“Look, it’s a dog!” *STUDIO AUDIENCE ERUPTS IN HOOTING, HOLLERING, AND APPLAUSE*
There’s kind of a marvelous backstory behind The Jack and Triumph Show.
Robert Smigel’s character of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog harks back all the way into the ‘90s on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (and even Conan main-stay Michael Koman, also of the brilliant Eagleheart and Nathan For You, is appropriately also one of the creators here). The character is treated like a celebrity, and he’s as famous as his co-star, Jack McBrayer. Whether you were a fan of Triumph or not, you were at least likely aware of him, with the character popping up in a plethora of places in pop culture, like the MTV Video Movie Awards, Funny or Die, and even Hollywood Squares.
In this show’s universe, “Triumph’s Boy” (“Oh, that was a TV show that we were all in”) was an ‘80s and ‘90s sitcom, that was very much like Lassie (although don’t bring that up to Jack). It started the careers of burgeoning child stars, both Jack and Triumph, as well as, June Gregory (June Squibb), who they now also live with, becoming this de facto family in the process.
“Triumph’s Boy” ran for eleven seasons until getting canceled, which was the catalyst in Triumph turning into the ornery character that we now know. He began to be a bad influence on Jack, introducing him to people like Joey Fatone, doing drugs, screwing transvestites, and generally prostituting himself. Y’know, becoming the Jack McBrayer that we all know today. This negativity caused June to eliminate Triumph from the picture, and this episode chronicles his momentous return back home, fifteen years later, and what it means for everyone.
What also makes all of this work so well is that this isn’t simply Triumph doing his regular rude improvisational shtick on the street with McBrayer backing him up. There are already things like Billy On the Street now pleasantly filling that niche. What’s done here is the much smarter decision to put Triumph into an entirely different world—that of a multi-cam, live audience studio sitcom—and the results are a lot better than you’d imagine. The gamble pays off.
However, what is done to respect the original spirit of Triumph is also a very creative, effective tactic on Smigel and Co’s part. What they’ve done here, and Smigel himself really explains it best, is:
In the first season we goof around with the conventions of the multicam format, like mixing in real people and sometimes throwing in lines other actors aren’t expecting. There’s probably going to be a learning curve for the audience too, not just us, getting used to seeing Triumph in this format…
You can see this idea being played with in this first episode, with them poking fun at a certain audience member’s neck beard, and other obvious visual stuff of that nature.
This is all very sitcom-y, but in the best possible way. The audience is loving it all, the cast feeds off the energy, and the jokes are smart in a way that a self-aware studio sitcom should be. The comfortable, loose feel of it works in its favor. Hearing Jack or Triumph nearly crack up through lines, and putting on more of an unpolished performance, fits like a glove here. There are even ridiculous, appropriate celebrity cameos to pander to the audience, like Michael Winslow (“From Police Academy 1–7!”) who is doing his trademark sound effects here more than he isn’t. This is how to do a show like this, and it proves that something like this can actually be done well. I’m looking at you, Mulaney.
In keeping with the chemistry and make-up of classic sitcoms, the cast assembled here really has the perfect dichotomy of personalities going on, too. McBrayer’s “aw shucks” naivety works perfectly against Triumph’s unrelenting id. Throw in an elderly lady to mix things up, and how can you really go wrong? In fact, some of the best scenes in this episode are between June and Triumph, with the animosity between them over what she did to him making for some wonderful arguing. They have a great energy. If anyone’s getting the short end of the stick here, it’s McBrayer.
For the purists out there, there is some man (and dog)-on-the-street stuff that’s worked organically into the plot, but it’s honestly probably the weakest material in the episode (that’s not to say that it’s bad, because it’s not). It feels like the show trying a little too hard and acting out of fear that people won’t take to their new concept. It’s a proven, solid bit though, so I understand the temptation. We’ll see if it’s eventually weaned out as the show goes on.
Most importantly, beyond the format, casting, and concept, this show is also just straight up very funny. It fits the sitcom mold and leans in those silly directions, but it is deeply well written and hits for the fences with its jokes. Nothing seems to be off limits, and almost every other line is quotable stuff.
This first episode spends a lot of time getting the gang back together and re-establishing the status quo, but once everything is back in swing, there’s time for a little bit of plot to go down. Like Triumph and Jack needing to meet ransom demands to save their robbed home. There is stuff to be re-acquired!
All of this amounts to a very promising start for The Jack and Triumph Show that’s a lot of fun and at least feels different from the bulk of Adult Swim’s current slate. Like Smigel himself said, there’s a bit of a learning curve to all of this, but with the first episode already establishing a base of this quality, things can only get better.