Just over twenty years ago the original Late Night with Conan O’Brien aired a classic bit featuring regular character Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ragging on Star Wars fans waiting in line for the premiere of Attack of the Clones. For the uninitiated, Triumph was a rubber dog puppet with a cigar in its mouth operated by writer Robert Smigel who would lob insult comedy from just off screen. The character was crude both in terms of his severe technical limitations and the quality of humor Smigel put in his barely pliable maw. Amazing the amount of protection afforded in just a couple square feet of rubber on an arm.
The video has the skit in full, but the moment that I think of most often is at the 10:20 mark when Triumph baits the crowd into a trivia competition. “What substance was Han Solo frozen in?” he asks, to which several members of the crowd respond “Carbonite!” No, sorry, informs Triumph. “The correct answer is: who gives a shit?”
This has always struck me as very funny just on a performance level – with Triumph “reading” the question off a notecard taped to his “paw”, the way he asks “What?” just to get everyone invested one more time in shouting the answer before hitting them with the punchline. It’s also the perfect level of nerd trivia question for the gag, an easy lay-up for someone who would camp out to see a Star Wars movie but far enough outside general knowledge to disguise the setup.
The skit has remained memorable thanks to Triumph’s generally game targets who provide the unscripted reactions. As one member of the crowd later wrote, there was a lot of overlap between the nerd communities and fans of the outré humor pedaled by Late Night, and people lined up to get a dose of Triumph’s punishment. It’s an interesting document of another era of fandom when eager moviegoers camped out overnight for seats at a theater showing a physical print, rather than purchasing tickets online for one of the round-the-clock showtimes on a multitude of digital screens. Smigel and his crew were able to film two back-to-back days of lines outside the theater. This was an event. Even though the reputation of the previous entry The Phantom Menace had plummeted, Clones was only the second new Star Wars movie to come out since 1983. Fans would have to wait another year to catch a single animated series on the Cartoon Network.
It’s also still in the era when mainstream culture perceived pop culture fandom as the unseemly domain of social outcasts, a continuation of the open season declared by William Shatner’s 1986 Saturday Night Live “Get a Life!” sketch. Triumph gets off some punchlines that are as funny as they are cruel, but the majority of his jokes are some variation on calling everybody “nerds” or denigrating their sex life (or lack thereof). Now the joke’s been turned around, as fans of sci-fi and comicbook culture are the driving force at the theater and the rest of the movie-going public wrings its hands over not getting enough sex. The participants in the 2002 skit appear self-aware and happy to play the fool for a moment. But when the power shifts, it’s not hard to image the more thin-skinned members of the community feeling some vindication in playing the bully behind their own puppets on social media accounts.
The mockery wouldn’t be made with this kind of flippancy now. Their gargantuan presence means the substance of franchise films gets discussed from all sorts of angles now, in terms of cultural representation and geopolitical forces and once in a great while aesthetics, issues that shouldn’t be shrugged away. But when the debate gets heated around whether the minutia of a fictional universe is getting handled properly and the passion turns to anger, sometimes it’s nice to remember a time when a dog puppet provided the correct answer.