There is a song on the upcoming Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s album, Come Poop with Me , called “No Rules in the Animal Kingdom.” It’s got a punchy New Wave–style sound. Here’s what it says:
“You can steal and you’re no sinner / You can stick your arm up a kangaroo/ And make the father-of- the-year dinner.”
“It does sum up a lot,” said Robert Smigel, a self-conscious smile blooming in his beard, as he took a taxi from Greenwich Village to the Beacon Theater to rehearse the 10th-anniversary show of Late Night with Conan O’Brien .
Mr. Smigel wore black wire-rim glasses, a brown T-shirt embroidered with a lion’s head, shorts, black Nike high-tops and rumpled gray socks. Animals play a large role in Mr. Smigel’s comedy. They allow him, he said, to comment “on our own animal instincts and our own tendencies to do incredibly cruel or sick things and sometimes get away with it, and then turn on a dime and be corporate presidents and be celebrated for our wealth or our charm and be morally bankrupt at the same time.”
Welcome to the world of Robert Smigel.
It’s an odd cosmology, where all dogs speak with Russian accents, Robert Goulet communes with hand puppets, superheroes are former Presidents or ambiguously gay and, no matter how out there things get, the truth is always spoken. Whether he’s channeling the id-like essence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, Yasir Arafat or Al Gore on one of Late Night ‘s Clutch Cargo segments, or painstakingly deconstructing the culture with a TV Funhouse cartoon on Saturday Night Live , Mr. Smigel finds humor in the opiates of our childhood-the animals, the cartoons, comics, and the children’s shows that preached and lied to us when we were children. He and his nerdy band of writers use their conceits to mess with our heads. We recognize their forms and their speech patterns, but now they speak … the truth! And nothing but the truth.
It’s brave work in a culture where political correctness, celebrity publicists and partisan politics have hamstrung the journalists and the pundits who used to say it like it was. In a December 2001 TV Funhouse , the snowman from that annual Rankin and Bass claymation holiday staple, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer , decided that, because of Sept. 11, he just couldn’t find it in him to reprise his role as the narrator. “I’m holding three months of Cipro up my butthole and I’m supposed to pick up a banjo?” he said.
Just north of the Port Authority terminal, in a recording studio high above Eighth Avenue, Triumph’s voice boomed from the monitors. “I sniffed J. Lo’s ass and I got too touchy-feelie / She left me a bomb that was bigger than Gigli .”
Adjacent to the studio, Mr. Smigel sat in a brown T-shirt, black shorts and rumpled white socks, multitasking next to a bowl of candy. His PowerBook kept showing new e-mails, his cell phone kept ringing: record executives, collaborators. His wife, Michelle Saks Smigel, called to ask him to make her laugh.
Mr. Smigel was listening to “I Keed,” a hip-hop insult song that will be the single off Come Poop with Me . It’s Triumph’s bass-and-synthesizer-heavy litany of pop-star disrespect: “Avril Lavigne, punk queen? Now there’s a kidder / Go back north, Céline needs a baby-sitter,” Triumph raps. He sniffs “Elton John’s tush, just for all the history,” takes on Philip Glass- “Atonal ass / You’re not immune / Write a song with a fucking tune”-and Snoop Dogg: “There’s room for only one dog, putz / And I can rap. Can you lick your own nuts?”
“I Keed” also refers to the 2002 MTV Music Awards, when Eminem’s bodyguards knocked Mr. Smigel’s script out of his hand as Triumph tried to get the rapper to have a conversation. Mr. Smigel said Eminem had gotten a “raw deal” from the press, that the show’s producers hadn’t given the rapper a heads-up that the bit was coming.
“They paired me with Moby, and I was like, ‘If I do Moby, it would be great to go from him to Eminem, since Eminem hates Moby.’ And they’re like, ‘Great, great, we’ll set you and Moby down near Eminem right before the bit. And I’m like, ‘O.K., are you going to tell Eminem?'”
Mr. Smigel’s voice began to sound like an aluminum-siding salesman: “‘Ahhhh, he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s going to love it. Eminem, he’s funny!’ And, of course, he had no idea who Triumph was. He thought I was some puppet Moby had fashioned to torment him.”
As the press rolled in, however, Mr. Smigel concluded that it was “a good thing for the puppet.” But, he said, “I don’t like to be the John Hinckley of assault comics.”
Before this year’s awards, MTV talked to Mr. Smigel about Triumph appearing on the 2003 Awards program, but Eminem had an idea to comment on the incident with a puppet from Crank Yankers , which the rapper likes. “And MTV owns Comedy Central, so they pushed Crank Yankers this year,” Mr. Smigel said.
