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Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog

Triumph, a regular on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, is a puppet and the creation of Robert Smigel. Smigel also created the animated short TV Funhouse on Saturday Night Live. Triumph has a new CD, Come Poop With Me, featuring such tracks as "Underage Bichon" and "Lick Myself." He's appeared on Hollywood Squares and on the MTV Video Music Awards, where he almost came to blows with rapper Eminem.


Other segments from the episode on November 20, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 20, 2003: Interview with Robert Smigel; Interview with Robert Freeman.


DATE November 20, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Robert Smigel discuss
their type of entertainment

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the funniest comics working today is a dog, or more precisely a rubber
puppet Rottweiler. He's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Triumph was created
for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" by Robert Smigel, the former head writer
of the show. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog has proverbially pooped on many of
Conan's guests. Last year at the MTV Video Music Awards, Triumph went out
into the audience to offend a few of the celebrities, but when he approached
Eminem, the rap star didn't seem to get the joke and nearly came to blows with
Triumph. As we'll hear in a couple of minutes, Triumph is now developing some
rap credibility himself. He has a new CD called "Come Poop with Me." We'll
talk with Triumph and with his creator, Robert Smigel. But first, for some
history, here's a brief excerpt of our recent interview with Conan O'Brien
recorded just before his 10th anniversary show.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Host, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"): Most people react
pretty well to Triumph. Triumph became so popular that we started getting
celebrities requesting Triumph. Jon Bon Jovi called up and said, `Please, can
Triumph come over and insult me?' I mean, we literally had people requesting
it. It was a high honor. So Eminem, I think, was the first person to get,
you know, angry at the puppet, which I love saying; I love that someone can
get angry at a puppet.

GROSS: I figured he'd never seen the show and had no idea what was going on.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I don't kn...

GROSS: He'd never seen your show and had no idea what Triumph was.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Right. I have no idea. I have no clue.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. O'BRIEN: But you know, yeah, it's possible he thought he was just being
attacked by a man with a rubber dog on his fist. I don't--I love that his
bodyguards intervened, and that was the best part. So it's a good thing that
he had three bodyguards on hand to protect him from the rubber dog. But...

GROSS: Can you talk about the evolution of Triumph on your show?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. My favorite part about Triumph--and I don't know why, but
Triumph has the voice of a Ukrainian woman. You know, you think, it's like,
(imitating Triumph) `It's so nice to see you, yes. Yes. Oh, yes.' And I
have no idea why, but apparently, you know, this is, you know, an immigrant
who made his way to the Borscht Belt. And it was funny right away, and then
we started--I think initially Triumph just insulted me. And then we thought,
`That's really funny. Let's bring Triumph back and have him insult
celebrities who are sitting next to me.' So after I was done interviewing
them, I'd say, `Would you like to meet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog?' And
then he would starting yelling at William Shatner and say, (imitating Triumph)
`Look at you, Shatner. What has happened? You fat pig, Shatner.' And then
we realized, `OK, this is working really well. People really love this.' And
then there was a period of time where people thought, `Well, Triumph has run
its course. That's it. I think it's done. It's not going to be that funny

And then someone had the idea--one of our writers noticed that there was this
long line outside the "Star Wars" premiere of "Star Wars" fans waiting to go
in, all dressed as the "Star Wars" characters. And so someone had the idea,
`Let's send Triumph there.' We sent Triumph with some of our writers and
everybody wrote lines. And that, I think--and I am not an arrogant person,
but I do think Triumph in line attacking different "Star Wars" fans is
probably the funniest 10 minutes of television that's been on the air in the
last, you know, five, eight years. That's really one of the...

GROSS: Oh, great.

Mr. O'BRIEN: of the greatest things that, you know, I ever saw. And
I love television. I've watched a lot of television, and I just thought, you
know, Triumph is talking to a man dressed as Darth Vader, you know, and
insulting him.

GROSS: What did he say?

Mr. O'BRIEN: And the guy as Darth Vader is explaining which buttons do what,
like, `This button is my transporter, and this button does this, and this
button does that.' And Triumph says, `Yes, yes, and which button do you press
to call your mother to come pick you up?'

(End of excerpt)

GROSS: Conan O'Brien from our recent interview. Before we meet Triumph and
his creator Robert Smigel, let's hear an excerpt of Triumph's new CD "Come
Poop With Me." The CD has a parental advisory and most of it contains
language that can't be used on the radio, but at the end of Triumph's
recording session, his record producer made sure there was something we could

(Soundbite from "Come Poop With Me")

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL: (As Triumph) That sounded good, Dave. All right, guys,
we did it.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yeah. We nailed it, yes. Good job, Jimmy and
Scott and black guy, good for you. You can go back to crapping out that swing
(censored) for Conan.

