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Straight poop with the guy (literally) behind Triumph

At this summer’s Comic-Con, Nisha Gopalan talked to Robert Smigel, the guy (literally) behind Triumph about the new-to-DVD ”TV Funhouse,” the Ambiguously Gay movie, and more

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Robert Smigel: Robert Mitchell/Retna; TV Funhouse: NBC

Vulcans. Aspiring Jedis. George Bush. As the tour de farce behind Late Night With Conan O’Brien‘s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Saturday Night Live‘s ”TV Funhouse,” Robert Smigel has made fun of the best of them. His SNL exploits will be immortalized on DVD with the Oct. 24 release of The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse. To mark the occasion, EW tracked down the surprisingly soft-spoken comedian at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con — where the man famous for his equal-opportunity ribbing of both Star Wars geeks (via Triumph) and Star Trek (via William Shatner, by penning that famous ”Get a Life” SNL skit) was, not surprisingly, in his element.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You can’t go to Comic-Con and not have Triumph humiliate at least a couple people.
ROBERT SMIGEL: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a different brand of nerd here. The Star Wars people were uniformly sweet-natured, and of course they were all in costume, so I really couldn’t tell what they looked like in real life. I just knew what they looked like in costume. Which was funny. Here, a lot of people have that slacker, kind of Kevin Smith look. It’s less Revenge of the Nerds and more Clerks. So the type of jokes Triumph was doing were slightly different. I was trying to get away from the same type of jokes I did at the Star Wars convention, because there really is no topping the Star Wars convention. I’ll probably never be involved in anything as funny as that. And that’s okay. [Laughs] Few people will.

Do you get recognized here?
Um, not so much without the dog.

You could just walk around with a dog on your arm.
If I did that I would be recognized. But I would feel like an idiot.

Actually, it’d be more like, ”Oh, there’s some guy who thinks he’s Robert Smigel.”
That’s probably true! Plus, a lot of people here are to be noticed themselves. They’re wearing these costumes. So it’s sort of like their coming-out party. [Laughs]

So, were you a jock in high school who picked on nerds?
I wasn’t a jock in high school, but I did pick on nerds sometimes. I was a comedy bully. I did impressions of people, I drew cartoons of people, drew people as animals that they resembled. I made fun of everybody. Not just nerds. I made fun of dumb jocks, too. But there were people who were just outsiders, and I would give them attention in a humorous way. But I would also be the only person who would invite them to a party or talk to them for an extended period on the phone without making fun of them.

I saw some footage of the Borat movie recently, and realized that he and Triumph are similar: Both are Eastern European, both interact with real people…
Yes. Assaulting reality. [But] when I do it people absolutely know that they’re being screwed with. Because no rubber puppet exists in reality.

You and Sacha Baron Cohen should join forces. Or just speak to each other in Eastern European accents.
I think we’re both Russian Jews. The Triumph voice is a voice I’ve been doing for dogs since I was 10 years old or something. That’s how I saw dogs speak in my head. Both parents are from Russia, but my mom is, like, first-generation. So everybody on that side of the family [in Triumph voice] had these accents like theeeees. I don’t know why that transferred to a dog voice.

Is there any territory you’d like to see Triumph mark, as it were?
Home shopping. I’m really dying to do something there. They’ve marketed Triumph a lot at NBC. There’s a lot of crappy Triumph merchandise. So I’d love to get Triumph on the Home Shopping Network pitching his wares.

Have you made any strides in that direction?
So far they’ve been resistant. It’s always a slow romance, getting people to trust you that it’s going to be good overall. There’s specific gadgets that I’d like him to comment on that I’ve seen on Home Shopping that I can’t believe sell as well as they do.

Such as?
That thing that you put in your mouth that exercises your…like, some kind of weird jaw exerciser. It looks like some tiny little bear trap that you put in your mouth. People are struggling to close their mouth. They’re trying to look happy because they’re models, you know? Somebody’s talking off camera casually, as if this is perfectly normal.

Where do you come up with the material for the Ambiguously Gay Duo?
It’s supposed to be about a lot of things, primarily our obsession with sexuality in general and how we’d just rather talk about whether [some celebrity] is gay than pretty much anything else. Doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. Doesn’t matter if you’re 80 or 10. Doesn’t matter if you’re a PhD or never got out of high school. It’s like the Universal language: ”Is so-and-so gay?” It’s just amazing that people care so much. And to me the funniest part of the cartoon has always been the badly animated villains making little subtle gestures and sharing looks of concern and curiosity. But, of course, the biggest laughs are going to be the broad visual jokes: the car that looks like a penis. And I thought gay people would get into it. And gay people love the cartoon, just not for the reason that I expected it. In reality they’re just like everyone else; they’re just enjoying the speculation. They actually enjoy it more than anybody, because they love the idea of claiming icons. You know, superhero icons as gay, in general.

What’s up with the Gay Duo movie script?
There are a few really big people who are very interested in playing the roles. But I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about who they are.

A-listers?
Yeah! Comedy A-listers. Maybe we’ll do a reverse Martin Lawrence thing, where instead of turning them into fat mamas, we get a superrealistic prosthetic torso or something. Universal owns the property. And we wrote a pretty funny script.

What happens on their adventures? Ooh — is there an origin story?
There is an origin story in there. But I don’t want to give it all away.

Aw, gimme a hint.
Uh?they met at summer camp. A lot of homoerotic things go on at summer camp. [Laughs]

So is it about how they forged a friendship?
There’s a little bit of that, and there’s a little bit of?it’s almost like a prequel to the cartoons. Now I’m getting really pretentious. The fun of doing it would be to parody how seriously superhero movies take themselves. Everything is so grandiose and brooding. I wouldn’t want it to be quite as campy as the cartoons are. It would be fun to play against the grandeur of superhero movies. In the form it takes now it’s a fairly grand caper that involves a rogue’s gallery of villains.

Speaking of villains, which ones will appear?
Some of the ones that you’ve already seen in the cartoon. The guy with the big head whose name is Big Head. And they guy with the brain outside of his head, Dr. Brainio. Orbitrox, the little orb that floats in mid-air and is very vulgar. But it’s all in subtitles. And a lot of new villains too.

Is there anything you won’t touch? Won’t parody?
Absolutely; there are things I don’t think are funny. Some things become trendy to make fun of. Like somebody will break a barrier and get a lot of laughs — uncomfortable laughs — off the shock element. Like handicapped people: They did something on In Living Color in the ’80s, [but] it was pretty funny ’cause Damon Wayans is an unbelievable performer. I don’t like making fun of people with addictions, [although] I’ve broken my own rule a few times. I did a cartoon on SNL that was called ”Celebrity Mugshot Poker.” And I used this mugshot of Nick Nolte and Glen Campbell. They’re hilarious photos. But, in general, I’d rather make fun of people that are high-status. [But] there’s other rules for Triumph. Like, if Triumph met MC Hammer, he’d be obliged to make jokes.