(Triumph visits the Star Wars Ep. 2 premiere. The Zenith of Conan, and the only great thing to ever come out of the Prequel Trilogy.)
Around this time last week I was in Toms River, New Jersey watching Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's special. Il Giovine and I's barks of excited laughter quickly turned into howls of disappointment.
For those of you who were not keyed into the currents of pop (poop?) culture of fifteen years ago, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was one of the greatest things on television. In the late nineties, the Golden Age of Conan O'Brien - after he bombed for his first five years and before Jon Stewart changed the face of late night TV forever - Late Night with Conan O'Brien was the only thing on Late Night TV guaranteed to make anyone laugh. Leno completed his transformation from the great mainstream comic of the 80's to 90's Hack of the Decade. Letterman was clearly past his prime - a caricature of the ticks and randomness which made him so crucial in the 80's. Bill Maher had a very promising beginning when he hosted Politically Incorrect on ABC, but the signs of egomania that would take over his persona were present from the very beginning. Howard Stern would broadcast his radio show on TV but nobody wanted to watch late at night what they could hear on the radio during their commute. Craig Kilborn kept defecting from show to show before he accumulated a substantial following. Tom Snyder's combover ruled the Late Late Show, an interview show for those who thought Nightline too substantial, Charlie Rose too softball, Larry King too fluff. It was supposed to be a kind of successor to Dick Cavett, but Snyder had neither Cavett's self-effacing charisma (not necessarily a contradiction in terms, Jon Stewart has it too) nor Cavett's live audience to up the energy of the discussion. In its place, all anybody remembers of Snyder is his weirdly booming laugh.
Conan was the King of those years. He wasn't a great standup (and still isn't), his interviews were pretty lame, and his schtick has always been stupid in a watered-down Letterman kind of way. Andy Richter was funny, so were Joel Godard and Max Weinberg, but they couldn't make up for the essential problem of making a born writer into a comic talk show host.
What made Conan so fantastic was the ten minutes in between the two guests when he'd inevitably have a comedy skit, no doubt culled from rejected ideas during his years as Saturday Night Live's head writer. The stuff that appeared on Conan was too bizarre, too esoteric, too strange for Saturday Night Live.
My god, they were incredible: the Masturbating Bear, Pimpbot 5000, Vomitting Kermit, the Coked-Up Werewolf, Robot on the Toilet, Artie Kendall the Singing Ghost, Mick Ferguson the Man with Bulletproof Legs, Preparation-H Raymond, Hannigan the Salesman, In the Year 2000 (which he continued after 2000). This was stuff too strange even for David Letterman. Letterman's anarchy was utterly spontaneous, but Conan's took real effort and rebellion. Every one of those skits was designed to be as shocking and risky as network television ever got. It took real knowledge, not just of where the boundaries were of contemporary popular culture, but of the entire history of popular culture. Pimpbot 5000 could only be done by someone who not only has knowledge of Sci-Fi B movies from the 50's, but also of 70's blaxploitation. Artie Kendall the Singing Ghost was a dead-on Bing Crosby parody that sent up the reactionary attitudes of his most devoted listeners - which are shockingly offensive to modern ears and nearly all of whom were very much still alive in the 90's, and had already been in bed for three hours. If that point was made too subtly, there was also Hannigan the Traveling Salesman, who was basically your racist, sexist, grandfather personified and everything you don't want to acknowledge about what he believed. But none of these skits and characters, none at all, could top the amazingly provocative offensiveness of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Insult Comedy seems too mean to be anything but a recent comic tradition. It isn't. It goes back at least to the Friars Club Roasts of the 1950's, long before George Carlin said the Seven Dirty Words you can't say on Television. The Friars Club was and is a private New York club on East 55th Street in Manhattan between Park and Madison Avenues. From the very beginning, only the cream of American Theater were invited to belong. At the roast, the entertainment public, no doubt tired of saying pleasing things to a public that demanded good spirits, permitted a comic to say all those antisocial things which you couldn't say in front of a general audience. . Insult comedy was comedy with the lid of the id taken off. It was mean, it was dirty, the only limitation was to be as crass and crude and hurtful as the comedian's imagination could take him. Comics, whose very job is to seek approval from an audience, are by nature a jealous species, and probably all too happy for an opportunity to insult famous people in front of other famous people. Within a few years, Don Rickles started making an entire career out of the insult comedy which, until him, you could only hear at the Friars Club. In the eyes of the general public, Rickles was the pioneer of the style, but the truth is that older comics privately spoke to each other in that way for a long time before that. Within a quarter-century, insult comedy was taken to the zenith of raunch and meanness by Andrew Dice Clay.