Unidentified Man #3: Triumph, Jeff Adelman's here.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yeah, he is. What? Who? Who? What?

Unidentified Man #3: He's from Warner Brothers. He's one of the big

Unidentified Man #4: Warner Brothers.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, great. Great. Bring him in, yes. Come on in.
Jeff, yes...

Mr. JEFF ADELMAN (Executive, Warner Brothers): Hey, how you doing, man?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) How you doing? Yes.

Mr. ADELMAN: Nice to see you guys.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) This is the man, guys.

Mr. ADELMAN: What's going on?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) This is the man that I fear...

Mr. ADELMAN: Yeah. Yeah, you're the man.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, yes.

Mr. ADELMAN: Oh, actually you're the dog.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Dog. I'm this dog, yeah. So you heard it? You
happy with it, man?

Mr. ADELMAN: Oh, yeah, you know, it's...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) You happy with what we got? Yeah.

Mr. ADELMAN: ...really a good album if we can play it for anybody under the
age of 30.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) I get it. It's raunchy. You got me.

Mr. ADELMAN: Raunchy? No, no, I loved it. I've just got to take a bath for
a month or so then I'll be OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) He has to take a bath.

Mr. ADELMAN: I'm not so sure we can make a warning label big enough for this

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh. What? What?

Mr. ADELMAN: You know, enough of the pleasantries.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

Mr. ADELMAN: I really came here 'cause I wanted to ask you a favor.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) What deed, yes?

Mr. ADELMAN: I need you to--you know, record another track that maybe I
could get played on the radio or at least until they invent cable radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Cable radio, that would be--OK. Yeah. Yeah,
something cleaner.

Mr. ADELMAN: You know, yeah, just something we can get played on the radio
without having to put down on giant bleeeep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) This guy's funnier than I am. He should be doing

(End of excerpt)

GROSS: OK. Here's the track Triumph recorded for the radio.

(Soundbite of track)

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) (Singing) I thought my CD was done, but that's not
what they say. Do an insult track, we need it for radio play. Run me the
names, I'll take a long, hard peak not to mess up the beat like an MP3.
`American Idol,' that's who I look for in the poop section of my local record
store. Ruben or Clay, oh, which should I pick? It's like choosing which
puddle of vomit to lick. And when I want something even more fruity and
thick, I hook up for N for 'N Sync or T for Timberlake. So many skills,
Justin's making it back. Does he rap? Does he sing? He doesn't know what to
suck at. Now as for the bitches, let's give Britney thanks for the faith that
launched a million pre-teen skanks. You were a virgin. That had to be hard.
You had to ...(unintelligible) from your mouth and a St. Bernard. I tease.
I tease.

Backup Singers: He's just making little jokes.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) (Singing) I joke with you.

Backup Singers: ...(Unintelligible) little jokes.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) (Singing) I tease. I tease.

Backup Singers: He just makes little jokes.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) (Singing) Yeah, you're great actors.

Backup Singers: He tells little jokes.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) (Singing) Now let's go to Wal-Mart where they
won't sell my CDs. That company's not...

GROSS: One more thing before you hear my interview with Triumph the Insult
Comic Dog, parents, just because Triumph is a rubber dog puppet doesn't mean
he's for kids. He works blue, and I don't think you'd find this appropriate
for children.

Well, Triumph, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your new CD.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Thank you very much.

GROSS: So...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Great to be slumming here on Public Radio.

GROSS: You don't do a lot of Public Radio, do you?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, you know, my target audience is the six
50-year-old hippies who listen to this crap. Yeah, that's--yeah. No, that's
what I want. That's--this is really going to send my record through the
charts. Look out, Nelly. Look out, Nelly. I was on the Terry Gross show.

GROSS: So, Triumph, now that you're doing rap yourself...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: Are other hip-hop performers willing to accept you or are you
considered an outsider because you're a dog? I don't mean a Snoop Dogg, a
real dog.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) No. No. No, no. Hey, Snoop Dogg, please.
Please. I'm the real dog, you know? Snoop Dogg, Triumph, we can both rap,
but only one of us can lick his (censored).

GROSS: Have you changed...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) That's the real dog. I have all kinds of street
cred., rap credibility. Every morning I'm feeling the streets. Every morning
at around 8:30. Earlier, if I've eaten fruit.

GROSS: How have you changed your image now that you've entered the hip-hop

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) I don't have to change my image, you know? They
have to change for me. It's what it is, you know? Poop Diddy actually has
to find a talent now that he's going to have some competition. From now--you
know, he can't just be pooping out stool samples. He's got to do some real
samples now. You know what I'm saying? No, I'm not going to change, you
know? You know, I've been in this business for 63 dog years with all kinds of
success and, you know, I do what I do and every...

