With Our Cartoon President, co-creator R.J. Fried tried to do something that had never been done before, producing topical animation that could keep up with the relentless chaos and daily headlines surrounding the Trump administration.
Based on a popular recurring segment from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Showtime’s satirical animated series was conceived as a workplace comedy, where the workplace in question happened to be the White House—a heightened character study of Trump, his family, confidants, flunkies and more. Following conversations between Colbert, Late Show showrunner Chris Licht, producer Matt Lappin, and animator Tim Luecke, late-night veteran Fried was brought in to showrun, at the recommendation of Robert Smigel.
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For both Colbert and Fried, it was important to approach the show with one idea in mind. “The thing that Stephen always said is that Donald Trump, for all the horrible things he’s doing, is the hero of his own journey. He thinks he’s the good guy, so with this cartoon, a note I gave a lot is, ‘No, Trump thinks he’s the hero here, and he’s going to act like the hero,’” the showrunner explains. “We try to keep it so that he takes pleasure in what he’s doing, and trust the audience understands that we’re being satirical about it.”
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Striving to see “the real world refracted in this cartoon world,” Fried knew that Our Cartoon President couldn’t be approached like any other animated series on the air. One facet of this was the ability to respond to current events in real time, and change tack with certain episodes days before going on the air if necessary, in order to remain relevant. “I credit Robert Smigel for teaching me that. You have to trust that you have the ability to adjust and create something funny in the moment. You can’t just continue to look at your plan and try to box reality into it,” Fried says. “You just have to be ready to throw it all out and think of a new idea, because the audience isn’t going to know how much preparation came into it. And to be honest, if it feels spontaneous, they’ll enjoy it more.”
With a handle on joke writing, what Fried needed most with Our Cartoon President was a different kind of approach to animation—a pipeline that could accommodate the most unpredictable of times, in the American political climate.
Early on with Our Cartoon President, what was the focus, in terms of the approach you would take with the show?
The big thing was that we wanted this show to be topical animation that looks like traditional animation. South Park has their style; they’re extremely good at it. We all idolize that show. But we were trying to do something that no one had done before, and we had to create our own kind of pipeline to make that happen. We start writing our scripts probably about three months before they air, and we keep modifying them right up until airtime. For example, right now as we speak, they’re animating the cold open for the show that’s airing this weekend. We just recorded that yesterday, they’re animating it right now, I’ll see it tonight and it’ll be on YouTube tomorrow morning, so that’s how quickly we’ve gotten this down. So, that was a big part of it.
We also wanted this to be a sharp satire that recognized and mirrored the Colbert brand of hard satire. Obviously, The Late Show’s had a lot of success with the way they’ve approached this administration, really just speaking truth to power, so we wanted to honor that.
Can you further describe that pipeline—the way in which you’re able to put a show together as quickly as you described?
I came from a late-night background, writing for The Late Show with David Letterman, and Maya & Marty, and these places of quick turnarounds, and it comes down to writing really quick. We only have about three days to write our first draft, and we don’t have time to second-guess what we’re doing. We have a kind of traditional animation pipeline. It’s just kind of crunched together really tight—I think tighter than anything out there where it’s storyboard animatics, and then animation.
The thing that we can do quicker, once it’s in animation, [is] our characters. Because it’s through this program called Adobe Character Animator, where they’re more like puppets than traditional drawn animation, we can change the lip sync and some of the puppetry right up until delivery. That flexibility, I think, allows us to do something that other animated shows can’t do.
Have you tended to arc out major plot points for each season, adjusting episodes based on what’s happening in Washington, moment by moment?
Yeah. We try to pick plot lines that will stick for a few months. For example, there’s an episode coming up that’s all about the President’s mental fitness, which is something we’ve wanted to tackle for a while. It culminates with him competing in this game show he put together, called The Big Brain Showdown, which is designed to show America how big and smart his brain is. But that is a trait of Donald Trump that is not going away. It’s something that is always going to be an underbelly of every news story that’s out there about him.
Actually, Trump Tower Moscow is one we thought of back in January, and then that story just came roaring back the week of that show, with Don Jr. being called before Congress to testify about lying about a Trump Tower Moscow project—which is an ongoing story. So, I think we’ve gotten really lucky, in terms of these episodes being really relevant to the headlines, and I think that’s in part by focusing more on the character traits, as these things just continue to pile up.
Do you find topical comedy particularly challenging to tackle today? It must take a lot of thought to come up with a new perspective, at a time when political commentary is ubiquitous, and political tumult is ongoing.
Absolutely. But because it’s animation, we get to take things very far—a lot further than a live-action show can take satire. In the same way that South Park has with so much of what they do, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog gets away with so much because he’s a puppet, and we get to do a lot because it’s animated. For whatever reason, some of the harder, darker jokes are easier to swallow in that format.
