In an unbelievable presidential election brimming with hilarious, incisive political comedy from late-night hosts and other comics, some of this year's best political satire came from Triumph's Election Special 2016. The special, which aired on Hulu in February and featured Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Robert Smigel's hilarious, cigar-puffing puppet creation, garnered an Emmy nomination for outstanding writing for a variety special.
Now, Smigel—along with Hulu and Funny or Die—is back with a second Hulu program, Triumph's Summer Election Special 2016, which debuted today on the streaming site. This time, Smigel brought the puppet, which first appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 1997 as a "one-off," to this summer's Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Smigel spoke with Adweek about who played ball at the conventions (and who didn't), what question Triumph would like to ask Donald Trump and the Triumph Super Bowl ad that almost was (but in the end wasn't).
Adweek: Triumph is almost two decades old now.
Robert Smigel: Ridiculous!
How are you still able to use the character? Doesn't NBC have intellectual property rights since he first appeared on Late Night?
It is weird. There were a lot of issues with that because I was sued by Pets.com. They wouldn't indemnify me, and then I gave up the ownership formally because my son had been diagnosed with autism and I said, "I am not going to spend the money defending myself." I knew it was a frivolous suit. I still was terrified of spending a lot of money on this. So my agent worked out a deal. What I really cared about most at the time was I just wanted to have the creative freedom to spin off Triumph if I ever wanted to, into anything. And so they would get a piece of it, but they couldn't make creative decisions. I just knew that there might be potential with Triumph, so we negotiated that. I did a comedy album, and then I've had many offers over the years to do movies and TV shows. And only in the last few years have I really dove in.
Have any brands ever expressed interest in working with Triumph?
There was one Quiznos Super Bowl offer, and then it sort of went away. And then there was something with the NFL that ended up not happening. I don't even know if I'm allowed to talk about it. But I would like to do that—I've never known how to market myself that way. But I don't feel like it would compromise Triumph, because basically he would whore himself out for anything. That wouldn't be part of the commercial, but that would be the subtext.
You also brought Triumph to the political conventions in 2004 and 2008. What it is about them that's such a great fit for Triumph?
Because they're authority figures, and it's the snobs against the slob. It's like Rodney [Dangerfield] in Caddyshack. I'm not comparing Triumph to Groucho Marx in any way other than just the basic construct, but the id versus the snooty. And it's gotten less snooty over the years. In the old days, the Republicans used to be scarier. When I went to George Bush's [convention] in 2004, they all wore costumes back then. That's disappeared. People do not dress themselves up like idiots at these conventions like they used to. But yeah, anytime you can go to anything that smells of a privileged class of people, it's a perfect scenario.
In both the Facebook Live video you shot and the special's first trailer with Bob Schieffer, Triumph seems to have a lot of interaction with news anchors this time around.
Yeah, those guys will talk to Triumph all day long. The only way I could get under their skin was by photobombing them. That was the one way I could still be a gate crasher. Because if I get too chummy with everybody, then it's not fun anymore. So I have to cause trouble.
The Republican National Convention was the first time you've done a Triumph Facebook Live video. What prompted that?
It came up as something they suggested to me, and I thought, Oh, I'm going to be so busy doing other stuff. But then I had this idea: If I'm doing a show from right behind Wolf Blitzer's show—and I was like, "this is back to back with Triumph!"—that just amused me to no end. The idea of conducting a show, because they have CNN, MSNBC, Fox Business all on the ground floor of the convention, and people were walking by. And I just loved the idea not only of Triumph doing a show but of people watching CNN and having everybody who's normally just like looking into the camera, their backs to the camera because I'm distracting them.
Because this election is so outrageous, it must be almost like shooting fish in a barrel for you.
Yeah. You've got to do it in an interesting way.
So how do you do that, given that so many comedians are also covering the presidential race?
To me, what's interesting about Triumph is two things: He's more confrontational. He actually says things to people's face instead of to the audience that agrees with him. And he says it about both sides. Those are the two things that made me feel like, OK, there's something here that Triumph can add. Because there are great people obviously doing other stuff. But I felt like I don't have to be competing with them because Triumph has a totally different approach.
What question would Triumph like to ask Trump?
The question I really wanted to ask Trump at one point was, [in Triumph's voice] "Pardon me, Mr. Trump. I'm not an expert about politics, and I'm kind of crude and not very bright. … So how do I run for president?" It was a perfect setup—sucker him in, and then say that. But I haven't gotten with him. I got to see his [RNC] speech, and that's about all I got to see. I got close to Donald Jr.
You said the news anchors were happy to talk to Triumph. Who at the conventions was least excited to do so?
The Democratic Florida delegation, for some reason, had a real bug up there. Maybe because of all this Debbie Wasserman Schultz attention. Some people saw me photobombing the Indiana delegation during roll call—actually got up there, and I was dressed as Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I had fusilli pasta for Triumph's hair. We just dumped fusilli pasta and walked around and had a little tomato sauce in there, too. And I said, "I'm Debbie Wasserman Schultz. You better behave yourself, Bernie people! This is my convention. I picked the carpet, the color. It's mine. I'm not going anywhere." So maybe that's why Florida was just mad. They were the angriest people of anybody I encountered at either convention.
You've done two political specials for Hulu this year. Is there time to squeeze in a third before the election?
Oh, yeah. I don't know exactly what we're doing, but we're talking about doing more stuff leading to the election.
And your hope is that you'll continue to do Triumph shows and specials for them even after the election?
Yes. Hulu has been incredibly supportive. Out of the blue, the show was nominated for a writing Emmy, which is the first Emmy nomination that Hulu had ever gotten. So I think they were excited about that, too. That's not what I led with when I pitched Triumph to Hulu: "You want respect, you want Emmy's? Here!" That came as a shock, but it's nice.