Exploiting our Archives: An excellent show—for me to praise extensively! #88 The Jack and Triumph Show
I have been a huge fan of Robert Smigel’s Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog since pretty much the character’s introduction. Laughing long and hard at Triumph has long been a bonding experience for my father and I and throughout the decades the very weird, very comedy writerly conceit of having a small dog puppet with an Eastern European accent clearly controlled by a veteran comedy execute old-school, Friar’s Club Roast-style insult comedy has endured in ways Smigel never could have envisioned.
Triumph survived Conan’s departure from NBC, as well as the cancellation of Smigel’ short-lived but dearly loved kiddie show parody TV Funhouse, a one-season wonder featuring guest visits from Triumph, a cousin of one of the main characters. Triumph survived Conan’s short-lived stint as the host of The Tonight Show, the novelty album Come Poop With Me, Conan’s time in the desert and his switch to basic cable with Conan.
Through the decades, Triumph has gone from late night on a network to basic cable and then to online streaming via Hulu, most notably with a very successful, Emmy-nominated special on the 2016 election.
In 2015 he attempted a ballsy and subversive format change when he starred alongside 30 Rock’s Jack MacBrayer in The Jack and Triumph show, a conventional three-camera sitcom filmed before a live studio audience that cast McBrayer as Jack Mlicki, the grown-up star of a wholesome, Lassie-like television hit, and Triumph as his costar, a degenerate and ne’er do well forever acting as a devil hovering over his shoulder.
It would be an audacious concept for a show even if the three-camera, live-audience format wasn’t considered by ostensibly sophisticated TV viewers to be a hokey, hack and tacky relic of the bad old days before Mad Men pioneered the idea that television did not have to be unrelentingly terrible all the time.
There’s nothing remotely hip about the conventional sitcom. That’s the whole point. The Jack and Triumph Show, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s similarly short-lived but inspired That’s My Bush!, was at once an exceedingly funny throwback sitcom and a simultaneously brainy and scatological deconstruction of the increasingly anachronistic format.
Like That’s My Bush, The Jack and Triumph Show is unabashedly, proudly artificial and unconvincing. The living room set isn’t supposed to look like anything other than a living room set you’d find on any sitcom filmed between 1964 and the present, and the hoots and howls and exaggerated laughter of the studio audience are both sincere and sly commentary on sitcom cliches and the strange, simultaneously artificial and genuine nature of live audience’s endlessly manipulated responses.
Excited by the prospect of a shared vehicle for beloved cult figures Triumph and McBrayer, who has to rank among the most charming and innately likable comic performers alive, Adult Swim went all in and ordered twenty episodes but the show’s run lasted less than two months and despite the auspicious order, only seven episodes of The Jack and Triumph Show ever aired.
I remember reading about the show before it aired and thinking, “Wow! That sounds great. I love Triumph. I love Jack McBrayer. That sounds like an awesome idea for a show. I will have to watch it.” Then I neglected to watch it and when I remembered to watch it, it’d been off the air for two years and there was nothing I could do to help it as a viewer or a critic. Until now! But seriously, it’s been off the air for two years. Nothing I could do can help it now but maybe some DVDs would be nice, eh, Adult Swim? With the special features and the deleted scenes and the commentary and whatnot? Would that be too much to ask? There’s probably even some money in it for you! You wouldn’t just be performing a public service.
According to focus group studies, Adult Swim has the highest concentration of viewers who are ripping monster bong hits right now, tripping balls and are all, “Whoah! That did not just fucking happen!” of any channel on cable. PBS is second. Even its viewers, who are jacked out of their minds on hallucinogens 24/7, apparently found the idea of a conventional sitcom where one of the two stars is clearly a small dog puppet operated and voiced by a veteran comedy writer just barely out of frame with his hand up its ass a little too odd to be palatable.
