Darrell Hammond play Trump for the benefit. He’s very good friends with Bob and Suzanne Wright who are the heads of NBC, and then ended up having their own grandson with autism. They started Autism Speaks, and Trump was always super helpful and supportive. He ran the live auction that night.
I’m definitely mixed about him. As long as he wants to replace Scalia with another Scalia, it would be impossible for me to take him seriously as a guy I would vote for. But honestly, he’s the only one who had the balls to say anything nice about Planned Parenthood. Because Planned Parenthood is basically the gay marriage of this election, just because they’ve run out of stuff to win over the evangelicals with. That moment when he brought up penis size in the middle of the debate … I don’t know that we’ll ever top that. A lot of it, to me, was a distraction. Like if he would just stay on message, the fresh stuff [is] the same kind of stuff that Bernie supporters were attracted to. It’s an odd thing. But yeah, he knows how to behave in private and he’s very gracious and easy to work with.
The Triumph album, 2003’s Come Poop With Me, was pretty vulgar. What was it like bringing that to a record label?
Well, here’s what happened there. I had an idea, that wouldn’t it be funny if Triumph did an old-fashioned dirty comedy album like people like Belle Barth used to record in the Sixties — silly, filthy songs that would just be about dog sex. That was the whole premise. I thought I’d be on some independent label and maybe it would catch on and sell a hundred thousand albums. That’s what I was hoping for. Then Adam [Sandler] heard the idea: “That’s fucking great, Smigey. Do it through Warner Brothers, that’s my company.”
The album basically was still this filthy album and then they asked for one song that was playable for the radio and that was “I Keed.” It’s even in the album. I’m explaining exactly why the song exists, making fun of how this is what the studio wants. But the fact is, if the whole album had been like that, it would have been way more popular. What I learned from that is that people really love when Triumph insults people. The dog sex is like the little icing on the cake. At this point in Triumph’s life, which was post-Star Wars [routine on Late Night], whatever, this is what people really wanted Triumph to do — just hurting people’s hearts.
“As long as [Trump] wants to replace Scalia with another Scalia, it would be impossible for me to take him seriously. But he’s the only one who had the balls to say anything nice about Planned Parenthood.”
Is there a physical toll on your body from constantly crouching?
Like playing catcher. There hasn’t been yet, oddly enough. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was when I was doing Come Poop With Me, the live shows. At the Bowery Ballroom that one night, like literally I couldn’t feel my fingers and that happens sometimes. The arm’s all the way up here and the body is down here and there have been times when I’ve been performing and I can’t feel my fingers and I just start waving the puppet around without flapping my hand just to simulate mouth movement. Nobody can really tell the difference since the puppetry has always been so shitty.
Occasionally I have to contort myself into ridiculous positions, you know for Conan remotes. I’ve had to be in the back of a limousine and Triumph’s getting a blowjob from a live poodle and literally my head is out one door and my legs, I’m on the floor of the thing. It’s a limousine, so there’s probably dried-up jizz. It’s not a good situation, but I always feel like, “Ah, I deserved this.”
The Eminem confrontation at the 2002 VMAs has become legendary and taken on a life of its own. How did you mend that fence?
He made more of it than I did. He’s talked about it more than I did, it’s so strange. The producers were just so confident that Eminem would find this funny, because he is a funny, smart guy. There were all these circumstances that night. Brittany Murphy was there, who he had broken up with. Then we moved Moby like five rows behind him and he turns around, “What the fuck are you doing here, bitch?” Moby is terrified at that moment: “I didn’t realize he was this mad at me.” I was like, well there’s no time to change this now. I remember begging the cameraman, whatever happens, just stay on Triumph, never cut to me. Never widen. Bless his heart, he never did.
So a few weeks later, Paul Rosenberg [Eminem’s manager], I believe, was for some reason around the Conan studios. He told me that once everything was explained to him and everything kind of calmed down — Once he understood who Triumph was — he thought it was funny and didn’t have a problem with it. Then it quickly became this thing where Eminem was doing a special for MTV and could Triumph do something on it? That didn’t work out. Then Eminem writes a song about it [“Ass Like That”], and then he invites me to be in the music video, which was great.
You did the puppeteering in the video?
