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Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s Television Debut Was Kind of a Disaster

Robert Smigel's head rises into frame during Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's first TV appearance.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! NBC

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the irascible, cigar-chomping Montenegrin Mountain Hound puppet created and voiced by Robert Smigel, has been a comedy institution since his legendary Late Night With Conan O’Brien remote segment insulting Star Wars fans waiting in line to see Attack of the Clones. That was in 2002, but it was a long road to the top; O’Brien’s team has posted Triumph’s first appearance ,from Feb. 13, 1997, on YouTube, and it’s kind of a disaster. The essential elements are already there (or essential element, if you count “for me to poop on” as one catchphrase instead of five words), but the execution was not quite up to today’s demanding Triumph the Insult Comic Dog standards. Watch in horror as Triumph gets his bow tie entangled with his microphone stand, then watch in even more horror as he knocks the mic over, and then watch, bone-chilling terror taking root in your very soul, as Robert Smigel’s head slowly rises from behind the stage like some dread moon portending destruction, while Triumph frantically attempts to recover:

Triumph doesn’t talk much these days about winning the Hound group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1997, probably because there really was a dog named “Ch. Triumph’s Honor of Whitehall” who competed in the hound group in 1997. That Triumph was an Irish wolfhound belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Frank R. Dean Jr. of Lexington, Kentucky, and if he was in the habit of insulting Roger Ebert, the historical record is silent on the matter. “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog,” on the other hand, is a Montenegrin Mountain Hound, an identity thief, and quite possibly a murderer.

Watch the clip again and ask yourself a few simple questions. Does Triumph knock over his microphone because of simple stage fright, or because he’s just pulled a Tom Ripley chameleon act and murdered his way onto the national stage? Is the glassy-eyed, unchanging stare in Triumph’s eyes the result of traditional rubber and latex hand-puppet construction, or a symptom of the catatonic state he’s fallen into as he waits for his ghastly deeds to be discovered, pricking up his ears at every footfall, each knock on the door? And what dark joy—forever unknowable to insult comic dogs who have not committed murder—rose in Triumph’s black heart each time he realized he’d survived another day undiscovered, each time he realized that his past life had been annihilated and a new, better life was beginning? And speaking of that past life, what was Triumph’s real name, before he and Ch. Triumph’s Honor of Whitehall went on their fateful rowing expedition? How much did Conan O’Brien know about “Triumph’s” past, and when did he know it? We may never know what really happened that day out on the water, as the warm February sun made the distant spires of the Westminster Kennel Club glitter and sparkle in the distance, but the suspicious circumstances surrounding Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s first television appearance raise a lot of great questions. For Triumph to poop on!