That’s understandable but a shame, as The Jack & Triumph Show is fucking hilarious and the naughty/nice, Yin/Yang chemistry between Triumph and McBrayer take a kooky comic conceit much farther than it has any right to go. Even when soliciting gay sex during a stint as a male prostitute during his character’s dark days, McBrayer manages to convey a sunny optimism and disarming sweetness that makes his character sympathetic and lovable despite the show’s complete break from reality.
Though the format of The Jack & Triumph is old school, its subject matter is so brazenly timely that the show already feels a little dated despite only being two years old. In one episode, for example, the casually sadistic Triumph succeeds in destroying iPhone robot lady Siri’s spirit, so she is replaced by McBrayer’s Mlicki, who doesn’t provide the public with “answers” or “useful information” (in that respect he’s a lot like the current incarnation of Siri) but does provide a whole lot of crowd-pleasing homespun country wisdom.
The Jack & Triumph Show is filmed before a live studio audience with the exception of filmed segments in the vein of Trumph’s Conan appearances and Hulu specials where Triumph, with the endlessly game McBrayer in tow, comically obliterates a sad gathering of pasty white men, whether it’s at a science fiction/comic book conventions or in line for Apple products.
The show understandably wanted to hedges its bets commercially at least a little bit by prominently featuring Triumph doing what he has historically done best: getting big, big laughs out of big, big targets, and that’s not referring exclusively to fat jokes, although God knows there are a lot of those here as well.
The Triumph-roasts-Poindexters remotes aren't elegantly integrated into the show. They can feel a little shoe-horned in, but at they are at least shoe-horned in very effectively. As I’ve written earlier, laughter can excuse just about every creative or comedic crime. That’s even more true of explosive, joyous, unrestrained laughter and I laughed so long and so hard at The Jack and Triumph Show that I almost didn’t care that the show’s satirical targets, and the kind of jokes it makes, are generally the kind of targets and the kinds of jokes that I would complain bitterly about in comedies that didn’t make me laugh.
MacBrayer and Triumph’s oddball mismatched buddy comedy is full of fat jokes and ugly jokes and jokes about mischaracterizing someone’s gender or lambasting the sad state of a fading celebrity’s career. The show exclusively takes on easy targets that include the pretentiousness and self-indulgence of millennials and hipster coffee shops but it’s hard to begrudge the predictable nature of the show’s comic attack when it yields such enormous laughs.
What is it about insult comedy that is so weirdly liberating and cathartic? How can an art form rooted in insulting appearances, careers and everything else there is to insult seem so weirdly innocent when practiced by Triumph, or Don Rickles, the all-time king?
Some of it undoubtedly has to do with the sense of child-like joy with which Smigel, as Triumph, delivers his very adult insults. Smigel enjoys himself to the point where he perpetually seems on the verge of “corpsing” and devolving into hysterics. Decades into Triumph’s unlikely but triumphant existence, Smigel still can’t seem to get over the fact that people are willing to pay him money to goof around with a dog puppet with a Borscht Belt soul. For the show’s staff, Smigel picked up some ringers like veteran comedian and podcaster David Feldman and consultant Tom Scharpling, who knows a little something about puppet-based insult comedy as the man and the hand behind The Best Show’s acerbic Gary The Squirrel. And while the guest roster overwhelmingly leans towards the washed-up celebrities Triumph has made his name joyfully skewering, the show is also blessed by equally game but slightly hipper guests like Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and “Apatow royalty” Paul Rudd, who plays himself as a glib Hollywood phony gallivanting about with his busty “babysitter”/mistress.
McBrayer’s presence further serves to offset the profane, unapologetic, yet strangely good-hearted nastiness that characterizes the rest of the show. The Jack and Triumph Show finds Triumph working in some very familiar grooves. He finds a particular sweet spot in mocking the careers of the lovely assortment of has-beens, walking punchlines and human jokes that fill out the show’s tacky world and make up its supporting cast.