GROSS: Now you were pretty blue on this record. In fact, we can't play most
of this record on the radio. There's even a parental advisory on the record
and you might be the first dog to have a CD that requires a parental...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes. Terry, play it.

GROSS: ...advisory.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Play it, Terry. Come on. You got to jazz this
show up somehow, you know, something.

GROSS: You may be a dog, but you can't tell me what to do on our show.
That's really our call and we feel...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) All right.

GROSS: ...that it would...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) All right.

GROSS: in bad taste to do that.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) OK. Here we go.

GROSS: Do you think that dogs...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) No, you know, Gene Simmons warned me about you. He
warned me about you. We were (censored) a Border collie one day and he was,
like, I can't (censored) I'm still thinking about that interview. Gene
Simmons. By the way, little known fact, 80 percent of Gene Simmons' groupies
are Border collies. That's the rest of the story.

GROSS: Now your signature line is `for me to poop on.'

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: How did you come up with that phrase that so identifies you now
throughout the world?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) You know, originally, I wasn't allowed to say that
because of all the high standards. You know, back then, the censors were--I
was on "The Steve Allen Show" in the '50s and they made me say, you know,
`Those are nice glasses, Steve, for me to relieve myself on,' you know? Louis
Nye was there and I bombed, you know? And then he came up with--for me to go
to the bathroom on, but I wasn't allowed to do that till the Sullivan years.

GROSS: Well, you're really a veteran of show business.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, it's all about what
I'll be allowed, you know? I mean, if NBC ever allows me to say, `For me to
take a big, fat (censored),' I'll be Jim Carrey. I'll be the biggest thing in
show business.

GROSS: Now you know we can't say that on our show--Right?--that you can't...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Well, you can bleep it.

GROSS: We can bleep it, right. OK.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) You can bleep it. Everyone will know what we say.


Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) And leave in a little ass. Leave in the little sh,
so it will be ship. That's the trick, you know? See, I know every trick in
the book. Terry, I'm going to help you so much. Terry, you're going to have
the number-one rated show on NPR after this. You probably already do, but
that's like saying, you know, I'm smarter than Justin Timberlake. You know,
it's nothing to brag about.

GROSS: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog has a new CD called "Come Poop With Me."

I'll be insulted some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Now, Triumph, I don't need to tell you...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: ...that one of the more controversial things in the rap world is the
use of the word `bitch' all the time.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Here we go again.

GROSS: Right. Exactly. Now, it's a word you use a lot...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: the dog world.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) It's a word that has--look, it's a word that
everyone uses in the dog world. It's a bitch. A girl is a bitch. Now should
a dog be offended to be called a woman? Would that be--I don't think any dog
would be offended, not even Benji. That's right. That's right. You heard
me. Benji's gay. It's time people knew that.

GROSS: Do you feel that you've been sexist or condescending in your treatment
of female dogs...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Holy crap. Listen to this. Let me ask you
something. I feel like I'm being bombarded here. I know what's happening
here. I know what's happening here. Did you ask the same questions to Kermit
the Frog?

GROSS: Kermit the Frog didn't do our show.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Did you do this...

GROSS: He didn't do our show.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) All right. Well, OK. How about when Beethoven did
your show? Did you challenge him the way you're challenging me? Did you

GROSS: It was a different kind of interview.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) It was a different...

GROSS: It was a different kind of interview.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) OK. Yeah, I can see what's going on here.

GROSS: Beethoven's funny. No, it's different.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, is that right? It's a satire what Beethoven
does. Yes, I'm just--you know, I can't believe the government is paying for
this interview. That's what I can't believe, you know? My money that could
be going to Pekinese hookers is instead going to this, you know, Public Radio
that's obviously more slanted than my (censored) after I've (censored) the St.
Bernard. What are we talking about? That's right.

GROSS: Triumph, I don't think you're being fair, and I think if you gave
Public Radio a chance, you wouldn't feel that way 'cause I think Public Radio
has always been fair to the dog world.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) I'm trying to give it a chance, but you keep
bombarding me. You keep bombarding me. I'm evaluating this interview very
closely is what I'm doing. You know, this is just 10 minutes of defamation,
70 minutes in dog years. You think it's fair, Terry? You need to get into
another business. That's right. No, good. This is all going to be fodder
for Harper's magazine, for Dog Fancy magazine, which I know is
liberally--there's liberal publishers of dog fancy. I mean, that thing is
like gay porn anyway.

GROSS: Well, Triumph, I really don't think you're being fair and I'm going to
change the subject.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Good, because I'm not going to walk out of this

GROSS: No, good.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) I'm not going to do that. I'm better than that,
but I am going to take a poop right now. I'm going to poop in this studio
right now.

