There's trouble in the world of funny dog puppets.
In a case far more suited to an off-color TV comedy show than a San Francisco courtroom, Triumph and Sock Puppet are snarling at each other. The happy hands inside them seem to be clenched into fists.
Pets.com, the Internet store that invented Sock Puppet to star in its TV commercials, is suing writer-comedian Robert Smigel, whose Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is a recurring character on NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
The 15-page complaint demands unspecified damages for defamation and trade libel and is filled with legalisms such as "trademark dilution," "tortious interference" and "unsavory mental association."
If the lawyers would allow it, Sock Puppet and Triumph undoubtedly would have some riotous commentary about all this, much of it unsuitable for a family newspaper.
But an NBC spokesman says nobody on its side will comment, except to confirm that the lawsuit is real. Pets.com, which is based in San Francisco, wouldn't provide a human response but did release a short written statement.
"We are taking normal steps to obtain a ruling from the court that protects our intellectual property," the company intones.
To better understand this doggie duel - or to better scratch our heads at the absurdity of it all - let's meet the combatants:
Triumph, a rubbery black-and-brown mongrel who usually is chomping a cigar, debuted on Late Night three years ago and became a cult figure among fans of the show.
He speaks in a throaty, vaguely Teutonic growl - "It's called a dog accent, moron," he recently told the online magazine Shecky! "That's how all dogs talk! And he's never met a vulgar phrase or gesture he didn't like.
He has appeared in many skits and taped segments in which he viciously insults Mr. O'Brien and his sidekick, Andy Richter, as well as guests ranging from comedian Don Rickles to musician John Tesh. His startlingly crude material is usually filled with sexual innuendo that wouldn't make it on the air earlier in the evening.
Triumph's trademark tagline, ". . . for me to poop on," is his usual ironic comment about everything, as in, "This is a great story . . . for me to poop on!"
The not-so-hidden hand behind Triumph belongs to Robert Smigel, whose comedy credits also include cartoons on Saturday Night Live and most of the Late Night satirical segments in which President Clinton, Bob Dole and other political figures appear to talk on a TV screen.
For the last two years, Triumph has crashed the hoity-toity Westminster Dog Show in New York and taped outrageously offensive commentary as he behaves lewdly with real animals. For the last two years, he also has been ejected by Westminster's security guards. Maybe you have to be there, but a certain segment of our society finds this utterly hilarious.
Sock Puppet, on the other hand, is cute and sassy, but far less offensive, as you'd expect an advertising pitchman to be. He debuted last summer on Pets.com commercials, talking to real pets, riding along with delivery drivers and barking the praises of not having to go to the pet store yourself.
"He grew out of the relationship between pets and pet owners," company spokeswoman Melissa Menta told the New York Daily News last month. "We wanted to convey to pet owners how pets feel, so he's the voice of pets, an advocate of pets."
The company's efforts to make him a celebrity have landed the scruffy black-and-white puppet in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and on lots of Pets.com merchandise.
He's also made a lot of TV appearances, most notably on Good Morning America, where he frolicked with host Diane Sawyer and proclaimed his undying puppy love. He followed that up with a gig for the ABC show as a wisecracking reporter at this year's post-Oscar parties in Hollywood.
Amid all the chuckles, ABC failed to point out that its parent company, Disney, has invested in Pets.com. Critics griped that the network shouldn't be promoting its own corporate partners without telling viewers about the relationship.
Although the dogs seemed to have marked their own territory in TV land, fur started flying when Mr. Smigel and Late Night head writer Jonathan Groff suggested that Sock Puppet might be a ripoff of Triumph.
"I wasn't that up in arms, because my parents think that everything on TV is stolen from me," Mr. Smigel told the Daily News.
But he also sent a letter to Pets.com, which neither side will release. Pets.com responded April 12 by sending the law firm of Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May down to the courthouse.
"We filed a lawsuit against Robert Smigel after we received a threatening legal letter from his attorney," says the Pets.com statement. "We were surprised when we received the letter because our Sock Puppet clearly has no relation to Triumph."
Although Pets.com has used Sock Puppet to cultivate a hip, light-hearted image, the company doesn't see any humor in the situation. Ms. Menta says nobody will answer the obvious questions raised by a Sock Puppet vs. Triumph case:
* Just who would serve on a jury of their peers?
* Isn't it a shame that the late Learned Hand, widely regarded as the greatest judge of the 20th century who didn't make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, can't decide this case?
*Would Sock Puppet use his winnings to replace his eyes with buttons that match?
Likewise, Triumph appears to be listening to the advice of his legal beagles. No Late Night characters of any species have mentioned the lawsuit on the show and Triumph remains uncharacteristically silent, which must be truly insulting.
"You may have to wait a while," says an NBC official, who can't even allow his name to be used for a no-comment, aching at the comic possibilities left unexploited. "Believe me, I'm biting my lip as we speak."