'Jack & Triumph Show' a twistedly sweet tale of a boy, his dog

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Adult Swim's 'Jack & Triumph Show' is at its comic best when at its most raggediest @latimes

Jack McBrayer, who was Kenneth the Page on "30 Rock," and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, an insult comic dog on successive Conan O'Brien shows, have teamed up for a new series. It's called "The Jack & Triumph Show" and premieres Friday on Adult Swim.

The human gets first billing. The dog, as you may know, is a puppet.

McBrayer plays Jack, a former child actor who co-starred with Triumph in a "Lassie"-like TV show and has since fallen on hard times (drugs, prostitution, hanging around with Joey Fatone), and partly under the bad influence of his canine sidekick. Now he's on the straight and narrow, living with his old TV mother, June (June Squibb, Oscar-nominated for "Nebraska"). As we open, Triumph, missing in action for 15 years, returns to the fold.

Robert Smigel, formerly a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," is the person behind or just underneath Triumph, his voice and operator and brain. You will sometimes see a bit of him come into view; this is not puppetry that seeks to amaze, unless by amazing you mean, for example, when Triumph's arm, longer than a selfie stick, falls off. Or amazing by its effrontery — it does that, for sure.

That Triumph is an insult comic dog means that the show will, indeed, have a certain impolite tone, in no way mitigated and perhaps even exacerbated by the fact that it is on the later-to-late-night fringe festival known as Adult Swim, whose stock in trade is the anxious laugh. There are bad words, sex jokes, nasty similes and put-downs whose matter may be reduced to "You're ugly," "You're old" and "You have no career."

The show is constructed partly as an old-style sitcom — I think it may be the first Adult Swim series shot (partially) before a live audience. It's "Alf," I guess, with gloves off.

Given the venue, the applause and laughter play at once as ironic and sincere. It is an attack on the form, in the shape of the form.

Smigel's co-creators are writer-comic Dave Feldman (Dennis Miller, Bill Maher, sundry Comedy Central roasts) and Michael Koman, co-creator of the Adult Swim's "Eagleheart" and Comedy Central's "Nathan for You," and other shows that play tricks with TV forms, leaving them crumpled in the gutter, gasping for breath.

Basically a sketch stretched about to the point of breaking, "Jack & Triumph" works best at its most raggedy — when the seams show and you glimpse the party behind the production. It's at its funniest when it moves out of the studio and into the world, where Triumph does his rude-dog-on-the-street act, like a canine Billy Eichner channeling what is not yet the ghost of Don Rickles.

There is something actually audacious about these bits but also genuinely fun; you're let in on the game. ("I keed," as Triumph would say.) And there is a core of sweetness to the show. The dog cares about the boy, and the boy cares about the dog.

"Jack and I are like Chris Christie's legs in a coach seat," Triumph tells June, who finds the dog's presence disruptive. "We can't be separated."

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