MTV is not spared in “I Keed”: “And to the list of pussies / Don’t leave off MTV / I scared them and Eminem / So they gave the hook to me.”
But, later in the song, Triumph sounds almost conciliatory toward Eminem: “Slim Shady, why do you find me so scary?” he asks. “We’re just two regular dudes who banged Mariah Carey.”
As the engineer played the song over and over, trying to get the mix right, Mr. Smigel’s satyric delivery stayed crisp. Against the back wall of the studio, the puppet lay on its side, a piece of paper lodged in its maw.
Triumph debuted on the Feb. 13, 1997, episode of Late Night , the same night that a pre-superstardom Jennifer Lopez was bumped from the show. But his origins go back much farther. Mr. Smigel said he worked with “bad puppets” in his Chicago comedy group in the 80’s, but the seminal moment was when his wife found a bunch of extremely realistic puppets at a furniture shop called Mabel’s, which has since closed. The dog that would be Triumph was among them, and Mr. Smigel said: “I was just in complete heaven. I put the thing on and start sniffing her ass and talking to her-of course, in the Russian accent.”
He suggested a Late Night bit where “we brought out Westminster champions, but they ended up being puppets” that would sing the theme to The Bodyguard or do Jack Nicholson impressions. The idea was that “the contestants just get more talented every year.” One day, he asked to bring the bit back-and this time, Mr. Smigel said, he wanted one of the dogs to be an insult comic.
“I understand why people like Triumph,” Mr. Smigel said. “He’s very cute and he’s got crazy eyes, and there’s something very lovable about how happy Triumph is when he’s being an asshole to somebody. He’s completely remorseless. He’s like Louie De Palma as a dog-just completely uncontrolled id. Or maybe Groucho Marx.”
Come Poop with Me , a three-year undertaking completed between Mr. Smigel’s other projects, is a mix of live and studio recordings, with a DVD portion taken from live Triumph shows that Mr. Smigel taped at the Bowery Ballroom. “I haven’t felt this much pressure since Marmaduke sat on my face,” Triumph says in the CD introduction. The audio and video segments include Mr. O’Brien, Jack Black and Adam Sandler-who is the executive producer of the album-as well as TV Funhouse ‘s Doug Dale, SNL ‘s Horatio Sanz and Maya Rudolph, and Blackwolf the Dragonmaster, a robed fantasy-game geek who was one of the stars of the now-classic Star Wars remote that Triumph did for Late Night .
Mr. Smigel doesn’t play music. So he ended up thinking up songs and singing them into a tape recorder. Late Night band member Jimmy Vivino arranged and produced the eclectic album, including the calypso “Underage Bichon,” “Benji’s Queer” and “Cats Are Cunts,” to which Mr. O’Brien lends his tremulous Irish tenor. “30 Seconds of Magic” is a slow-jam R&B number with Marvin Gaye–style falsettos by Mr. Smigel and Mr. Sandler, and Triumph’s soft-spoken introduction tempting the yellow Lab of his dreams with a “dog bowl full of Shiraz” and ” Lady and the Tramp cued up to the spaghetti scene.” “Bob Barker” is a heavy-metal anti-spaying screed with Mr. Black: “Bob Barker, gotta bone to pick / Gonna gnaw on your prick / like a rawhide stick.”
In between tracks, Triumph makes prank calls to a kennel, a sexually-transmitted-disease hotline and a Chinese restaurant-none of which know that Mr. Smigel is playing a dog. When he calls the restaurant looking for his brother, the woman on the other line asks him what his sibling’s name is. “Boomer,” says Triumph. “But by now it’s probably General Tso.”
Mr. Smigel said he never planned for Come Poop with Me to be a big mainstream thing, but now MTV wants the video and Mr. Smigel is getting offers for Triumph movies, talk shows and commercials. Legally, Triumph is the property of Late Night with Conan O’Brien , so Mr. Smigel has to get permission to do extracurricular work with the puppet. But, he said, “I don’t know why he couldn’t do a Vegas act. We have an act. We have a lot of songs, and we could interview people that are coming into town. Talk with audience members. It probably would be a good tonic for Vegas, after someone saw Céline Dion.
“There’s two moves,” Mr. Smigel said. “One is to just squeeze out every drop recklessly, and the other is to be reluctant to risk the bad aftertaste that is associated with things that were once considered funny.”
