Our Cartoon President and the Struggle to Make Fun of Trump in 2019

Comedy Features Our Cartoon President
Our Cartoon President and the Struggle to Make Fun of Trump in 2019

You may not have caught the first season of Our Cartoon President, but in many ways you did. Starting as a recurring segment on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, and later getting its own half hour series, the animated hijinks of the Trump White House are re-created in only slightly more ridiculous terms. Each episode allows the cartoonish nature of a democracy in ruins to take on matching visuals of a cartoon world, and a team of comedians provides the voices to the worst parts of these United States.

Even without having seen an episode, you’ll know exactly where to start here. Our Cartoon President may have episodes that spiral into worldwide destruction or gigantic robots, but each episode is also heavily grounded in the true stories and reported palace intrigue of this political clown car. The show always feels like it could dip into pandering for the sake of pandering, because we certainly have enough #Resistance programming going around, but the voice and pace keeps Our Cartoon President from lowering to that point. It knows what it wants to be and the talent on every level helps it to land some of the best skewers this side of late night.

The second season shifts focus from simply dunking on the Trumps to satirizing the entirety of Washington, and the show is all the better for it. The first few episodes of the season introduce us to establishment Democrats that are more afraid of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than the Republicans are, a Sheldon Adelson that seems crafted from Lovecraftian nightmares, and a Susan Collins whose inability to even commit to finishing a sentence had me howling with laughter.

Ahead of the second season premiere, which is Sunday May 12 on Showtime, we sat down with co-creator and executive producer R.J. Fried to talk about how heightening the un-heightenable, how to fix jokes in an episode hours before going live, and how to get the perfect Brett Kavanaugh performance out of Tim Robinson.

Paste: What does the writer’s room consider to be the mission of your show?

R.J. Fried: Well, I don’t know if I would call it a “mission” necessarily, but I would say we want to bring some catharsis to what is a really tough time for people in this country who are not necessarily the biggest fans of the president. We want to go in the tradition of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s those kinds of comedy that expose the truth of what’s going on out there. That’s hopefully what we’re trying to do. It’s a tough time, and I hope our show has this way of being a very effective weapon of being able to make people laugh, but also beneath it, say what’s going on. The comedy of this show only really works if people see the Trump in the real world reflected and satirized in the cartoon. So we worked really hard this season to make sure that we are really as edgy as we need to be. I would say that satirizing this presidency in that way works. It deserves it more than anything.

Paste: I’ve talked to friends and they’ve realized an issue around the election, that they’ve been heightening things or saying, “This is the worst possible thing” about stuff that was not actually the worst possible thing. So when Trump came along, there was no 11 to dial that amp to. How do you satirize this sort of never-ending shitstorm but still keep things within an appropriate range for how awful they are, I suppose?

Fried: Yeah, it’s a tough thing. Luckily, I don’t know if there’s any forum more equipped to handle the heightening of this administration than animation. We can do things that live action can’t do. We can take things further; South Park is able to say so much and do so much because there’s just something about animation. We feel just very happy that we have an unlimited supply with that. Also, our animation technology is such that it can also generate stories that swap out jokes right up until air time. So we can actually keep making adjustments as we go and satirize the news as it happens. For example, this Mueller report has been a moving target for the last few weeks; when Barr first came out and said that there were going to be no charges of obstruction, we had to change the script. Now we’re watching these hearings today and realizing that they are doing obstruction of justice, as well. So we’re always making adjustments. The episodes you saw could be different come air time.

Paste: My wife and I are both journalists and for the last couple of years, there’s been no escape. There’s no quarter anywhere from being constantly involved in this, because you have to. If you take a weekend off, you come back and suddenly you don’t understand why we’re at war with a country or why children are in cages. I know that you’re making a comedy show, but do you pine for the moment when you don’t have to be this involved? Does it still take a toll on you to have to carry this much and never be able to check out? Or is this who you would be anyway?

Fried: I mean, you have to care, things are tough out there. As a group of comedians, we have our shows and voice actors; we all care about the issues. This is the best way we know how to express that and to try to bring some catharsis to what’s happening. So yes, of course, we would trade the show in a second to not have Donald Trump not be President of the United States. For a lot of people, there is no escape. So to just say, “Oh, I’m just getting tired of this” I think would be not honoring the pain that a lot of people are going through.

Paste: I’m sure that you must get—more so than me or other stand-up comedians get—the sort of “Well, aren’t you thankful that Trump is president? He’s so good for comedy.” In my stand-up, I get to say, “No, my stuff is more personal, also he sucks.” But literally, you have a show about him that is a comedy show.

Fried: Yeah, the show has really shifted into a satire of all of Washington. So we have Trump dealing with the #NeverTrumpers in Romney and Susan Collins that you saw, we have Trump dealing with attacks on his right from Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, he’s going to deal with AOC and, of course, the Democratic candidates are going to be in the season as well. We’ve also expanded it out to the world of Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk has been dragged into this, as well. We’ll have Tim Robinson, who we absolutely adore, playing Judge Brett Kavanaugh in this season.

Paste: Oh, my God.

Fried: Yeah. We’re so excited, we all admire him so much and he has a wonderful take as Brett Kavanaugh. You always want to be careful about characters getting too sympathetic; Tim is so great at bringing comedy to the character, while also making you realize [Kavanaugh] is not the best person on the Supreme Court.

Paste: Just from a writing and spitballing standpoint, I guess the question I have for anyone who’s attempting to take on the current state of Washington and the things going on around the White House is: how do you heighten any of this? These characters are already the most cartoonish things that have ever existed. Like where do you go? You can’t make them any more evil or awful or egotistical than the actual people are. Where do you go?

Fried: In animation especially, it’s very equipped to do that. We think Trump is the bottom of the worst—you never know what’s going to come down the pipe in ten minutes. When George W. Bush was president, a lot of people thought, “It doesn’t get worse than this.” Then Donald Trump came along. So I don’t know if it’s worth retreating from the idea that we cannot heighten what’s there, because we can’t know what is in that pipe. One show that we have coming up that I’m so excited for people to see is episode 209, “Save The Righ,t” and it’s about this conservative rights movement that Ben Shapiro and Trump and the Hannitys take on to basically bring equal civil rights to the conservative movement. So we have this amazing conservative march parade that you couldn’t do in live action. There’s a writer-composer named Gabe Gundacker, he just put together this amazing song for that episode called “Save The Right”. He did the music for the Trump Hotel song, he’s just absolutely brilliant.

Paste: Yeah, that song was fantastic. So your production timeline here is: you’ve got the season basically in the can but you have the ability right up until air time to do South Park kind of tweaks to it? So you have it done, but you’re in a place where you can still make changes you want?

Fried: Yeah, we have to find the story, which gets you 80 or 90 percent of the episode. As the weeks close, then we might swap out jokes—this amazing ability we have with Adobe Character Animator. Our animation team, which is run by Tim Luecke, has done a great job where we can drop in lines at the last minute. We can bring them in at the last minute, even a couple of days before delivery and swap out a joke to make sure we’re as tight as possible. But also, make sure that it’ll play well if you want to watch it from a hotel.

Paste: Which characters in the Trump orbit are the easiest to write and which ones are the hardest to write?

Fried: That’s a great question. I mean, I think Trump is the hardest to write because it takes a lot of thought. We’re always evaluating, “What are we saying, here?”

Paste: Sorry, I’ve got to really highlight that line: “It takes a lot of thought to write Trump.”

Fried: [Laughter] Yeah, I mean it does, because that’s where all of this is stemming from. There was a time when you could make fat jokes about President Trump. Now it’s like, not even the top one hundred crimes that he is committing right now. Overeating is the least of our worries. So you know, you have to just think harder about what is coming out of this character’s mouth. The easiest ones to write are probably the ones that are more—the Democratic candidates are really fun to write because everyone is being polite now, but at some point the gloves are going to come off. Joe Biden—Jeff Burgman, who also this journeyman voice-over actor who plays Donald Trump, also plays Joe Biden this season. Not that Joe Biden is a completely innocent player, right now he has his own issues he’s dealing with, but he’s super fun to write. I think people will also see that we’re trying to satirize all forms of power in Washington, including the Democratic candidates, including Pelosi and Schumer. So yeah, those are a nice escape from the gravity around the amount of thought required to write Trump.

Paste: Have you had people or events that you guys have run up against that are just so purely evil that it’s impossible to make them funny?

Fried: It’s pretty rare that an event happens where there’s not someone acting in bad faith around it. So, obviously we don’t go after victims; it wouldn’t be funny, it wouldn’t be right. But there is Donald Trump. He’s the one who is okay with family separation policy, which is a horrible thing, and we’re going to go after Trump for that. You just have to find who the bad faith actors are in these situations to make sure. Like I said, it requires a little more thought, but there’s rarely a situation where there’s not someone who’s deserving of the show’s time.

Paste: There’s a question I’ve come across in Trump-related comedy, it’s a question of comedy of status. We can’t possibly be punching down on Trump, but do you ever worry that you’re punching down on the 60 million people who voted for Trump?

Fried: Yes, we do worry about that. People voted for Trump for different reasons. There’s a small business owner who is voting for lower taxes. There’s someone else that might vote because whatever their biases are against certain groups, they think the president is sympathetic towards them. So yeah, it’s difficult because that is not a monolith, and so we’re very careful about that. There’s certain sections of MAGA world that we are very suspicious of, but at the same time we don’t want to treat the liberal crowd as a monolith… or the conservative crowd. We try to keep it as precise as possible when we’re talking about these groups.

Paste: In Trump’s orbit, is there a secret MVP character? A person in that group where you don’t understand why we don’t keep talking about how insane or evil this person is? Is there someone that you’re hoping to spend more time on?

Fried: Mitch McConnell might be up there. Mitch McConnell has been interesting because he’s been protecting the president in Congress so much. Mitt Romney has been put in a position where you know that they do not agree with the President, but they are still Republican. That’s what we explore in an episode, this balancing act between the center right and the Trump right. On the left as well; I think Pelosi and Schumer are dealing with other issues, that’s another thing we deal with in the show. It’s all put people in these positions that we’re trying to make comedy out of.

Paste: Amongst your huge and stellar cast, is there anyone who came in with a voice or a line reading that was just completely not what you expected or just knocks you down anytime you hear it?

Fried: I think I would have to highlight James Adomian again because there’s so many characters that are just his invention. Ted Cruz, Rudy Giuliani has been really funny, obviously Bernie Sanders, a lot of those are people that you just know James is going to have a very unique take on. I think I mentioned Tim Robinson as Brett Kavanaugh. There’s another voice actor who’s been really amazing for us: William Sadler. He’s obviously this legendary actor, but I don’t know if people know how hilarious he is. So funny. Such a great improviser. He plays Mitch McConnell, he’s just so good and the characters are so rich. He takes it so seriously, last season he sent me songs he had sung of the character just to further explore it. It’s so funny. That’s definitely a common thing we found: the great voice actors are just naturally funny without trying to be. A lot of times they’re also great dramatic actors, and he falls right into that.

Paste: I’d like to close by asking a question, but I don’t want to bum anybody out so I’ll ask it in a roundabout way. Do you think… that your show… has one more season, or five more seasons? If you know what I mean?

Fried: Oh my God, I have no idea. Here’s the thing about the show: sure, Trump is the star of the show this year, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to get another president after Trump. If Joe Biden wins, there’s plenty of material there. If Elizabeth Warren wins, there’s plenty of material there. I think no matter what iteration of Washington there is, there’s going to be something worth satirizing. It’s always been that way, it’s not going to change. I think this show could be around as long as Washington is around.

Our Cartoon President’s second season premieres on Showtime on Sunday May 12, 2019.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.

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