Orson Welles said a movie studio was the greatest set of toy trains a boy could ever have. Much later, David Letterman epitomized that same gleeful philosophy, but his toy-train set was an NBC television studio. Now, at CBS, Letterman still drops pumpkins off rooftops and sends camera crews out on ridiculous romps, but the new king of naughty boys is Conan O'Brien, proprietor of Letterman's old Late Night show and the tallest, funniest, most sickly looking wit on television.
O'Brien had a rocky start as Letterman's successor. He was met with hoots, boos, catcalls, brickbats, rotten tomatoes, and day-old Danishes. Critics petitioned the State Department for his immediate deportation. Actually, some of that stuff never happened. But we're trying to make it more dramatic.
His early failure makes it all the more flabbergasting that O'Brien held his ground -- Letterman's old studio in Rockefeller Center -- and not only survived but looks as though he'll live long and prosper. Hence the Late Night with Conan O'Brien Tenth Anniversary Special, a fat and splashy 90-minute extravaganza which aired late last year and is now available on DVD.
Near it on video store shelves is another commemorative DVD starring one of the most memorable characters to be introduced on Conan's show -- more memorable even than Vomiting Kermit (yes, the frog, but in a state of constant spew); Little Jay Leno, a pint-sized version of the comic whose Tonight Show precedes Conan's hour; and even the infamous, inimitable, inexcusable Masturbating Bear, one of the show's more dubious yet irresistible inspirations.
Just as vulgar in various nefarious ways is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a show-biz monster dreamed up by the brilliant Robert Smigel, who also created such modern-day myths as the Ambiguously Gay Duo, a pair of cartoon do-gooders who rescue good guys while bad guys try to figure out if the heroes are homosexual lovers or Just Good Friends. Villains stare confounded at the team's suggestive behavior and end up in the clutches of the law, which they seem to find preferable to the clutches of the duo.
Unfortunately, the Ambiguously Gay Duo does not appear on either of these DVDs. Perhaps they'll get their own one day. But what is there is choice, from the rowdy and surrealist Late Night to the scandalous antics of Triumph, who twice visits the Westminster Dog Show mainly for the purpose of sniffing other dogs and sizing up the female entrants.
His vulgarity is impeccable and unrelenting; the shamelessness of it part of its hilarity. Smigel works the hand puppet, does the voice (in an unidentifiable East European accent), and comes up with many audacious ad-libs. Most of Triumph's material is written by the brilliant Late Night writers.
Triumph's visits to the dog show are in the best spirit of guerrilla journalism. Jeff Ross, who executive-produces Conan's show with Lorne Michaels, says that footage of Triumph being thrown out of the Westminster event -- not once but twice -- is absolutely authentic. Stuffy officials from the show commit the unforgivable sin: They cover the camera with their hands or big note cards. The shame of it! Surely the First Amendment applies to dogs too, as long as the dogs can talk.
Triumph can talk and talk and talk, especially to the "bitches" competing at the dog show. Triumph's lechery is a more explicit version of Harpo Marx's and his readiness with sarcastic remarks and obscenities parodies, sort of, the illustrious and indefatigable giant Don Rickles. And yet when Rickles meets Triumph in a guest appearance on Late Night, Rickles acts utterly baffled by his wacky acolyte. It's a generational gap, not a conflict of species.
Which of the two DVDs is funnier? Since Triumph appears on both, he can be happy with either answer. Even though O'Brien's show includes appearances by Will Ferrell, former Conan sidekick Andy Richter, and a heckling Ben Stiller, Triumph triumphs with crude humor that's funny over and over. His favorite joke is repeated mercilessly: "That's a great show -- for me to poop on." Pooping and having sex are his two reasons for living, and in that, he resembles not only millions of dogs but millions of men as well.
Triumph is at his most vicious at the premiere of a Star Wars sequel, dismissing those waiting in line as pathetic nerds and lonely losers. To one young man in costume he asks, "Have you ever talked to a woman without having to give your credit card number?" Triumph combines old-time show business with new-time candor. If he continues on his current path, he will eventually satirize everything and easily live up to his name. •