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Insult Comic Dog’s handler to show his kind side in Chicago

Robert Smigel with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. | Getty Images

Just because Robert Smigel is accepting an award from a charity in Chicago, don’t get the impression that he’s some sort of humanitarian.

He is, actually, but that’s not how he’d like to be known.

“I prefer people to just think of me,” he says, “as a smartass who makes fun of people with a dog puppet.”

Among his many other achievements in comedy, Smigel is the voice and the puppeteer of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the caustic hound who has been hassling celebrities, politicians and “Star Wars” fans for almost 20 years. He also helped launch “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” invented the Superfans who love Da Bears and made the “TV Funhouse” cartoons on “Saturday Night Live.”

But the award he and wife Michelle will accept Saturday from the suburban resource center Have Dreams (at a benefit emceed by the Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper) is for another pursuit: making life better for the autistic.

Night of Dreams 20th Anniversary Gala
6:30 p.m. Saturday
Radisson Blu Aqua, 221 N. Columbus
Tickets: $250
havedreams.org/events

As the parents of an autistic son, Daniel, now 18, the Smigels have been active in the cause — Michelle searching the country for successful programs to fund through New York Collaborates for Autism, Robert recruiting his famous friends for the biennial Night of Too Many Stars.

That’s the funny-fueled fundraiser where auction winners from the audience get to rob a liquor store with John Oliver, use a urinal alongside Seth Rogen or spit chewed-up chicken into the mouth of Paul Rudd.

It’s also where a young autistic Katy Perry fan named Jodi got to sing her own rendition of “Firework” — accompanied by the pop star herself — in a segment viewed more than 9 million times on YouTube.

That moment was especially rewarding for Smigel, because Jodi’s smiles helped dispel the misconception that the autistic lack feelings. “To see her face light up from the cheers,” he says, “it just meant so much to me that we were able to show that.”

Though they live in New Jersey, the Smigels make frequent visits to Chicago, where Robert spent three years studying and performing sketch and improv in the ’80s. “Best years of my life,” he says.

It was during a return trip in 1988 that the Superfans were born, as part of “Happy Happy Good Show,” a revue put on at Victory Gardens by striking “SNL” writers including Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien.

The characters have proven as durable as Ditka, boozing their way through “SNL” sketches, appearances with the Bulls and, in 2013, a State Farm ad campaign. Lately Smigel has been ruminating about whether Chicago would support a Superfans-themed restaurant, completely with “toxically fattening food” and silly, phony sports memorabilia — say, a wad of gum supposedly spat at a fan by Ditka.

Also living well beyond dog years is Triumph, who most recently pestered political types in Iowa and New Hampshire for an election special now available on Hulu.

Over the decades Smigel has worn out at least a dozen Triumph puppet heads, and his puppet team has been experimenting with molds in the hope of turning out a consistent supply.

“The bodies are easier,” he says. “Basically what they do is they take a Rottweiler plush doll and cut its head off, pull the stuffing out and up the a– goes my hand. We strap a gold bowtie on it, and I’m ready to hurt people’s feelings.”

The dog’s “Jack and Triumph” sitcom last year on Adult Swim didn’t last long, but Smigel still hopes Triumph can star in a series, perhaps one more in his comfort zone with the customary foul-mouthed interviews in the field.

Until that gig arrives, Triumph sits ignominiously in a Duane Read bag, available as a plaything for Smigel’s younger kids.

“They’re not allowed to WATCH Triumph,” he says, “but they’re allowed to play with him.”