GROSS: I don't think that's fair. I think you should control yourself.
Triumph, how did you become an insult comic?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Well, it's already happening. It's already
happening. I ate a burrito before the interview because I was prepared for

GROSS: Triumph, how did you become an insult comic? I mean, why not just do,
like, nicer humor?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) No, no. It comes with the territory. You know, it
just came naturally. You know, even as a puppy, I used to tease my mom, you
know, and she would encourage me. You know, this album, it's very close to me
because I sing on this CD many songs, some classics and some new stuff. The
"Rock It To Me, Sock It To Me" for the kids, you know, but, both of my parents
had musical backgrounds. That's right. My dad is--he's a toy Rottweiler and
he sang in Yiddish theater and my mom is an Afghan who looks exactly like
Celine Dion.

GROSS: What kind of roles did your father have back when he was in Yiddish

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, he was in "Mitch Tupple and the Kakum." He
played, you know, "Fiver the Frick and Frack" in that one, and he was in "Gaza
Mine Poopin." These are names your kids aren't going to remember, your
audience, even the 60-year-old hippies who listen aren't going to remember
these shows, you know? We're talking Second Avenue on 14th Street kind of

GROSS: Now you were telling us you used to do a lot of TV variety shows.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: Back in the Ed Sullivan era, did you compete with Topo Gigio the mouse
for the animal spot on a show?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Topo used to do a lot of butt sniffing behind the
scenes, you know? Sullivan was the kind of guy who just wanted his butt
sniffed. I'm talking figuratively, of course. And Topo was, like, `Oh,
Eddie. Oh, Eddie, how did it go? I think we really killed. You know, it's
not me. It's you. The straight man is the whole thing.' And, I would, you
know, I just wouldn't play that game. I would just, like, `Hey, Sullivan, you
know, I'll see you next week unless you catch me (censored) your wife,' you
know, that kind of humor. And, you know, Ed didn't go for that, and his wife
Sylvia was lovely and I kid. I never did that with Sylvia, nothing like that,
you know? Johnny Carson's third wife, I'm not going to say. They were
already divorced.

GROSS: Now, Triumph, at the beginning, you made it clear that you were kind
of condescending by doing this interview on Public Radio, and you don't think
we really reach your demographic, but, I mean, wouldn't you agree that the
kind of, like, reflective sensitive interview that we've just had is really
unique to the medium?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) The only--if you would call that reflective, well,
let me look in the puddle of pee down on the floor here. Well, I can see
myself. You win.

GROSS: Well, Triumph, thank you very much for coming. Good luck with your
new CD.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yeah, and DVD, too. Don't forget. It's a CD and
DVD. The kids get more for their money that way.

GROSS: You know, being on the show, it's not just supposed to be, you know,
this strictly a promotional thing like that.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, no, that's what all I've been doing for the
last half-hour is saying CD, DVD. Please, you know, here we go again. Here
we go again. And Beethoven didn't plug his movie, right? He just barked all
night, huh? That's what happened?

GROSS: Well, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog has a new CD called "Come Poop With

Now let's talk with the man behind Triumph, Robert Smigel. He created Triumph
when he was the head writer for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Well, Robert Smigel, here you are as yourself. Was that something of a
workout for you to actually be in character and act as if you are Triumph
without having a puppet on your hand and everything 'cause it's just radio?

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. It's fun. It's more fun without the puppet on my hand,
I mean, and I'm also in a comfortable chair...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SMIGEL: ...and, you know, I get to behave like a dignified human being
except for the actual interview itself, but normally, I'm a 43-year-old guy on
my knees straining somewhere with my arm up in the air talking to human beings
and it's a very low status kind of performance style. So I don't miss the
puppet at all. He's in a bag somewhere.

GROSS: How many Triumphs are there? Is there only one of them or are there

Mr. SMIGEL: No, there's like three or four of them. They keep getting stolen
out of the prop room actually.

GROSS: It is just the cheapest looking puppet.

Mr. SMIGEL: We've gone through, like, 10. It is the cheapest puppet. Well,
I mean, my wife found Triumph at a furniture store that's out of business now,
but then we found that the animal puppets were sold in the village in
different places, and, yeah, it was only, like, 10 bucks and it was just the
head. The body is like a gutted stuffed animal, you know, and there are
severed heads of stuffed animals floating in the East River somewhere that
gave their lives to Triumph in one way or another.

GROSS: And did it come with a cigar or did you stick it in?

Mr. SMIGEL: No, I added the cigar and wardrobe added the gold bow tie.

