Robert Smigel’s had his hand up inside Triumph The Insult Comic Dog for nearly 20 years now. Sure, one irate t-shirt seller at the Republican National Convention smacks the puppet’s head clean off partway through Triumph’s 2016 Summer Election Special, but Smigel just flaps his naked hand to pursue his line of questioning, indicating just how committed Smigel has become to his canine alter-ego (and how cheap that puppet is). Smigel’s a highly respected comedy writer, producer, and character actor, but jamming his hand inside that Montenegrin Mountain Hound puppet clearly frees him up to channel both his schticky and satirical sides in a way that’s uniquely rewarding. To him, and to the rest of us wondering how to process this most contentious and increasingly ridiculous election season.
In this second of his Hulu/Funny Or Die election specials, Triumph is Triumph. Part cigar-chomping, vaguely accented Friars Club cheap shot artist, part social commentator, Triumph is a comedy mongrel, allowing Smigel to go both high and low indiscriminately. Taking his microphone (on its comically long and slender foreleg) into the streets and into the faces of interview subjects both famous and not, Triumph’s routine is designed to offend on several levels, an exercise in cringe comedy that half the time elicits unwilling laughter and the other half genuine anger. (Witness the aforementioned decapitating head-slap.) For a comic mind like Smigel’s, the on-camera giggle-fits of ambushed media types like this special’s Wolf Blitzer, Bob Schieffer, Orrin Hatch, and Don Lemon, or various political partisans at the Republican and Democratic conventions, are no doubt deeply gratifying trophies on the wall.
The Triumph formula is a tricky one to pull off, and even tricker to sustain for more than an hour. Last time out, a few mediocre field pieces made Triumph wear out his welcome a bit by the end. Fortunately, Smigel and his team of writers (helped by some judicious editing) stay on target here, making the Summer Election Special consistently strong. The Election Special blueprint sees Triumph doing his thing on location, then throwing back to his panel of experts, including actual pundits like former Congressman Barney Frank, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, and radio host Bill Press, and incongruous guests like Ben “the Dell dude” Curtis and that guy in the wizard costume from Triumph’s well-known Attack Of The Clones bit. The heavily edited panel segments prove that not everyone is quick enough to play along, but the absurdity of the whole, moderately lavish production there adds to the special’s overall point that this election, more than any other in recent memory, is very difficult to take seriously.
Nothing points that out more, or more absurdly, than the field piece where a focus group of Donald Trump voters are shown a lineup of increasingly bananas proposed Trump campaign ads—and barely pause before leaping in to debate the finer points of, for example, luring undocumented Mexican immigrants into porta-johns and airlifting them back across the border. Or having gun vending machines in every ladies room to defend against transgender people. Or whether or not Hillary Clinton can prove she is, in fact, a woman. In a piece like this, it’s tempting to accuse Smigel/Triumph of punching down, but the way that this cross-section of Trump supporters evince an across-the-board willingness to rationalize each successive ludicrous assertion from their candidate allows these seemingly rational adults to hang themselves. Triumph himself doesn’t even appear, confining himself to watching aghast behind the two-way mirror, an admirably deadpan facilitator and Smigel as Trump (via speakerphone) serving to sell the premise. Donald Trump’s greatest strength may be that he’s satire-proof, as nothing he says or does, no matter how offensive or off-the-wall, appears to shake his die-hard supporters, a fact Smigel illustrates ably. When one woman’s only objection to trapping people inside toilets outside the Home Depot (“where Mexicans congregate,” according to faux Trump) is that her kids might have to use the bathroom and get scooped up, too, or when another helpfully points out that outfitting every Mexican citizen with a Donald Trump-brand, bejeweled electric shock collar (for the invisible fence that will predate Trump’s border wall) just means that “they’re going to cut off the collars and sell the bling,” it’s potently illustrative. You keep expecting someone in the room to blink, and they never do, even when—as supposed conservatives—they collectively rationalize the final ad’s plan to create “abortion safe zones” to revitalize impoverished cities (like Trump’s Atlantic City home base), complete with free casino chips. Smigel set out to show that there’s no ideological underpinning to Trump’s support but Trump, and he did, brilliantly.
