MANCHESTER, Tenn. (AP) — Robert Smigel is riding around Bonnaroo, looking for targets. To the 49-year-old comedian behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the hordes at this Tennessee music festival and the 100-plus bands performing here are ripe for parody.
Smigel has come to Bonnaroo to perform as his most famous character, Triumph, the dog puppet with a Borscht Belt schtick that has won over countless fans since first appearing on Conan O'Brien's "Late Night."
Smigel performed four sets as Triumph at Bonnaroo, which annually hosts a comedy tent along with its smorgasbord of music acts, spread out over five main stages on a farm in rural Tennessee.
"My live act is a huge undertaking because Triumph kind of thrives on the immediate, discussing what everybody's thinking about," said Smigel while whisking past festival-goers in a golf cart, puppet on hand.
He also appeared, in character, at a backstage press conference, where Triumph sat on a folding chair with Smigel operating him, shrouded behind a black cloth. He offered pithy observations about the festival like: "They've got more stages than syphilis." About one Bonnaroo act, the now middle-aged Beastie Boys, he said: "They're a little more like the Pep Boys logo."
More serious musicians sharing the press conference stage with Smigel and Triumph — Elvis Perkins, Tift Merritt and Alejandro Escovedo — had to take their licks. When the moderator suggested they weren't accustomed to sharing a panel with a dog, Triumph protested that that was no way to talk about (the very attractive) Merritt.
With a small production crew in tow, Smigel planned to shoot a remote report for O'Brien's "Tonight Show" — which would be Triumph's first report since O'Brien took over from Jay Leno.
And Phish fans at Bonnaroo (where the band was playing two headlining sets) make for nearly as good material as the similarly devoted "Star Wars" fans Triumph memorably skewered in a sketch.
"It's an enormous place," said Smigel. "There's pretty much something you can laugh at anywhere you look."
Curiously, there's much of the NBC late-night talent at Bonnaroo. Jimmy Fallon, who took over for O'Brien on "Late Night," performed Saturday. O'Brien's bandleader, Max Weinberg, was also flying in to play drums with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Smigel and Triumph even made a cameo during Springsteen's performance. During two of Springsteen's many forays into the crowd, he gave the mic to Smigel and his puppet to sing a lyric.
It's all a very bizarre outcome for a character hatched in 1997 with no ambitions. Triumph has become a big part of Smigel's life, which has included making the "TV Funhouse" cartoons for "Saturday Night Live," working as head writer for Conan' "Late Night," and co-writing the script for the 2008 Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."
"I didn't conceive of it as a thing that would take over a chunk of my life for 13 years," said Smigel. "Over time, we realized it provided a cathartic relief."
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