GROSS: We'll hear more from Robert Smigel, the creator of Triumph the Insult
Comic Dog in the second-half of the show. Triumph has a new CD called "Come
Poop With Me."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, more with Robert Smigel, the creator of Triumph the Insult
Comic Dog. Also, we meet the photographer who did the covers of five early
Beatles albums. Robert Freeman has a new book collecting the photos of The

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Robert Smigel talks about his career as a comedian

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Robert Smigel, the creator and
voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the rubber-dog puppet that got his
start on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and has branched out into insulting
celebrities and other people in many other settings. Now Triumph has a new CD
called "Come Poop with Me." Smigel was the original head writer of Conan
O'Brien's show and used to write for "Saturday Night Live," where he created
the animations "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," "Fun with Real Audio," and
"Ex-Presidents." Smigel had his own show on Comedy Central called "TV

Now, so where does Triumph's voice come from?

Mr. SMIGEL: It comes from Eastern European, I don't know why. I think
people--part of it is when a dog has his tongue out, he's like, (makes a
strange noise), like that. He's just got that enthusiasm going for him. And
then the Russian part comes from my family. My mom was born in China, but
her parents were first-generation Russian immigrants here. They had fled,
you know, Russia in the '20s and settled in Shanghai. And that's where my
mom was born. And then they came over here. So I heard the accent all
through my childhood, and somehow--I don't know if it's that--one awful
theory I had was that it's the same voice that I equate a dog's attitude of
wonder with that of an Eastern European immigrant from the turn of the
century who's just come over, who's just like, `Look at all of this. It's
amazing. I can't believe everything that's here.'

So, there's some kind of wide-eyed wonder. Or maybe it was just that I heard
that accent a lot through my childhood and that somehow it was done in sort of
a playful, childish voice that I would hear. So, you know, they would have
that kind of, `Oh, Robert, look at you.'

GROSS: Was there...

Mr. SMIGEL: `Rubber cheek. Rubber cheek." That's what my grandma used to
call me.

GROSS: Was there one particular relative who used to do that, `yes, yes,'
that you do?

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. No. That's just, oh, yes, oh, yes. It just
came from bad porn. I just thought it would be funny for a dog to be doing
that while he's having sex. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: Did you watch bad porn to prepare, to create Triumph?

Mr. SMIGEL: I really didn't need to. You know, you see one bad porn movie
and you've basically seen every bad porn movie.

GROSS: Right. You know, doing Triumph on television, you have to be aware
of, like, standards and practices and what you can say on TV and what you

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, I'm all too aware.

GROSS: Yeah. And part of the whole point of Triumph is that the things that
kind of people would only do behind closed doors and in private, dogs do on
the street, you know...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. Right. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...whether it's relieving themselves or, you know...

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: ...engaging in intimate relations with other dogs. So, when figuring
out how to talk about all of this, you know, comedically in the voice of
Triumph, what kind of talks did you have to have with standards and practices
at NBC...

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, boy.

GROSS: figure out where the line was?

Mr. SMIGEL: It's a nightmare. And it's like, that's the flip side. I've
had so much fun in my career. I've been doing comedy writing in that building
for something like 18 years, I mean, between different jobs and coming and
going sometimes, but--you know, and I've done a lot of crazy stuff on NBC
and--but the flip side is that you spend hours of your life negotiating things
like, OK, well, if you let me say (censored) I'll take out (censored). And
this is, you know, conversations I have at age 40 with a really earnest, angry
human being on the other line. It's not fun, accept after the fact, to think
about. It's a real look back on this and cringe and laugh at the same time
kind of experience.

GROSS: So, you've had Triumph insult a lot of celebrities over the years.

Mr. SMIGEL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The most famous, of course, was Eminem at the MTV Awards...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: At the video awards last year.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yes.

GROSS: Did MTV not have any idea who Triumph was? That was the imp--I mean,
did Eminem not have any idea who Triumph was?

Mr. SMIGEL: Eminem had no idea who Triumph was.

GROSS: That's what I figured.

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, the year before I was there and I approached J. Lo. And
I actually asked her permission because I don't like to ambush people. It's
not necessary for Triumph to do that and be funny. And the next year sort of
a similar situation where I was set up to talk to Moby, and then I requested
that I get to talk to Eminem after that. And I said, `Well, should we warn
Eminem?' And they were, like, `Oh, no. Eminem, he's, you know, did you see
his video? It's hilarious. He's got a great sense of humor. He's going to
love it. He's Eminem!'

And so I sit down with Moby and we're both planted two rows behind Eminem
because here it was more like contrived. `OK, we're going to sit you down
with Moby, we're going to place you behind Eminem.' Everybody knows this
except Eminem. So Eminem sees Moby sit down and turns to him and glares at
him and shouts an expletive at him out of nowhere. And Moby is completely
stunned. He has no idea that Eminem was this mad at him. He had agreed to
participate in this stunt but, you know, and Moby had criticized Eminem very
harshly in the press, calling him anti-semitic, homophobic, irresponsible, a
number of things. But he had never realized how angry Eminem was, Eminem had
made fun of Moby and his video that won the award that night, but apparently
Eminem was really mad at Moby.

