Triumph the Insult Comic Dog has always been an essential running gag in late-night comedy. The character, created and voiced by Emmy-winning comic and writer Robert Smigel, debuted on Late Night with Conan O'Brien almost 20 years ago and since then has left a trail of scathing brilliance across the airwaves and the internet. The sketch is at its best when the profane, gleefully offensive puppet comes up against a real-life foil who refuses to roll with the joke, somebody like Eminem when he was at his most obnoxiously pompous, or the people behind the Westminster Kennel Club, who famously threw Smigel and Triumph out after the latter tried to "mate" with some of the contestants at their annual dog show.
It's tough to wrap your head around the fact that during its run, it was college students who helped propel Conan O'Brien's version of Late Night to a respectable spot in the ratings. It was the kind of offbeat humor traditionally embraced on America's campuses which elevated O'Brien and his cast of oddball characters, Triumph being one of the most popular, to the status of cult heroes. It's that fact that makes Smigel and Triumph's vicious and entirely necessary takedown of a group of current students from the University of New Hampshire -- which aired on Monday night -- so undeniably sad. 20 years after college kids and Gen-Xers made Triumph a star, there Smigel was, playing to a room full of painfully self-serious young people who couldn't even try to hide their simmering outrage over the things that were coming out of the cigar-chomping snout of his puppet.
The idea was to confront so-called political correctness head on and completely upend it by showing it -- as well as the delicate sensibilities of the precious snowflakes who espouse it -- no respect whatsoever. The idea was to simply make jokes -- jokes so carelessly, unapologetically crude that these kids who've willfully surrendered their freedom to offend and have turned their campus into an Orwellian wet dream would quietly lose their fucking minds. And it worked. The surreal lack of humor with which the students in Triumph's "focus group" approached a crass dog puppet's insults, punctuated every once in a while by a look that registered pure disdain, was both surprising and satisfying.
This is a school that recently published a "bias-free language guide," proclaiming words like “American,” “homosexual,” “illegal alien,” and “poor" to be -- wait for it -- "problematic." Smigel, through Triumph and with no thought at all to the reaction in the room, pretended to try to understand political correctness on campus but in reality just used the set-up as an excuse to antagonize the students. When Triumph asked one of the students, a young woman, to explain "gender identity" to him and her response was "whatever gender your soul or identity ties to," he responded by asking the kid next to her, "What about you? What do you identify as, besides pretentious?”
When he asked, "Who can tell me what the fuck a trigger warning is?" and another young woman answered him, he responded, "Okay, let me do one. In this video there will be the clear depiction of a dog pretending to be interested in what a college student is saying..." At that, the young woman was visibly angry, but Triumph continued: "...While at the same time making plans to pleasure himself to her at a later time." He questioned yet another female student on the meaning of "mansplaining," but as she started to answer, he moved to a male student, saying that he could probably explain it better. He handed out name tags to the kids with identities like "future psycho nanny," renaissance faire groupie," "swipe left," and "fuck this guy."
But all of that was the lead-up to a brilliantly revealing gag that highlighted perfectly the ridiculousness of refusing to assign certain qualities to those who possess them, out of fear of offending them. At one point, a flamboyantly gay black man entered the room and interacted with the students briefly. When he left, Triumph asked the kids to describe the man. He even brought in a police sketch artist in an attempt to force them to comment on the man's appearance and mannerisms. Watching them twist themselves in knots to avoid stating the incredibly obvious is just glorious.
Some will say that picking on young people who will hopefully grow out of this idiocy amounts to a cheap shot. But the truth is that this kind of oppression of language and thought has become both a way of life on college campuses and impervious to any kind of rational dissent. Students self-infantalize, demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings so that our schools are nothing more than high-priced daycares, while for God-knows-what reason the adults in the room -- the ones who ostensibly run the place -- have allowed them to assume control and end the careers of those who dare to stand up to this lunacy.
A classroom full of fragile teacups coming face to face with the living embodiment of everything they're trying to protect themselves from is a big win for sanity. Because even if they don't know it, Triumph got the better of them. He didn't make them look foolish -- they did that on their own. But he made sure they couldn't duck it no matter how hard they tried.
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