Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Roasts the Stern Show Staff and Robert Smigel Revisits His ‘SNL’ Years Alongside Chris Farley, Conan O’Brien, and Adam Sandler
Comedy icon unleashes his wise-cracking puppet on everyone from Gary Dell’Abate to Ronnie MundApril 28, 2021
Comedy icon Robert Smigel returned to the show Wednesday along with his hilariously offensive canine puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Before sitting down for an interview covering everything from his early days on “Saturday Night Live” to several upcoming projects, the talented voice actor sicced Triumph on Howard, executive producer Gary Dell’Abate, and several Stern Show staffers.
“Fasten your seatbelts,” the cigar-chomping puppet told listeners before commencing with the roast. “I am filled with hatred and you are the beneficiary.”
His first target was Howard himself as Triumph goofed on everything from his fountain pen collection to the relative ease with which he adapted to the home quarantine. Next he took a bite out of Gary, lampooning the executive producer’s looks and propensity to fall asleep on the job. “Work from home has been very, very tough on Gary,” the puppet joked. “Typically, he gets much better sleep at the office.”
“I feel bad for him … why can’t you be like Gary’s dentist and leave him alone?” Triumph told Howard. “Gary takes more shit than Jon Hein’s toilet after an Arby’s bender.”
The Insult Comic Dog flung zingers left and right, roasting everyone from co-host Robin Quivers and sound effects maestro Fred Norris to Sal Governale and Ronnie “the Limo Driver” Mund.
“You have to admire Ronnie. He won’t tell you who he voted for, but he’ll tell you how many inches his fiancée stuffed inside him the previous night,” Triumph joked. “Everyone thinks Ronnie voted for Trump, but trust me Ronnie has never been in a booth that didn’t have a hole to put your dick through.”
“Live From Lorne Michaels Lane, It’s Saturday Night!”
Smigel eventually put a leash on Triumph so he could sit with Howard for a proper interview which covered much of the actor, puppeteer, producer, director, and writer’s prolific career. He told Howard he dabbled in stand-up while in college and pivoted toward comedy full-time after struggling to follow in his father’s footsteps as a dentist. After moving to Chicago and attending Second City’s Players Workshop, he started a successful comedy group. His break came in the mid-80s after established comedians Al Franken and Tom Davis saw his group perform.
“They really liked our show and they took us out for a beer afterward,” Robert recalled.
As luck would have it, Lorne Michaels returned to the helm of “Saturday Night Live” just a few weeks later and brought in Franken and Davis to help him run the show. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, I know somebody at “Saturday Night Live.” I can’t believe this!’” Smigel recalled thinking.
He auditioned for the show by submitting a packet of sketches he’d written, and Lorne and company liked what they read. Suddenly, at 25 years old, he was a writer on “SNL.” “I can’t believe to this day that I got hired. It still amazes me,” he told Howard.
Robert had plenty of kind things to say about Lorne and how, over the decades, he’d shaped the Big Apple for the better. “[’SNL’] really changed New York in a lot of ways. He doesn’t get enough credit,” he told Howard. “Johnny Carson abandoned New York for Burbank. Everybody was abandoning New York and suddenly the coolest show in television came out of the RCA building, it was called at the time, and it started with the phrase ‘Live, from New York.’”
“They should rename that block after him, I swear to god,” Smigel continued, adding, “And then Lorne ended up bringing ‘The Tonight Show” back to New York. If anybody would deserve a street named after him, it’s that dude.”
Collaborating With Chris Farley
In his many years at “SNL,” Smigel worked with dozens of comedy superstars and created (or helped out on) scores of well-remembered sketches. He and Howard discussed several on Wednesday, from “The Mclaughlin Group” send-up starring Dana Carvey to the Cluckin Chicken commercial with Phil Hartman. Robert also spoke at length about collaborating with the late, great Chris Farley on the Matt Foley, motivational speaker sketches—which he took over after their creator Bob Odenkirk left “SNL”—and the Chippendales Audition sketch which featured guest host Patrick Swayze.
“What was amazing about the [Chippendales] sketch and what people forget is that Farley was incredibly nimble. He was an athlete and he danced incredibly well in that sketch, actually,” Robert said. “In a way, it was like a very empowering sketch, and I think that’s what people saw the first time they watched it.”
“He was an amazing physical comedian,” he continued.
Howard wondered if Robert had ever worked with a better performer than Farley.
“It’s impossible to compare,” Smigel responded. “He was the most explosively funny person—I think most people who worked there at the time would agree with that.”
The Anti-Letterman Hour With Conan O’Brien
Smigel and his “SNL” colleagues collaborated on a multitude of comedy projects over the years, and only a fraction took place at Studio 8H. He appeared in, wrote, produced, or (in one case) directed several beloved Adam Sandler movies, like “Happy Gilmore,” “The Week Of,” and “Punch Drunk Love.” In 1996, he and Carvey co-created the short-lived sketch comedy series “The Dana Carvey Show.” He’s also worked with former “SNL” writer Conan O’Brien on several TV shows and eventually served as the very first head writer on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
As late-night fans might remember, David Letterman left NBC’s “Late Night” in 1993 to host “The Late Show” on CBS. Lorne Michaels was instrumental in filling the “Late Night” vacancy, which gave Smigel a seat at the table. From the get-go, Robert envisioned a show very different than Letterman’s had been.
“It was because we loved Dave that we wanted to be anti-Letterman, the opposite of Letterman,” he told Howard, explaining he was a fan of experimental comedians like Andy Kaufman and trailblazing talk-show hosts like Steve Allen.
“When Conan got the gig, those ideas in my head remained and I sort of imposed them on the show in kind of weirder ways because Conan and I bonded in doing kind of surreal, absurdist stuff,” Robert continued. “We did this thing with the photograph of, like, Bill Clinton and we cut out his mouth and I’d usually be the guy doing the shitty impression.”
“Late Night With Conan O’Brien” was, of course, the birthplace of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. O’Brien recently announced his current show “Conan” was concluding in June, so Howard wondered if Triumph had any thoughts about the possible retirement of the late-night icon who helped give him his start. “I don’t know what he’s going to do. His only other skill besides talk show host is pulling down things from high shelves,” Triumph joked.
“Color the Spectrum”
Smigel was excited to talk to Howard about two very different projects his fans can look forward to in coming days. On Thursday, Fox will air a new installment of his satirical puppet series “Let’s Be Real,” which skewers politicians and celebrities alike. The very next day, “Color the Spectrum”—a star-studded project to raise awareness for the autism community—will livestream.
Considering Smigel’s son Daniel has autism, the event is very near and dear to his heart.
“You have to acknowledge there are a lot of people with autism that are very capable of functioning and contributing and being employed. They have to live with a stigma of being, you know, thought of as lesser—and it’s not right. It’s something we’re all trying to be very vigilant of at this point,” Robert told Howard before opening up about some of his family’s personal struggles, including coming to terms with his son’s diagnosis and how hard it was just to get Daniel into the right school.
He and his wife Michelle serve on the board of Next for Autism, a non-profit behind events like “Night of Too Many Stars” and “Color the Spectrum.” He said his and Michelle’s goal is to help end the stigmatization of people with autism and help people understand that their son Daniel is a “whole person” and that all people with autism are “whole individuals with feelings and needs, and it’s very important to remember that.”
Former NASA engineer Mark Rober and late-night star Jimmy Kimmel are set to host “Color the Spectrum” with help from special guests like Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jack Black, and Andy Samberg.
“It’s definitely going to be a lot of fun and I’m hoping and expecting that we’re also going to have [people with autism] on the show,” Smigel said.