And, you know, meanwhile they're counting down 30 seconds, 29 and there's no
escaping it at this point. We go ahead and do the bit and hope for the best.
And by the time it gets to me approaching Eminem, Eminem is just--he's already
stood up once and glared at Moby while I've been insulting Moby. And then he
just has no idea who Triumph is. He thinks it's a puppet that's been
fashioned by Moby to torment him. And so when I approach him, he just kind of
panics and, like, `Yo, yo, I got my TV time. I got my TV time.' And I panic
and have no desire to, you know, assault Eminem verbally against his will, so
I start to back up. And then this rapper, Proof, who raps with Eminem, just
for laughs, throws my script into the air. 'Cause I'm always carrying a few
notes because I never trust my ability to remember jokes. So I have like
eight Eminem jokes ready to go. And, you know, I'm hidden so I can always
just carry my jokes around.

So he knocks my script into the air and later on, people are, like, `Hey, he
was going to kill you. Were you scared? What the hell! Eminem looked like
he was going to murder you.' And I just kind of laughed. I mean, it's just
show business and I felt like I was in the middle of a wrestling sketch, so.

GROSS: Have you ever spoken to him without Triumph on your arm?

Mr. SMIGEL: I've never met Eminem except for that unfortunate incident.
I've talken to his manager since then, and apologized that Eminem didn't know.
I apologized that Eminem hadn't been warned and told him that whenever I would
asked about it, if I was ever asked about it in an interview that I would, you
know, make it clear that Eminem kind of got a raw deal in terms of being
portrayed as, you know, surly and having no sense of humor. Because I think
he had a right to be--to feel a little bit put upon at that moment.

GROSS: So do you have like favorite insult comics. Like, did you watch Don
Rickles a lot?

Mr. SMIGEL: I loved Don Rickles when I was a kid, and I love to watch him
now because his act has not changed an iota in terms of--and I mean, and I
can't believe the stuff he still says in his act. It's so politically
incorrect, and not in a way that anybody's going to laugh at. Nobody under
the age of 40, like I saw him in like that Garden State Art Center in New
Jersey. He opened for Frank Sinatra. I guess this was like eight years ago.
But I doubt that he's changed his act much since then, and he was just like
going off on the guys in his band and there was like a black drummer. And
he's like, you know, `Oh, yeah. The guy, very good. You know, the guy, it's
the jungle drums, yeah, bump-ta-da, bump-ta-da, bump-ta-da. No, no, no, he's
wonderful. He's wonderful. Got to check my jewelry in my hotel room.' So I
couldn't believe it.

GROSS: Jeez.

Mr. SMIGEL: I go, `What? Are you crazy? Have you been living in a bubble
for the last 30 years?' I loved it, though, because he just did it with
complete confidence. And then in his act, he just shifts over to, like, he
sings about his mother with complete earnestness. You know, he just...

GROSS: Oh, like Triumph does.

Mr. SMIGEL: Like Triumph does.

GROSS: That's very Triumph.

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, that's actually one of my favorite songs on the album
`cause Triumph is very earnest. But he can't help but be incredibly
grotesque and filthy at the same time.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SMIGEL: But, yeah, Don Rickles does a whole tribute to his mother and
it's with no irony, complete sincerity. It's just like from the old school of
Vaudeville, where, you know, you've got to leave them with some, you know,
some heart. And he, you know, fantastic.

GROSS: And what about Blue...

Mr. SMIGEL: Fantastic stuff.

GROSS: What about blue party records? Did you have a lot of those? 'Cause,
you know, like Triumph is so...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: somewhere between lewd and obscene.

Mr. SMIGEL: No, I know. I really didn't, and I didn't really have people
assume that I have a real taste for this kind of humor and I don't. It just
happens to have evolved from the medium that I'm dealing in, which is a puppet
and the cartoons. Then I thought conceptually it would be really funny to
have Triumph do that kind of an album and just have all the dirty sex songs
have to do with dogs.

GROSS: What kind of pets do you have now?

Mr. SMIGEL: I have a lovely wheaten terrier dog named Wheatie that my wife
found. He was literally like the runt of the litter in a pet store window.
His price kept going down and she just finally talked me into buying her this
dog. I didn't really want to get into getting a pet because I was so busy,
but we love her. And we've had, you know, I had a dog when I was a kid and I
had a cat before that. I started as a cat lover, but now I've kind of moved
over to dogs, because I'm needy.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: I'm needier now.

GROSS: Do you ever walk down the street or go into the vet and see dogs that
actually remind you of Triumph?