When you see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, he is clearly supposed to be a comedian from another age - perhaps an age even before the Friar's Club Roasts.The bowtie is clearly reminiscent of Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. The cigar of Groucho Marx. In the 1990s, Triumph was already supposed to be a relic from a bygone era. In 2016, Triumph almost seems like a visitor from another solar system.
Twenty years later, seeing Triumph let loose upon a college campus is as close to comic perfection as Thalia will ever allow us (wow, I actually brought up the Greek Muse of Comedy...). Part of the reason the skit was so cathartic was because Triumph fits so badly into our era that he almost fits well. The meanness of Triumph (and in Robert Smigel's expert hand he was as mean as any comic has ever been) was on the level of Andrew Dice Clay. But the actual character is redolent of an era when comics could make fun of the disadvantaged from a point of superiority. He combines the casual raunch and mercilessness of an 80's comic like Dice or Eddie Murphy with the casual misogyny of the Rat Pack. It was like watching a rooster let loose in the henhouse. Yes, if you find this kind of comedy offensive, then you'll absolutely be offended. But as every vaudevillian can tell you from the late 19th century onward: "If it don't hurt, it ain't funny." An enormous quotient of comedy is based on the idea that you can get away with things you shouldn't get away with. In the era of trigger warnings and privilege checking, an era when more constraints have been placed on humor than at any point since the production code lifted fifty years ago, the idea that someone like Triumph can get away with insulting all the notions we're not supposed to insult anymore is all the funnier. Triumph is just a dog puppet, how can you possibly view what this puppet does with any seriousness?
And yet, what worked so well in a ten minute sketch was stretched to ninety minutes, and by the end of those ninety minutes, I was rubbed raw. I wasn't offended, I just felt extremely unpleasant, as though I needed a shower. Every skit was meaner than the last. It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for Donald Trump supporters, but Triumph managed it. These poor dupes took Triumph's beratings with surprisingly good humor - better in fact than did the Democrats. By the time the Great and Still Underrated Tim Meadows came to impersonate Ben Carson to unsuspecting Iowans, I could barely watch. An hour and a half with Triumph is like a visit from the spirit of comedy past, and even I don't necessarily like what I saw, or what such a visit says about me.
Comedy, like everything else in America, seems to have reached a peak of debasement. The Diceman might have been the peak of insult comedy, but the insults kept getting broader, meaner, raunchier, more uncomfortable, and to ever-diminishing returns: Jeffrey Ross, Daniel Tosh, Lisa Lampanelli, Doug Stanhope, Kathy Griffin... These are just some of the big name comedians who fundamentally made their names from groans, not laughs. Nearly the whole point of their comedy is not to draw out laughter, but to bring out the kind of uncomfortable guffaw that comes from being more shocked than amused.
You can draw a direct line of the great comics from the 1950's onward - every decade, comics got dirtier and meaner. But there's nastiness which serves a larger point - the way it does in Louis CK or even Jon Stewart's Daily Show comedy, this is, probably, comedy's best weapon. And then there's nastiness for the sheer petty joy of nastiness. We all enjoy being mean occasionally, but nastiness for its own sake is something dangerous to indulge in too often. If we're nasty too often, then being nasty loses its fun, but we're still left hating ourselves in the morning.
I am as much a believer in political incorrectness as a self-avowed liberal will ever allow himself to be. Perhaps chief among its many thousands of sins, I believe that political correctness is turning Donald Trump into a martyr in the eyes of a large part of the American populace, and could yet make him President. But just as when Political Correctness made its first viral assault on American life in the decade when Triumph became a runaway success, the over-correction of the 2010s has its roots in the excessive meanness and degradation of the preceding decade. I could try to draw up a long list of exactly how it happened, but so can you. After the Bush years, an over-correction is only natural. It's amazing it hasn't been larger than it is.
No matter how this Presidential election turns out, I wonder if we'll look back at 2015 and 2016 as a kind of cultural revolution. In the last two years, America seems turned upside down as perhaps it hasn't since 1967 and 68. By the late Sixties, America was finally ready to launch a sustained campaign for both Women's Rights and Civil Rights for African-Americans. In the mid 2010s, America, or at least half of America, finally seems somewhat ready to wage the bulk of that campaign. If the price of it is that we have to be more circumspect in what we say, it would be churlish and - dare I say, ungrateful of the privilege to which I was born, to attempt to stand in its way. But, may I say from my privileged white male standpoint, if we're giving up those benefits our privileges afford us, we bloody well better be sure that this tactic will make the lives of the disadvantaged better and not worse.