The RNC and DNC “dog on the scene” segments are the longest, and the richest for Triumph’s signature one-liners. Maybe everyone’s too familiar with Triumph by this point, but—apart from that vendor—no one gets too riled up, which both makes Triumph’s antics a bit too comfy and makes them explosively funny. Smigel’s clearly not on Team Trump, but for every slam at the Republican nominee (on Trump’s opposition to putting Harriet Tubman on currency, “You think he’s mad now, wait ‘til he finds out what she did”) he finds plenty of targets at the DNC. He especially delights in going after the young “Bernie or Bust” protesters, leveling Smigel’s best-written lines at them. (“If you could meet reality right now, what would you say to it?”) The squirminess comes in most when, with a Roger Ailes lookalike in tow, Smigel manages to worm his way back into the RNC auditorium after being thrown out.
The other field segments are solid. An announced visit of Trump to low income neighborhoods is all a setup for the arrival of a heavily armored Trump campaign vehicle, with Smigel booming out cluelessly racist slogans from inside. Smigel’s Trump impression is subtly outstanding, by the way, capturing how the candidate’s self-satisfied “no-nonsense” delivery continually sounds like he’s shrugging as he speaks. (The bit also concludes with the vehicle crushing a parked car, because how else would you end it.) It’s perhaps indicative of how much comic capital Triumph expended at the RNC that his DNC sojourn ends with an innocuous but funny bit mocking Benjamin Franklin impersonators on the streets of Philadelphia. (Good sport Dennis “Mr. Belding” Haskins dons an earpiece and parrots Triumph’s notes, turning the educational event into a tour of Franklin’s favorite brothels.) The RNC event is harder and more pointed, once again allowing Trump supporters to reveal some stuff while enthusiastically hurling baseballs at a “dunk the Arab” and “dunk the gay” dunk tanks outside the convention center. Props to the “Arab” actor—whose name I cannot find—who expertly baits the crowd with some Triumph-level insults. (“I must be in heaven, because all I see are virgins!”) And, after one determined fellow fails to dunk his target of choice, Triumph lets him go enthusiastically to town with a whiffle bat on a guy in a polar bear suit—to let out his anger at global warming “whiners.” He really gets into it.
In the end, this is an election made for Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. While he doesn’t bust out his catchphrases much this time around, there’s a lot to poop on in the daily cavalcade of cruelty, ignorance, bigotry, intellectual dishonesty, and sheer, bullheaded anti-intellectualism that’s marked this entire election cycle. And, with Smigel’s arm wedged firmly where it belongs, we’ve got just the right dog to roll around in the mess.
- “I’m with Hulu. It’s like TV on demand if what you demand is reruns of Wings.”
- “I’m not saying Biden’s teeth are white, but they’re voting for Trump.”
- “We ask the question: Are Americans ready to be led by a woman, or are they pretty sure they’d survive a nuclear war?”
- Sporting macaroni curls as Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “You’d have bad hair too if you were just thrown under a bus!”
- On Bernie Sanders’ high school track career: “Did he have any trouble determining when the race was over back then?”
- “Does it upset you that when Goldman Sachs bought Hillary Clinton, they only paid 70 per cent of what they’d pay a male politician?”
- “Trump’s said he’s going to leave NATO, for a younger, hotter alliance.”
- To a vendor selling a particularly vulgar anti-Clinton t-shirt: “Do you have this in a onesie?”
- Smigel’s Trump, from inside his tank: “How you doin’, caucasian man on the bicycle? I salute your bravery.”
- In studio, Triumph examines how the election map would change if Trump: called a dead soldier a pussy, literally took a shit on Ground Zero, or had sex with his daughter on live television. Only the last one budges the electoral math (in his favor).
- One woman in the focus group jumps in with the refinement to Trump’s electric fence plan, proposing all Mexicans could instead be implanted with a tracking chip under the guise of a vaccination. Another happily provides a testimonial to a supposed Trump plan to lower Chinese IQs by poisoning their water supply with “paints or solvents.”
- Triumph’s proposed new Clinton slogan: Doesn’t rise to the level of an indictment!
- On Mike Pence as VP: “Now a Republican afraid of Mexicans can unite with a Republican afraid of gay people.”