Mr. SMIGEL: Every dog reminds me of Triumph when they're particularly
enthusiastic. But most dogs are, you know, I enjoy the theater of
disappointment that dogs offer as well compared to their animated counterparts
in children's stories.

GROSS: Well, Robert Smigel, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
And I'd like you to send my thanks to Triumph as well.

Mr. SMIGEL: All right. Well, he's just in a plastic bag now.

GROSS: OK. Ah, it's just as well.

Mr. SMIGEL: Where he bel--that's where he belongs.

GROSS: Robert Smigel is the creator of Triumph, the insult comic dog.
Triumph's new CD is called "Come Poop with Me."

Coming up, the photographer who did the covers of five early Beatles albums.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Photographer Robert Freeman talks about his career
working with The Beatles and his new book "The Beatles: A Private

My guest, Robert Freeman, shot the cover photos of the first five Beatles
albums, from "With The Beatles," which was called "Meet The Beatles" in the
US, through "Rubber Soul." Freeman traveled with The Beatles from 1963 to '66
and was with them on their first trip to the US. Now his collection of
Beatles photos is published in his new book, "The Beatles: A Private View." I
asked him about his cover photo for "Rubber Soul," which is the cover Freeman
says he's happiest with. The camera is looking up into The Beatles' faces,
the leaves of a hedge are behind them. Unlike Freeman's earlier black and
white Beatles cover photos, "Rubber Soul" was in color.

Mr. ROBERT FREEMAN (Photographer): I wanted to get away from the black and
white--well, not get away from it. I wanted to just move into color. I asked
them to bring down clothes that worked with the sort of green tonality of the
background, browns and greens and dark colors. And then I found a location in
John's garden which would give me a low angle with a hedge in the background.
So I had a uniform background. The shot was taken with a normal lens and the
only odd thing about that shot is that John Lennon is looking down at camera
and all the others are looking into the distance. The distortion factor came
when I was projecting the slides to them later so they could see what--make
a choice on what picture they wanted to use. And when I was doing that, the
card tilted slightly and it gave a distorted effect in the projection. And
Paul responded very quickly to that. He said, `Oh, that looks great. Do you
think you can get that effect?' So I said, `Yes, I think I can by tilting the
image in the enlarger and doing a duplicate, which is what I did and that's
what produced the final result on the album cover.

GROSS: Did you also design the lettering for the title, "Rubber Soul"?

Mr. FREEMAN: I had people design it, but I said I wanted something that was
compact and rubbery looking. And there were technical designers who did it on
commission so to speak.

GROSS: You came to The Beatles on their first trip to America in February of

Mr. FREEMAN: That's right.

GROSS: I think they were astonished when they saw the kind of welcome they
were getting. Were you surprised?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, as soon as I saw that there were that amount of fans on
the roof of the airport buildings, I knew I wasn't going to get a good picture
from the back of their heads shooting towards the fans. So I pushed past
them, the whole crowd, the driver, the manager, etc., etc., pushed past
everybody, went down the steps around the back of a small clustered group of
journalists and with a telephoto, captured--which is in the book--a color
photograph of early morning light, soft warm light, early morning of them
looking towards the fans on the roof with slightly amazed smiles. And I think
that point is or was the highest point really in their career, when they saw
that they were welcomed to America.

GROSS: When you traveled with The Beatles, and it wasn't an actual photo
shoot session, but you were just informally photographing them, what was the
understanding you had with them about what was private and what was public?
You know, what was accessible to you and fair game and what you should keep
your lens out of?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, look, that's partly my own discretion. You know, I never
went for the journalistic shots of John with Cynthia, which was always needed
or wanted. I just discreetly--in fact, I never did any shots of John with
Cynthia. I only did George with Patsy after their wedding as a personal
picture for them. And I did Ringo's wedding as an offer for Ringo. I don't
normally do weddings.

GROSS: When you say that you didn't take photos of John and Cynthia, early
on, their marriage was supposed to be more or less a secret because the fear
was that if the fans knew John was married, then they wouldn't have all these
fantasies about him 'cause he would be so off limits and it would ruin the
fans' relationship with The Beatles. So were you not supposed to photograph
them together?

Mr. FREEMAN: It wasn't desired by John, shall we say, and it wasn't desired
by the manager. And I didn't want to exploit the situation anyway. If
they're offering me a certain intimacy, if they're allowing my presence in the
dressing room or in the house, I'm certainly professionally speaking and
ethically speaking not going to take advantage of that.

GROSS: Were the other things that you weren't supposed to photograph or that
you felt you shouldn't photograph?

Mr. FREEMAN: Ringo's toes, for example. He had the ugliest toes I've ever
seen, although he had a handsome face, a fine nose. So I just stuck mainly to
head and shoulders with The Beatles.