When Mr. Smigel is performing as Triumph or one of the Clutch Cargo characters on Late Night , the bits are scripted. Then Mr. Smigel throws in whatever ad libs come to him. But Mr. Smigel’s balls-out impressions of Bill Clinton, Geraldo Rivera and Arnold Schwarzenegger take the sketches to scary heights. “He’s a fearless performer,” said the show’s head writer, Mike Sweeney.
The Clutch Cargo impersonation of Mr. Schwarzenegger, which Mr. Smigel punctuates with frequent phlegmy cries of “Nooooooooooo!”-a device he said that Mr. O’Brien came up with many years ago when the two were working on a Hans and Franz script-manages to capture the California governor’s action-hero Cohiba-suffused disregard for anything but himself, whether he’s incessantly touting “the smash-hit holiday classic, ‘Jingle All the Way,'” recalling an orgy where he saw “Carl Weathers and Chuck Norris going nuts to butts,” accusing the talk-show host of having “a small po-po … an Austrian term for tiny weenie,” or declaring after the election: “The people of California have spoken. And they have said a resounding ‘yes’ to the groping and a resounding ‘yes’ to Hitler!”
“People are really responding to the Arnold in the way they responded to the Bill Clinton I used to do, and it’s because the photograph gimmick gives me a license that other impersonators may not have …. It’s funny to take the guy’s actual face and just tear it apart in an inaccurate, over-the-top impression,” Mr. Smigel said. “It’s just great to misrepresent him and represent him at the same time.”
When I told Mr. Smigel that his impersonation seemed to get at some basic truths about Mr. Schwarzenegger, he said: “It was the same way with Clinton. The real Clinton never screamed or went ‘Neee-hah,’ but you imagine that somewhere in these dark recesses, he’d look at a girl and he’d turn into a wolf from the Tex Avery cartoons.”
Then Mr. Smigel seemed to turn into the wolf: ” Bug-a-bug-a-hummumma-hummmuma ,” he said. “After a while, just to make Conan laugh, I started throwing in a Southern gumbo of whatever I could loosely apply to Bill Clinton. I turned him into Foghorn Leghorn for a while, where, when he was explaining things, I’d just have him go, ‘I say, I say, I say, I say-I didn’t do nuthin!'”
To shoot a Clutch Cargo segment requires a key/dissolve shot. Mr. Smigel hides his beard with makeup, and a still photo of the celebrity with his mouth cut out is keyed over his face. I asked Mr. Smigel if he has as much fun as it looks. He smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s the best. I’m an inherently shy person. And it’s just such a great release.”
The comedy Mr. Smigel does out of 30 Rock has a “split personality”: The Triumph and Clutch Cargo bits are spontaneous performance, but the Saturday TV Funhouse cartoons for SNL feed “an anal comedy writer who wants it to be perfect, paying attention to every detail with a jeweler’s loupe.” In “Are You Hot?”, celebrity judge Fernando Lamas rates a pitch-perfect Popeye (“I’m only going to give you a five for sex appeal because of the mumbling”), Betty Boop, Olive Oyl (“Seriously, eat a cheeseburger”) and Barney Rubble, who turns out to have quite a bulge beneath his prehistoric tunic.
But Mr. Smigel’s tour de force aired on last season’s final episode of SNL . Billed as the “Abu Dhabi Kids Network,” the centerpiece was a subtitled Arabic cartoon called Saddam & Osama , in which the two “Super Titans of Jihad” use their magical, transformative powers to elude the U.S. military, turning into a bag of pork rinds and a mustachioed replica of the Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard , the “General Lee,” while American intelligence officials are depicted as sodomizers with cowboy hats. Meanwhile, the Israeli flag flies from the White House, President Bush is a frightened monkey (“Boo hoo hoo! If me don’t capture Arab soon, me going to crap myself”) and Ariel Sharon is under the table performing oral sex on Dick Cheney while the Vice President devours a roast pig.
The show then cut to a promotion for an Arabic episode of Batman in which the Caped Crusader battles the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin, identified as “The Jew!,” “The Other Jew!” and “The Little Old Jew!” This was followed by a commercial advertising child-friendly, decal-decorated rocks (“Shaq,” read one), held by ecstatic dancing kids, then to news footage of men pelting tanks.
The cartoon was an attack on propaganda, but according to Mr. Smigel, the NBC censors told him: “We can’t censor this, but we’re recommending you’re going too far.” Mr. Smigel said SNL ‘s executive producer Lorne Michaels told him, “It’s on you, you know. If you want the Jews to hate you, it’s your call.”
