The Watchman: The Arc of Triumph, Critics Pick Program Pantheon

A special TV milestone arrives next year, when Triumph the Insult Comic Dog marks 20 years in the business. The wisecracking puppet got his start on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1997, and stars in Triumph’s Summer Election Special on Hulu Aug. 11.

The cigar-chomping canine gets away with things that Robert Smigel, who voices him, never could. “I wouldn’t have the balls to do an eighth of what I do without a puppet on my hand,” says Smigel. 

Triumph was born out of a Manhattan furniture store called Mabel’s, which had a bunch of animal puppets for sale. Triumph got his first laugh when Smigel slipped the dog puppet onto his hand and sniffed his wife Michelle’s derriere. 

“She found that funny,” says Smigel, “because she’s the perfect woman.” 

She is, indeed. On his birthday that year, Michelle gave her husband Triumph. “It’s the one thing in my career that has consistently gotten the biggest laughs,” says Smigel. 

Around the time Triumph made his TV debut, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz were toiling in the Newark Star-Ledger newsroom. Two decades later, the ace TV critics are coauthors of TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time. “We said, ‘Why don’t we turn those arguments we always had about TV into something you can hold in your hand, something you can keep on your bookshelf?” says Zoller Seitz. 

TV (The Book) ranks the top 100 series, based on a scoring system the authors devised. (The top 10 includes The Simpsons, The Wire and Cheers.) 

The book is full of fun repartee, sharp critique and valentines to shows you may have forgotten about, such as the late ‘80s comedy Frank’s Place

It’s intended to be leafed through more than perused start to finish. “We hope people would read the debate about the No. 1 show, then thumb through to see what we said about Parks & Recreation,” says Sepinwall. 

Zoller Seitz says Sepinwall used “21st century” spreadsheets to keep track of the shows, while he kept things low-tech. “I had all these 3x5 cards taped to my wall,” he says. “I looked like Carrie Mathison in Homeland.” 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.