GROSS: In the three years that you worked with The Beatles, you saw them go
from--you saw them become stars and superstars and I'm sure you probably saw
their attitude about fame change as they got more and more familiar with it.
Did you see changes like that? Did you see their attitude toward their own
success start to change as that success got bigger and bigger?

Mr. FREEMAN: I think that expresses itself in continuity within the book
because you see a kind of freshness and simplicity in the early portraits.
The "Hard Day's Night" period, which was early 1964 and also the American
material of the visit to the states had again a freshness. They were up--they
were moving up, moving up. They were on the wave of Beatlemania. But moving
toward 1965, they're getting a bit tired by the preoccupations of fame and
media attention and all the rearrangement of their domestic lives. And moving
onto 1966, they decided to stop, to do less touring--in fact, they did the
last concert in 1966--and concentrated more on studio production for their
music. So there was a change where--and you can see this in the pictures,
especially the last chapter which is called "Revolver," which was images of
them in the recording studio, Abbey Road Studios, looking a little weary,
recording this album.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Freeman. His new book collecting his photos of The
Beatles is called "The Beatles: A Private View." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is photographer Robert Freeman. He shot the photos on The
Beatles first five album covers and he traveled with The Beatles from 1963 to
'66. His new collection of Beatles photos is called "The Beatles: A private

Well, after you photograph album covers for The Beatles, where do you go after
that? Like, what kind of assignments did you get after that?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, you go home. There's only one place to go after The
Beatles. You just go home. As John said...

GROSS: You end your career after that?

Mr. FREEMAN: No. As John said in the end of the book, you know, when he's
talking about show business, he said, you know, `There's no experience like
anything than what we've been through.' He said, "You do this and you finish."
So the book actually ends on the word `finish' with a quote by John Lennon.
And it's echoed in a way my own relationship with them. I'd been with them
over the fresh period of their career, the early part and their rise to fame
and their rolling on the crest of the wave. So it was a good timing for me,
but anyway, I was moving onto other things, doing film work and writing
scripts. I was more into--because literature was actually my background. And
then in the '70s, I went on to work with Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. And
even right before I came to New York, I was doing shots of Chick Corea in
southern Spain. So I'm still clicking away.

GROSS: Here's a question that's none of my business. A lot of photographers
just get a flat fee for their work. Now The Beatles' albums that you did the
covers for have sold kazillions of copies over the years. So did that affect
you financially, those wonderful sales, or did you just get like a flat fee
and that was that?

Mr. FREEMAN: I got a--I think flat is an overstatement. I got a less than
flat fee for the album cover, the first one. They offered me $50, and that's
a buyout. And you're seeing millions of copies sold. Well, it would have
been nice to have had a small percentage. But anyway, you know, that wasn't
the game then and--so they've sold records and the photographs have done their
job, but I haven't benefitted from it financially in percentage terms.

GROSS: Now you were able to spend time with The Beatles when there weren't a
lot of other photographers around, but there were other times you were with
The Beatles when there were other photographers around. What was like it for
you, like, when you first got to the States with The Beatles and there were
photographers all over, you know, professional and amateur, trying to get
their pictures and you're competing with them to get those pictures, too?
Does it make it feel kind of pointless when there are so many people with
their lenses pointed at The Beatles?

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, it becomes a media circus, and you lose the intimacy of
being with them exclusively. And I'd wish I'd had more freedom to do shots of
them at that time just quietly with them. But, of course, there was a lot of
pressure from different media--Time, Life, Look magazine, etc.--to do Saturday
Evening Post, to do covers for them. I'd actually got a stylist to get four
Uncle Sam hats and four Indian--good real Indian headdresses and I'd wanted to
do two group shots under the right conditions with them all wearing Uncle Sam
hats and also all wearing Indian headdresses, but I never got time for it.

GROSS: Why did you want to do that?

Mr. FREEMAN: Because it seemed they were in America, it seemed interesting
to have them wearing traditional American hats. Because a hat gives a
character to a picture.

GROSS: I think it would take somebody from outside of America to think of

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah, I know. I don't see Jerry Garcia wearing an Uncle Sam
hat or Lou Reed with an Uncle Sam hat but...

GROSS: I can't really see that.

Mr. FREEMAN: No. No. I'd like to see him. But I don't know, it was just a
crazy idea. Things were crazy anyway and I was just thinking, well, what the
hell we're in America, let's try and get something that reflects what is well
known throughout the world.

GROSS: Robert Freeman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FREEMAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Freeman's new collection of photos is called "The Beatles: A
Private View."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all
about the girl who came to stay. She's the kind of girl you want so much it
makes you sorry. Still you don't regret a single day.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Ah, girl. Girl, girl.

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) When I think of all the times I tried so hard to leave
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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