Mr. Smigel called his father for a second opinion. Irwin Smigel, the dentist who invented tooth bonding, is also a “devoted,” “strident,” “pro-Israel” Jew. Dr. Smigel gave his son the A-O.K. “He said, ‘It’s obvious what the joke is, completely defendable. You don’t have to worry about anything. The Israeli flag at the White House-it’s all fine.”
Mr. Smigel still keeps the “Shaq” rock-the commercial was suggested by his friend and fellow writer, Louis C.K.-which is his favorite prop. “It’s just, they hate us, but they can’t help but like our pro basketball players.”
He credited the animators of the segment, David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti, who do most of Mr. Smigel’s cartoon work, with being “as nerdy with animation as I am nerdy about details.” The voices of Saddam and Osama were Arab actors who had helped Mr. Smigel translate the script and made sure he said his lines properly. “And you know, every word is translated as accurately as you could translate it. And every subtitle or every title is completely accurate. We wouldn’t do it any other way,” he said. “That would just be disrespectful. It’s one thing to parody a state-run Arab network when you’re making a point. But you don’t want to just say, ‘It doesn’t matter.'”
What Mr. Smigel calls his “crazy tunnel-vision” is something of legend in the comedy world. “I feel sometimes like he was born with every comedy bit already in his brain,” said Mike Sweeney of Late Night . “When he’s humping the dogs [at the Westminster show], there’s even a look in the dogs’ eyes like, ‘Oh God, am I doing this right?'”
Richard Korson, the supervising producer on TV Funhouse , remembered Mr. Smigel convincing Robert Goulet to fly from Las Vegas the week after Thanksgiving to film an epic segment in Atlantic City. The bit required Mr. Goulet to act with a vomiting turtle and Triumph, who spent the second half of the segment stuck to the rump of a live poodle, grousing at one point: “I can’t go onstage with a poodle attached to my dick. Berle did that bit 20 years ago.”
“It’s almost like prime numbers,” said the comedian Louis C.K., a friend and collaborator whom Mr. Smigel hired to help launch Late Night . “It can’t be divided by anything but itself. You can’t find its derivatives or its factors.”
Mr. Smigel grew up on the pre-gentrification streets of the Upper West Side, in a city besotted with disco and Woody Allen. In addition to inventing tooth-bonding, his father has been president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics for the past 28 years. “My dad is way more important to dentistry than I’ll ever be to comedy,” Mr. Smigel said.
Mr. Smigel’s mother-Dr. Smigel’s wife of 47 years-works at her husband’s Madison Avenue practice and developed Super Smile. Mr. Smigel said that the “educational goal” of his “very overprotective, loving Jewish parents” was that he come home alive. So, save for a brief, miserable stint at the Riverdale Country School in 10th grade, Mr. Smigel spent his pre-college years at the private Franklin school (since subsumed by Dwight), on West 89th Street, the same street where he lived. Mr. Smigel called it a “nerdy, B-level Manhattan private school” where he cultivated a role as the class “comedy bully.”
“I was drawing cartoons with my friends and doing impressions of teachers and students, and I would make tapes with a friend of mine, Harvey,” Mr. Smigel said. He collected TV Guides and loved Red Skelton and Mr. Ed . “I could draw a pretty good Fred Flintstone when I was 5 years old.”
“The highest form of entertainment is a good Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s got a good straight man like the Bull,” said Mr. Smigel. “The rapidness with which they’ll shift from this fierce fury to feeling incredibly flattered or shy and then back to fury, and the art work and the directing, is just such perfection.” Mr. Smigel said he appreciated the way “Looney Tunes” appeal to both kids and adults, “not because they throw in pop-culture references the way a lot of awful cartoons since have attempted to appeal to adults,” but because, with Bugs Bunny, “it’s a very primal human quality that’s being parodied and laughed at.”
When Mr. Smigel was 7, his father gave him a 50-cent Fawcett/Crest paperback collection of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. Mr. Smigel stayed up all night to read them and discovered his first comedy hero.
“It was kids, but it didn’t talk down to kids,” he said. “Nobody ever wins in the cartoon, and everybody is perpetually troubled by something or another. And nobody ever accomplishes anything to alleviate their anxieties.” For Mr. Smigel, “it made you feel less alone in a profound way.”