I did, because I felt like I might as well do this and be in control of how he represents Triumph. Otherwise he would have gotten a fake Triumph. And that ended up happening, too, because … like a month after the video, I get another call. Now Eminem is doing the Movie Awards and he wants you to do something with him there. By now I’m like, is this too much already? I don’t know why I was thinking that — I love Eminem. But I was micromanaging Triumph’s career at that point. I didn’t totally love their approach, so I pitched something else and then I didn’t hear from them. Then he just went on with a fake Triumph and did his own thing, which was fine. It was funny to see him to do that.
I was very busy that weekend anyway. I was at the Michael Jackson trial. It was literally like the same week I was dealing with crazed fans from all over the world who hated Triumph for reporting a different story than they wanted to hear basically.
“What I learned from [the 2003 album Come Poop With Me] is that people really love when Triumph insults people. The dog sex is like the little icing on the cake.”
Did you approve the word “fag” with the MTV censors? When they show it now, it’s always bleeped out.
“Fag” is a word they were fine with back then. But that’s the thing. It’s interesting that you bring that up. My goal is not to use Triumph to be a satirist really and make real heavy points. I don’t want my stuff to be seen as propaganda. Like a lot of the late night people are more than happy to say that they’re there to spout off about the candidate they hate and the one they prefer. With Triumph, I really like to keep it apolitical in a way and making fun of everyone. But like, this thing that came out, this focus group [routine from the Summer Election Special]. It’ll probably be at two million hits.
That thing is huge.
It’s partly because a lot of people are using it to say that all Trump people are like this. “This proves that Trump’s supporters are all animals and racists,” which is not true. I’ve been to Trump rallies and there are a lot of reasonable people who see some sense in the basic reforms he’s talking about. Whether he’s all over the map or not is more than debatable. But they’re not all foaming at the mouth. I brought security to those Trump rallies in Iowa, because I was scared from what I’d seen on on the Web, on CNN.com. They only show the crazy behavior, that’s what they want to see. That’s what they think people will be interested in and it is clickbait. But there were a lot of reasonable people there
And for this, we asked the focus group to get us some real rabid people. The only goal that I had will they will believe these hilarious ads, that’s all I was hoping for. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff that some of them ended up saying. I still don’t believe these are representative of the “average” Trump supporter. But that’s how people are using it.
The one I did with the kids in New Hampshire, that became a whole thing. Even Ann Coulter retweeted it. That was embraced by the right. “Look at these spoiled bitches and beta males and social justice warriors.” And I got really stressed about it, because I’m thinking about the actual kids getting shit. They are in their teens, 18, 19 year old kids. So I had to like in interviews bring up a story about the word “fag,” which happened at the Star Wars convention. That’s probably the most popular [Triumph bit], obviously, because the straight men are so funny. There’s that moment when Mr. Spock [flips the finger] and gets a huge laugh. The night before we screened a different version where Mr. Spock holds up a sign that says “fags.”
Murdered just as hard. This is 2002. Which is the same year I did the Moby bit actually. So we hold up the sign and it gets a huge laugh. Everything is killing and we’re all just celebrating that this is the funniest Triumph ever. And then the head writer comes in and says, some of the interns were a little bummed out by the sign. And we were like, “Really? Hasn’t that word morphed into ‘pussy’?” We still thought of “faggot” as a slur, but not “fag.” Conan made the final decision and we listened to the kids. I would have cut it out years ago. But it’s only been really five or six years since people have come around to really understanding that’s not an acceptable word to use.
Language is changing and college kids are probably on the forefront of a lot of it.
I mean, some of it. Some of it is going to be discarded and be ridiculous. But there are going to be things that will change. And to me, it was not just about Triumph making fun of them. It was about Triumph playing the role of the asshole who’s never going to get it and these kids playing the other extreme — and you can laugh at both. That’s how I looked at it. But it became this tool of the right wing. … I found it very interesting how all these years of Triumph just being comic relief that these two pieces have been used as tools by one side and the other as if Triumph is really trying to make a point.
Like, “Let’s listen to this dog puppet.”
I’ve heard people say that. “Thank god Triumph is the sane voice.” Whatever. I guess it just comes with the territory. But as long as people find them funny above everything else, it’s worth it.