On February 13, 1997 — 25 years ago this week — Late Night with Conan O’Brien debuted a new bit. The bit featured “the talented dogs of the Westminster Dog Show,” all of which had special, unlikely talents. One of them was a dog puppet who trotted out a simple joke construction: Praise of a specific person or thing, followed by “…for me to poop on.”
Yes, it was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, voiced and performed by longtime Conan and SNL writer Robert Smigel. This bit, very funny but quite simple, was followed by Conan asking “what the hell was that?,” and would seem an unlikely candidate to spawn a character that would endure for a quarter-century, across numerous forms of media.
The legend of Triumph slowly built up over time, coinciding with the period in the late ’90s when the Conan Late Night show was starting to become cool. I was in college during those years, back in the days where I would stay up to watch a show that started at 12:30, and on more than one occasion woke up neighbors by laughing too loudly.
Evolution Through the Years
The “for me to poop on” sketches continued, but eventually, Triumph became associated with remote bits in which he argued or interacted with real people, in some cases celebrities. His appearance at the Attack of the Clones premiere in 2002 was instantly legendary:
As was his backstage interaction with Bon Jovi, which is probably the only Triumph bit my Bon Jovi-loving wife has ever watched to the end:
And Triumph once even got into a feud with Eminem (but not before making a pretty prescient R. Kelly joke):
Once the Millennium turned, Triumph moved beyond Conan to other media, including the Come Poop With Me album and live show:
He once roasted Rob Reiner at a Friar’s Club roast:
Once Conan jumped to The Tonight Show, and especially to TBS, he retired most of his older bits, and that meant no Triumph for a while. But the Insult Comic Dog returned in 2011 when O’Brien brought his show to New York and “found” Triumph in the Late Night couch cushions.
But Triumph has stayed plenty busy. He once had his own TV show with Jack McBrayer (The Jack and Triumph Show), and even tried his hand at politics, appearing at political conventions in various years. By 2016, Triumph even had his own pair of political specials, on Hulu:
My favorite Triumph moment of all is one that doesn’t appear to have any surviving video (although the transcript is here). It was in September of 2004, on the final night of the Republican National Convention in New York, and it was about 2 a.m., hours after George W. Bush’s speech. Triumph was a panelist, as was the late actor Ron Silver, then amidst what turned out to be a conservative phase. Silver started passionately arguing with Triumph, before realizing that he was arguing with a puppet (“From the dog. I want an answer from the dog”).
Twelve years later, at another political convention, Triumph had a run-in with another Silver — me. It was during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, I was there as a reporter covering the protests, and there was Triumph (and Smigel) near City Hall, making fun of protesters.
I talked to him briefly, got a picture, and was even interviewed for that year’s Hulu special, and while my interview didn’t make it in, for some reason a still picture of me and Triumph from that day made it into an episode, four years later, of the Smigel-associated TBS series Tournament of Laughs:
Triumph clearly owes a great deal of his lineage to the Jewish insult comics of the mid-20th century. And Smigel has said in interviews that he’s always pictured dogs as Eastern European immigrants.
“I realize there are more accents in the world than eastern European. But in my head, that’s how dogs talk,” Smigel told NPR in a 2009 interview. He added that his grandparents were Russian immigrants and he grew up hearing that accent. “You know, eventually European immigrants catch up and become jaded, but dogs never do. That’s why I can laugh at dogs forever.”
Indeed, Smigel once guest-starred on Curb Your Enthusiasm in which he played his character, Yari, with Triumph’s voice:
Not many people who watched the first Triumph skit in 2004 likely assumed that he would endure for this long. But that he has, and he’s had a career that most comedians, human or no, and puppet or no, could only dream on. It’s been quite a run — for me to poop on!