Can a Cartoon be a Trojan horse in Politics? Our Cartoon President Uses Lightness to Deliver Truth

Between the 24 hour news cycles and late night monologues, our national political conversation is at an all time high (although with the upcoming presidential debates and campaigns, we can expect even more). With the news coming and going so quickly, political humor can feel like a ticking time bomb, requiring any delivery method to have an element of speed attached. And while animation has often been a delivery method for political comedy, the speed required to deliver what is relevant adds a unique challenge to the medium.

The series Our Cartoon President aims to embrace and utilize these challenges in order to create animated political humor which is both aesthetically beautiful and timely. According to show-runner R.J. Fried, the writing for the series starts 15 weeks before air, with writers searching the news for topics to be lampooned. They then begin the animation process with a system using Adobe and After-effects technology which allows them so much flexibility, they can make changes up to the day of air. R.J. explained in an interview “if something happens right before air we can swap things out along the way. The topical quotes we can animate a day or two before air.” While it keeps those working on the show’s production on their toes, he says it allows the show to “keep things timely and make sure we keep the animation as beautiful as possible. We had to build our own pipeline because something like this has never been done in animation before.”

Fried was brought on board after the pilot had already been filmed, although the main character of Donald Trump first appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (one of the producers) as a recurring character created by Tim Looke (lead animator) and Matt Lapin (one of the Late Show’s producers). Soon the character was popular enough that Showtime approached them to spin it off into a series. All they’d needed to do was build up Trump’s world. “The biggest change between the first and second season is the first season primarily focused on the Trump Family, and the second season is a much broader satire of Washington as it is now. We go beyond the Trump family to members of the administration, candidates, sitting senators like Schumer, and even some pop-culture characters like the My Pillow Guy. And because we’ve been able to expand the world, we’ve had a chance to attract all this young comedy talent. James Adomian plays Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders, to name a few of the characters he’s voicing on the show. Emily Lind will voice Anne Coulter. We got Tim Robinson to play Justice Kavanaough which is so exciting. He was the first person we thought of to voice that character and we got him.”

The tight schedule can mean some sections of the show are significantly altered or cut. For example Kristjen Nelson was going to be lampooned on the show by Cody Lindquist (who also voices Melonia Trump), but that role was cut before the second season air when she left position before the episode aired. But often luck and confidence leads to shows and news cycles lining up. As Fried explains, “H.R. McMaster quit like the day after an episode aired that featured him as a character.”

The first episode of season 2, the show finally wanted to dig into Trump’s questionable relationship with Russia because the writers felt “he’s done something to disrupt the world order which all seems to fall under this strange umbrella of wanting to build this tower in Moscow, and we always thought it was like this north star in his life. And then there’s the investigation and when William Barr came out a few weeks ago to say there’s no there. And we reconsidered premiering season two with the Russian episode. We don’t want to look like we’re promoting a story on its way out. But we waited because we hadn’t seen the report ourselves yet. But we were asking ourselves if this episode would even be relevant. And then low-and-behold, the Mueller Report came out and it proved to be even more relevant than we thought it would be.”

With the current state of politics and the media, the question of political biases in the writers room is of course an issue the show has had to face. When and how they avoid these criticism, Fried explains, comes from the writers’ need to “avoid coming to the writing of the showing thinking about things as left or right. You are looking for where the bad faith efforts exist and the hypocrisies are in politics right now? I would say the republican party is the target right now, but there’s also frustrations people have with the left. A lot of people on the democratic base are frustrated with Pelosi and Schumer’s hesitancy with impeachment or the Green New Deal. We try to approach from that lens. It just so happens that the Republican party has that lens on them more often because their injustices are so flagrant. But we want people coming to the show to feel that we are revealing truths, not just bipartisanship.”

But the show has also been criticized because the medium of animation can suggest they are taking a lighter approach to major, dark subject matters in modern politics. “We do worry about how things will land” says Fried, “but at some point we have to trust the audience to understand the levels of irony. And that goes all the way back to the way the Trump character was written on the Stephen Colbert show, the things he said were horrible, but he’d smile broadly while he said it, and I think Stephen’s audiences knew the irony of that. We’re trying to do the same thing. I love the idea that people watch animation because they want some form of levity from the real world, but with this show, we can see that there are some hard truths in there. I always think of animation as a kind of Trojan horse of truth, you make something beautiful that can penetrate the audience, while giving them a kernel of truth which can expose the lies of this administration.”

Animation proves to be the show’s primary weapon in cutting through massive amount of political content on the airways every day because animation is allowed to “get away” with edgier content. Fried explained that “Things which would make people really uncomfortable in live action can make people laugh in animation. We have a climate change episode where Trump installs an air conditioner on the south lawn of the White House so he can solve his sweating project. That would cost millions to do in live action, but with the stroke of paint brush you can do it as big as we want. That said because it’s animated you have to make sure the comedy rises to the seriousness of the issues you’re addressing. The Trump administration has evolved into something which is just darker and darker, Charlottesville and forced family separation chief among them. And with a show like this you have to make sure that the comedy rises to the issues, almost despite it’s animated medium.”

So what is the edgiest thing they want to get away with this season? Fried mentions an episode titled Save the Right “where Donald Trump teams up with Ben Shapiro for a conservative rights march because they feel like second class citizens so it’s all packaged with this Selma/Milk treatment.” It is an episode which allows the show’s primary concept to shine through that “regardless of what you think about Donald Trump, and Stephen Colbert even talked about this, he wakes up everyday believing he’s the hero of his own story. So the overall idea of the show is this animated world is Trump’s world, and we’re just being allowed in. We wanted to reflect his own ideas of grandiose and heroism, and how the audience can see the irony of that, and that approach allows us to subvert expectations. I think our story editor Gabriel composes all the music and I don’t know if there is anyone better at making comedy that has a smile that is so dark and cutting. (For Save the Right) Gabe wrote this really soulful song that sounds like something you would have heard at an MLK march, James Monroe sings on it, and it’s so cutting and really powerful.”

Read more comedy news.

The following two tabs change content below.
Lesley Coffin is a feature editor for FF2media and has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.
Lesley Coffin
Lesley Coffin
Lesley Coffin is a feature editor for FF2media and has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.