How Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Saved the Presidential Election This Summer
The summer -- a time for playing songs loudly on your car radio, staycation-binge-watching shows you've neglected, and chilling out with movie theater air-conditioning -- is nearly over. We're not ready to say goodbye just yet: all this week we're giving shout-outs to our favorite pop-culture moments of the summer. Check out our hub page to read our picks for the best entertainment of summer 2016 and keep the good times rolling into the fall.
This year, insult comedy became political rhetoric. Robert Smigel, creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, saw an opportunity. Or, as Smigel put it to me in his Triumph voice: "I saw a funny butt hole and I wanted to fill it."
In February, Hulu released Triumph's Election Special, a scathing look at the modern political circus that brought everyone's favorite cigar-chomping Yugoslavian mountain hound nose-to-nose with pundits, string-pullers, and the candidates themselves. The docu-comedy inched close to Borat-level greatness, and it was no surprise when Smigel returned this summer, hand in dog's ass, with a follow-up. Triumph's Summer Election Special is like a poop joke-filled Heart of Darkness, journeying into the jungles of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Triumph doesn't lob insults directly at Trump or Clinton, but as Smigel learned over weeks of filming, their constituencies were worthier targets.
In awe of Triumph's Summer Election Special, I asked Smigel how he got away with it all.
Why Saved by the Bell actor Dennis Haskins plays Ben Franklin in the special
What starts with badgering a local Philadelphia Ben Franklin re-enactor ends with Mr. Belding dressing as the founding father and leading a group of unsuspecting tourists on a perverse nightmare tour. Why Dennis Haskins? "Triumph has, and it's sort of left over from the sitcom I did, an attraction to B-list celebrities," says Smigel. "You could imagine that Triumph's been friends with these guys since the '90s when he was emerging, like Joey Fatone. When BoJack Horseman came out I was like, 'OK, well that's sort of the same premise as what I'm doing with the gray area here.'" The difference: BoJack doesn't bark at Revolutionary War-era impersonators. Unfortunately.
Triumph infiltrated the DNC, but missed the"fart-in"
The national conventions were very stressful places for an insult comic dog. Busy interviewing Bernie Bros and MSNBC commentators, Smigel missed the flatulent protest. He made up for it with in-studio riffs -- but they were cut for time. "There was a joke in there where I'm sitting next to Barney Frank and talking about the fart-in and Barney Frank makes some dismissive comment about it and I said something like, 'Don't the Bernie supporters realize that you and Charlie Wrangle have been 'protesting' for the last 20 years?' He had no idea what it meant. We got a huge laugh and Barney Frank's just looking around like 'I'm sorry, what'd I miss?'"
The focus group was 100% legitimate
The segment where Triumph tests increasingly malicious Trump campaign ads was filmed at a real Cleveland mall in a real room with real two-way glass and conducted by a real focus group moderator. Smigel gave the researchers one goal: find "true believers." After watching and responding to the ads, all participants were informed that the session was part of Triumph's comedy special, and would only appear if they signed consent forms. So not only did one female Trump supporter recommend we inject hidden GPS trackers in Mexican vaccines, she later signed paperwork allowing the footage to appear on TV. "Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine someone would suggest that," says Smigel.
Confronting a "Trump That Bitch" T-shirt salesman was as baffling as it looked
"I was trying to make fun of the shirts, and I think [the salesmen] didn't want to be busted on selling a pro-Trump shirt or something, so he insisted that the shirt was anti-Trump. Then he double-downed and suggested that I was being racist by assuming that he's calling Trump a bitch. I was just as confused as you are."
His spot-on Roger Ailes impersonator was a happy accident
Smigel discovered the actor when he casting for a cut bit inspired by NPR's "hostile-environment awareness training" offered in advance of Donald Trump's rallies ("just the image of Ira Glass going through these drills where tear gas is being fired by actors playing policemen ... just couldn't resist bringing reporters to one of those"). One of the jokes from the cut bit involved a female reporter learning about "dangers to prepare for." Enter: fake Roger Ailes, who would later accompany Smigel to the RNC and DNC conventions. "He got us in to a better section and got us on the floor!"
How he pulled the "Trump tank" bit
Smigel nearly nixed the segment where "Donald Trump" drives a tank through predominantly black Cleveland neighborhood. "After [the shootings] in Minnesota, Dallas, all in a couple of days, and we were going to pull the bit," he says. "Then Trump went on Bill O'Reilly and said what he said: 'the system's rigged against me the same way it is against them.'"
The Election Special production spent around $5,000 to rent a tank that Smigel, impersonating Trump, the driver, and a 10-year-old boy representing Trump's hands, rode around Cleveland for a day. The neighborhood's initial shock eventually devolved into absurdity. "One woman got into the spirit of it, but we didn't know how to include it because people would think she was an actress -- but she wasn't. She just ran up to the car and went into a whole overdramatic Ruby Dee kind of routine: 'Obama help me! Fuck you Donald Trump, you destroyed my car! My windshield wipers don't work no more!' It was crazy. She just ran up and decided to play the character of the lady who's car got destroyed."
There's more Triumph to come
"We shot too much in Cleveland and Philly, so we have the bonus show," says Smigel (you can watch that here). "Then we'll be doing more in the fall. We're definitely going to do some more stuff -- political and non-political stuff." To poop on.
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