The show invites the question, “How often can you laugh at jokes about the flailing state of a C-list celebrity’s career?” with “if you’re Triumph, a seemingly limitless amount of time.” I laughed harder at Triumph boasting that Michael Winslow, the big guest star of the premiere episode (and yet still the show was not a runaway success!) “Michael can replicate any sound in the world, except for a casting director saying yes.” than I care to admit.
The Jack & Triumph Show features some of the funniest and most fearless self-deprecating celebrity, or rather "celebrity" cameos this side of Extras. The show takes the most tired and hackneyed of subject matters, and the most tired and hackneyed celebrities, and makes them not only weirdly relevant (in the sense that people like the Dell Dude can ever be relevant) but alsoriotously funny.
While the world might not need more Joey Fatone jokes or Joey Fatone-is-a-loser gags (or, if you want to be really mean, Joey Fatone), Fatone is a revelation as Triumph’s poker buddy (his others include Leonard Maltin, Vincent Pastore and Tay Zonday) and regular comic punching bag. The sequence where Fatone performs all his dance moves from the “Bye Bye Bye”music videoin the background of a scene, despite being ignored by the show and all of the other characters, is nothing short of transcendent. Hell, I laughed more at the deadpan, baritone-voiced delivery of the aforementioned walking punchline/novelty hit-maker Zonday here than I did during the entirety of previous Case Files like Mulaney or Pink Lady & Jeff.
Smigel and his impish collaborators get the most out of every guest, whether it’s having Alan Thicke try to win a contest opposite Triumph to see who can get more of their TV cast-members to appear in a Siberian commercial for horse bacon by calling Kirk Cameron (who is offscreen of course, not having a sense of humor and all) and telling him the bacon is made exclusively out of “gay heathen horses” or breaking the fourth wall so that Michael Winslow, the villain of the first episode, can be carried offstage.
In a perfect world, Winslow would have won the Emmy for best guest appearance, if only for his acceptance speech. Can you even imagine what that would look like? Heck, could you imagine what it would sound like? I can! In fact, I’m going to go off and think about that for a while.
Okay, I’m back! That was a lot of fun. There was a siren and a helicopter’s blades and a lawnmower and something that sounds like it might be from a poorly dubbed kung fu movie from 1974. Michael Winslow, if you’re reading this, thank you for the laughter.
Though The Jack And Triumph Show looked different, and more intentionally corny and old-fashioned than just about every other hip comedy of 2015, it fits in perfectly with the rest of Smigel’s oeuvre. From his “TV Funhouse” shorts on Saturday Night Live to 1990’s Lookwell to the short-lived Comedy Central TV Funhouse show, Smigel has made a career out of reinventing the banal pop culture and television of the distant past as the ground-breaking comedy of the present.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the show joins TV Funhouse and The Dana Carvey Show as Smigel-driven one-season wonders too good, and too weird to last, but too good and too weird to be forgotten. ‘
Triumph is unabashedly a cult figure. The nature of cult is that it’s not for everybody. Triumph sure isn’t for everybody. Triumph in a show that deliberately sets out to look and feel like a bad sitcom from 1986 is for even less for everybody. But it is for people like me, and in the decades ahead, I have no doubt that it will attract and keep the same devoted cult audience as Smigel’s other less successful TV endeavors. Smigel’s commercial failures tower over nearly everyone else’s commercial successes, at least in the comedy world.
In 1991, Smigel, along with Conan O’Brien, created something too smart, weird and conceptual to last with the late, lamented Lookwell, which gave the late, lamented Adam West what was easily his second best role after Batman, or third, if you want to include Adam West, a role he played to a tee, and with his trademark hammy zeal, yet never made it past the pilot stage. With Lookwell, Smigel had the fortune and misfortune to be way ahead of his time. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Smigel co-created another brilliant, hilarious deconstruction of television cliches that still qualified as too smart, weird and conceptual to last.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret: Secret Success
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