Mr. Smigel embarked on a pre-dental path that began at Cornell and ended at New York University, where he entered a student stand-up comedy contest. Being both a Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman worshipper, Mr. Smigel appeared onstage dressed as an Orthodox rabbi. He wore a cotton-candy beard and an unimpressed look on his face. He ran long, but he ended up being one of three winners who went on to compete at the Comic Strip, and he won there. “It definitely changed everything, because strangers thought I was funny, which was the thing that I always needed,” he said. At 22, he moved to Chicago and joined a comedy group called All You Can Eat. It was there that he met his future wife, Michelle Saks, who did the lighting for one of the group’s shows. The couple have a 5-year-old son, Daniel.
Al Franken and Tom Davis, then producing SNL , discovered All You Can Eat in 1985 when they were scouting a movie, and Mr. Smigel was hired at SNL as a writer. The sketches that Mr. Smigel wrote or co-wrote during his eight years as a SNL writer include parodies of the McLaughlin Group , Schmitt’s Gay Beer and the “Trekkies” sketch (in which William Shatner famously told a group of Star Trek fans, “Get a life!”) With Jim Downey and Mr. Franken, he also worked on the “smart Reagan” sketch in which the President, played by Phil Hartman, dropped his fumbling façade the minute he got behind closed White House doors and became a focused, super-smart leader who did not suffer fools.
The arrival of Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien in SNL’ s bullpen in 1988 had a transforming effect on Mr. Smigel’s writing. “These guys had more confidence and more conviction in their own kind of comedy, and it helped free me up to explore my inner idiot and start doing the kind of stuff that would have made me laugh when I was 10 years old. And so my comedy became more personal after that and has continued to, for better or worse.”
In 1993, Mr. O’Brien chose Mr. Smigel as the head writer and co-producer of Late Night . They worked with Mr. C.K., Dino Stamatopoulos (who later became co-executive producer of TV Funhouse ) and a group of other like-minded writers to reinvent the late-night talk show. “For me, that was the most exciting, invigorating job I’ve ever had,” he said.
Mr. Smigel became the executive producer of The Dana Carvey Show in 1996, a show that is often remembered for a sketch in which President Clinton was depicted breast-feeding kittens. Mr. Smigel called the show a “debacle,” but it was where “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” debuted.
The question, of course, is whether Mr. Smigel can follow the path of guys he admires like Larry David, who, he said, in 1991 informally offered him a job at Seinfeld . “I respect him for figuring out how to make a mass audience laugh, and to do it in an incredibly smart, original way,” he said. “I’m always more interested in the rebels who wear sweaters than the ones who play Luna Lounge and wear black and, you know, preach to the choir.”
When I asked Mr. Smigel if he thought he could make a place for himself in the mainstream, he said, “Sure. I mean, if I’m funny enough I think I can do it.”
Mr. Smigel sat in a restaurant on Sixth Avenue eating a turkey burger with ketchup. He was considering cutting back at SNL . “There are money issues and personal issues,” he said. “I think the job’s a real privilege and I take it very seriously…But the more years I do it, the bigger a challenge it is and the bigger the temptation it is to be half-assed.
“It’s a hard call,” he said finally. “There’s a part of me that would like to chuck everything I’ve done that’s gotten popular in the last 10 years because it’s sort of like a corner I’ve painted myself into.
From the front of the restaurant, an odd and extremely thin looking young man approached. “You’re Robert Smigel aren’t you?” he said.
Mr. Smigel looked a little nervous.
“I’m just a big fan,” said the guy. He wore a yellowed white t-shirt that read “Las Vegas” and his hair jutted out at odd angles from his black trucker’s cap.
“Why do you even recognize me,” Mr. Smigel said.
The guy finally introduced himself as Jesse Camp, the former hyperactive MTV V.J. who dropped off the culture’s radar a few years ago.
“You’re Jesse Camp. Holy shit!” Mr. Smigel said. “I’ve made fun of you on Triumph album.” (“Jesse Camp’s now turning tricks at the Lincoln Tunnel,” says Triumph.)
Mr. Camp then went into an extended, dizzy monologue about how he was playing a character on MTV and how Triumph’s “totally fucking saying it exactly how it should be said to someone.”
Mr. Smigel was nodding his head and laughing and keeping up the conversation, but every so often he would look back at me with eyes that said, “Are you catching this?”
It was like watching Mr. Smigel turn into a Tex Avery wolf, complete with a thought balloon that saw Mr. Camp as a mouthwatering steak. And when Mr. Camp finally wished Mr. Smigel “good luck” and went on his way, the transformation was complete.
“Well, what are you going to do,” he said as he turned to face me. “He still has to be pooped on. He’s a nice kid, but Triumph has a job to do.”