With the 2020 Election keeping the political coverage kettle at a stressful high, a satire show like Our Cartoon President pokes funny holes in the process and releases steam and laughter.
Last month we sat down with Our Cartoon President showrunner and writer R.J. Fried about the most recent season of the show, whom he shares an executive producer credit with Stephen Colbert (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) and Chris Licht (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).
Aaron Halls: In the past you’ve worked on a cartoon series that was more based in fiction with Bob & Doug, and now with Our Cartoon President you’re working on a show that reflects our own political reality.
From a creative standpoint how does working on a fictional cartoon series compare to now working on a cartoon that features actual people? Are they similar or different?
R.J. Fried: Yeah, well, here’s the biggest thing, which is that we have to react in pretty much real time to the news cycle. This season is very focused on the Democratic Presidential Race, which is always a moving target. So, we really have to keep up with the news every day and change the show as things happen. Every once in a while one of our writer/producers Mike Leech said ‘Ya’know at The Simpsons they never walk into work and say ‘Oh my god! The real life Mr. Burns is sick – we must change the show!’ We have that – out of nowhere things will happen. Kamala Harris will drop out of the race, for example; Bernie Sanders will have a heart condition; these things have an effect on the show. So, it’s in some ways more exciting and in some ways quite the roller coaster ride.
Halls: I was watching this behind-the-scenes video Showtime had put out around the release of the show and the technology that you guys use to craft this series seems pretty amazing. From what I understand, the animators have a computer program that can map their facial movements on to the animated character they’re crafting.
For those unfamiliar can you talk about [the animation process?]
Fried: We have been working closely with Adobe to try to get our production pipeline as tight as possible. Part of that effort is one of their programs called Character Animator, which has a motion capture element to animation. It allows us to work even faster to the point where we do our topical cold opens throughout the season. Last season, for example, we had the Democratic Debate cold open where the debate happened, and we had a cold open satirizing it out by I believe by 7:00 AM the next morning, which meant recording at 11:00 PM, animating starting at 1:00 AM, and having something out the door. With the right preparation, right technology, we can pull that off.
This news cycle is only going to be crazier, so I think there’s going to be a lot of late nights and quick turn arounds, but that’s part of the fun. It’s really fun to see the reaction when we put something out that addressed something that just happened, and the reaction of, ‘Oh my god! How’d they pull this off.’
Halls: Shifting focus a little bit – in college you were quite the athlete! You played [hockey] for Harvard University and were even drafted by the Florida Panthers in the 2000 NHL Draft; what would you say is more exhausting: finishing a season of Our Cartoon President or going through an intense season of hockey?
Fried: Wow – that’s a great question. Hockey is a very intense sport; I remember watching Michael Strahan when he was doing an interview with David Letterman. David Letterman asked him, ‘What time do you have to wake up in the morning,’ and I think [Michael Strahan] said ‘Around 3:00 AM’ and Dave said ‘Oh my god!’ Strahan [then] said ‘I played in the NFL. Waking up at 3:00 AM is nothing.’ That’s the way I kind of feel.
I remember when I left hockey to go into comedy a friend of mine said, ‘At least now when you’re at work no one will just walk up and punch you in the face.’ [laughs] Ultimately, comedy’s long hours, especially with the show – keeping it topical, but I get a lot less concussions here. [laughs]
Halls: Do you feel that you apply any of your experience as an athlete into your career in comedy and as a writer and a creative head behind Our Cartoon President?
Fried: A lot of it is just the intangibles. I mean, the way we look at the animation – animation is extremely production intensive; the way we look at it is if we have a very sound production process we’ll have a good product. You don’t really focus on what is the end product so much as what can we do every single day to make the show as good as possible. Same way in a hockey game. You don’t think about what is going to happen at the final buzzer. You think about ‘How am I going to win this face off?’ ‘How am I going to beat this defense man?’ It’s more about the process than it is the product, and also playing in a team environment.
We have Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht [who] have done a great job creating an environment here where it does feel like a family and a great group of people trying to make a great show. So, definitely the principles of putting whatever you’re working on above yourself is certainly something that was hammered home in the locker rooms playin’ hockey.
Halls: Earlier we were talking about how crazy next year is going to be – Trump in the show and in the actual office has an intense year coming up with the 2020 Election right around the corner.
With the 2020 Election being a plot thread you guys could run with for Season 3 did it make the creative approach or process to this season feel different than Seasons 1 or 2?