We’re also doing this narrative style where we’re more focused on the character of the administration and the family, trying to tell stories that say something about the way these people are operating. I think the biggest change from Season 1 to Season 2 is, we really expanded out the world, and branched out to a satire of all of Washington.
So, it’s not just the administration. The Democratic candidates are now part of the show; Supreme Court Justices, and we even have tech billionaires. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. The episode airing this weekend is going to have MyPillow guy Mike Lindell as a big part of the show. The Trump administration has this way of vacuuming up all these different celebrities and bringing them into his world, and so the show has reflected that.
What are the most important qualities you’ve pursued in your satire, on Our Cartoon President and beyond?
The biggest thing is to make sure you’re being very precise about your comedy; I think I speak for myself and all the writers here. We grew up on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Robert Smigel, these people who are very sharp satirists. So, having jokes that have a point of view and are not just kind of silly is really important to us. I think there’s room for silliness; we all love Conan O’Brien, and that’s another element I’ve grown up with. But it’s a serious time out there, [with] serious issues. We want to make sure the comedy rises to that, and bring a level of thoughtfulness and precision, and make sure we’re saying the right things about what’s going on in the world.
Was the look of Our Cartoon President inspired by any other series, apart from the Late Show segments that preceded it?
We all like The Simpsons/Family Guy kind of visual, which almost looks more like a theater. Basically, the show is joke after joke, and if you’re going to ask the audience to process that many jokes, you have to keep the visuals pretty straightforward. So, we don’t cut around too much; we just want the jokes and dialogue to speak for itself, in the same way a play would.
You’ve lent your voice to a number of characters on the show, including Vladimir Putin. What have you enjoyed about that?
Oh, man. Well, that’s part of the whole story of this show. Because the turnaround is so quick, we do try to hire writer/performers, because we might need to change something within hours. It’s great that our recording booth is right here in the Ed Sullivan Theater, so we can just pop down and put it in, and animate two or three more. Last week, we did three minutes of animation in one day, so to have people in the building who are doing that is great.
We have some awesome performers. Because the world has expanded so much this year, we have Tim Robinson playing Judge Kavanaugh. He’s amazing, and James Adomian is amazing; we have Ziwe Fumudoh, Jack McBrayer. So, we have this great stable of young, up-and-coming comedians. We can’t have anyone who’s too unavailable because the show moves so fast, but we’re so excited about the people we have.
The show features a number of original songs. How have those come together?
I don’t know if that would’ve happened if not for Gabriel Gundacker. I met him on a pilot last year. I watched his reel for like 30 seconds; his manager pitched him and was like, “This guy’s going to be famous,” and I immediately called UTA and said, “You have to sign this guy, because I’m telling you, he’s going to make you a lot of money one day.” So, yeah. Thank God they did. He was originally a Vine star, and he creates these absolutely hilarious videos; I don’t know how to describe them. He’s just a great, sophisticated comedic performer.
So, we took packets, his bubbled to the top. He auditioned for a couple characters with the other hundreds of people, and it turned out that he got Don Jr. and Brian Kilmeade, and a couple more. We’ll have an area that we want to do a song in, and he’ll go off for one or two hours and come back with this brilliant song. The one I’m so excited for people to hear about is in Episode 9 of this season, [which] is called “Save the Right,” this episode where the conservatives have this major victim complex. They’ve been oppressed by Facebook and Twitter and the liberal media, and they have a civil rights movement, so it’s all done in the style of a Milk, or a Selma. It’s all about them no longer being made fun of—their big movement—and he wrote this song called “Save the Right” that is just really wonderful. We’re even talking about a soundtrack this year, but that’s all Gabe. He’s just brilliant at it.
In Season 1, you crafted a special timed to November’s midterm elections. What was the approach there?
The big thing we wanted to do was rise to the level of the word “special,” and make it something a little different, so we went more with this epic, action-y tone. I think it’s probably a little more stylized than we’ve been with this season. You’re always looking for your poster image, and for us, that was robot Hillary [Clinton]. But that was such a fun thing to do. I think that’s also a great marker, in that as Season 1 was starting to continue, the administration was getting darker and darker, whether it was Charlottesville or [what have you]. So, I kind of mark that as an inflection point for this show. We felt like we just had to make the satire sharper, toothier, to rise to the level of what was going on in Washington.
By mid-July, Season 2 will have aired in its entirety. Where are you with it now?
We have Episode 3 coming out on Sunday, but there’s been weeks we have all 10 episodes in production. It’s a very intense environment, we’ll be going through the middle of July, and then we’ll see what happens from there. But obviously, we would love to keep making this show.
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