Late Night Last Century: When Triumph Met Don Rickles

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Late Night Last Century: When Triumph Met Don Rickles

Late night talk shows still exist, but their heyday was last century, when millions of viewers would stay up late to watch Johnny Carson, and, later, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien. Celebrity interviews might have been their main draw, but their legacy is in the comedy they produced, from Carson’s iconic characters, to groundbreaking bits by Letterman and O’Brien. These shows are long past, but fortunately many of their segments can be watched today online. Late Night Last Century is a new weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable late night comedy of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week we look at a storied facedown on Late Night with Conan O’Brien between two legendary insult comics: Don Rickles and Triumph the Insult Comic Down. 

Don Rickles often deflected when referred to as an “insult comic.” Famously nicknamed “Mr. Warmth” by Johnny Carson, Rickles preferred to describe his act as a form of exaggeration, one aimed at making fun of life and people. Many comics have tried unsuccessfully to emulate Rickles’ unique form of sarcasm, not able to bring to the act that singular warmth underpinning even the most abrasive barbs. 

Perhaps this is why the most successful Rickles disciple is not a human, but a dog. Or, more specifically, a cheap puppet of a dog. When Robert Smigel, then the head writer for NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien discovered the puppet that would become Triumph while browsing a furniture store with his wife, he was on a mission to differentiate the show from its predecessor, Late Night with David Letterman. Smigel, as he tells it, admired Letterman’s bits mocking the Westminster Dog Show. But their mantra on Conan’s program was to be totally new. Enter: Triumph, whose skill is not an elegant gait, but insult comedy. 

Triumph first appeared on Conan’s show in February 13, 1997. Introduced by Conan as one of the dogs from Westminster, Triumph’s first joke included what would become his signature punchline: “The Conan O’Brien show. It’s a great show … for me to poop on!” Though that first, less-than-two-minute appearance features only a few basic jokes, an iconic late night character, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, was born.

Fast forward to August 18, 1998. Triumph, who by this point had developed a penchant for smoking cigars, got a chance to meet and perform for his hero, Don Rickles. With Mr. Warmth to Conan’s right, Triumph comes out unaware that Rickles will be seated before him. At first nervous, Triumph delivers a performance worthy of the man he says paved the way for comics like himself. “I mean, this is the man,” Triumph says, before a pause, “for me to take a big fat poop on!” He continues: “Look at this guy over here, I’ve got chew toys that have aged better than you.” 

But then Triumph, in the presence of greatness, grows humble. How could he trash “the king”? The bit takes a touching turn, with Triumph insisting that Rickles, in fact, take a poop on him. It is a genius inversion that doubles as a tribute for the man himself. What could be more warm than that?

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