Fried: Yeah, for sure! We have politics where the next election is hovering over every single move that any politician does, so it’s always been in the back drop, but it’s certainly much more immediate now. I think what people will find this season is we’re going to hit The Impeachment Trial in the first episode, which actually looks like it might line up right with our first episode, which is amazing. So, we’ll hit that, but I think ultimately people will find is that the world is going to get much bigger this season.
This season we’re branding as “Who will be the next Our Cartoon President?” So, we’re going to go beyond even Trump to the Democratic Race – obviously Biden, Warren, and Bernie Sanders are going to be a huge part of the season. Buttigieg and Bloomberg somehow are still in the race, so they’ll be a huge part of it.
Also we have the billionaires, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and even Michael Bloomberg, so I think the world is going to get even bigger this season. Obviously Trump will always be a part of it at least until the next election, but yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun. We have – at this point it’s over 100 characters to play with.
Halls: For a show like this I’d imagine there has to be so much political research done behind-the-scenes to stay informed about the Election Race, and the Trump Administration, and the current events in Washington.
In the writer’s room, how do you all go about staying up to date with the political landscape and incorporating that into your story lines since there’s so much going on?
Fried: You try to not focus on the little blips of the news cycle and more the characters; cause’ ultimately this show is about the characters that we’re exploring and the culture of Washington. It’s been really amazing how we had so many times where we’ve had a character do something and then it will happen in the news cycle; some things we’ve predicted: Brian Kilmeade questioned The President in 101; predicted The Government shutdown in episode 108; obviously Trump Tower/Moscow obsession in 201; and then Jonathan Van Ness was in our first episode appearing with AOC[, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,] and then that week the real life Jonathan Van Ness appeared with AOC.
We have a research pack that goes out every night and just to try to predict our first episode we have the senators voting on The Impeachment Trial – we get as granular as looks to see how many registered democrats are in Maine to try to predict how Senator Collins is going to vote during The Impeachment Trial. We have a lot of people who are passionate about politics and happy to get as wonky as necessary to predict what our characters are going to do, and it’s been crazy how many real life things have happened that have been in our show.
Halls: Yeah that’s amazing! Has being working and being immersed in a multi-season political comedy cartoon such as Our Cartoon President, in anyways shaped how you view politics or the government in a general way?
Fried: We try to hire people who look at politics with a critical eye; it’s very important to us that people can see hypocrisy and illogic – that’s when thinking about both sides of the isle because certainly the Republican Party has been a lot of the focus of the news cycle, but we don’t want to leave the Democratic leadership off the hook either. It’s not a thing of ‘We need to have 50% of our jokes be about one party and 50% need to be about the other’ – it’s more just as you look at the news cycle having a discerning eye about “Is this thing deserving of satire?” – no matter where it comes from. That’s very important to us, and it influences the episodes we write, how we hire our writers. We just make sure that we always have people with a critical eye.
Halls: This year you guys are bringing in talented voice performers such as Jon Glaser and Jim Downey who have done great work on shows such as Parks and Rec and SNL respectively. Can you talk about what they’ve brought to Season 3 as new members of the cast?
Fried: We are so excited! Jon Glaser is going to play Larry Kudlow, and I will leave it to when you see the performance to decide how sober or not sober Larry is; we have Kate Berlant [who] is going to be playing Lara Trump – we have an episode where Eric [Trump] (Emily Lynne) is starting to get jealous of Lara becoming a spoke person for the Trump family – her star in real life has been rising; we have Jim Downey playing Adam Schiff – we thought who was the funniest, boringist voice we know of and it was Jim Downey, so he’s going to play that; Matt Lucas who is a huge comedy star in Britain is going to be playing our Boris Johnson; Joe Mande, who comedy nerds really love is going to be playing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is in a battle with Elizabeth Warren over fake news; Tim Robinson is back as Kavanaugh; James Adomian has so many roles in this show; we’re thrilled with the cast we have. It’s just been a dream come true to work with a lot of these people
Halls: Just to wrap everything up – are there any final teases you want to offer fans about what they can expect from Our Cartoon President Season 3?
Fried: I think the big thing this season that people will discover is just the world is getting exponentially bigger, and this show is not just a satire of President Trump but also the whole Democratic field of people. Trump has had this way of sucking so many people into politics… where it’s like Elon Musk – obviously if you tweet anything about The President you’re making a massive political statement. This season the world gets bigger than ever, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s been very refreshing after years of Trump jokes to have this new crop of Democrats who are all wonderfully comedic in their own ways; so yeah, it’s going to be a really fun, big season.
Check out Season 3 of Our Cartoon President when it premieres on Showtime January 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT.