With a dozen nightly and weekly comedy shows focusing on current events, the presidency of Donald Trump has turned into a weekly arms race. How do you make your jokes different from those all of the other guys are making? How do you make jokes different from the ones Twitter had a full day or sometimes seven days to make before you get to air? How do you focus on one or two specific incidents in an exhausting news cycle in which there’s no way to let anything marinate before the next bit of lunacy ensues, and whatever you were freaking out about yesterday ceases to be in today’s conversation at all?
In the case of Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, Matt Lapin, Tim Luecke and R.J. Fried’s new Showtime comedy Our Cartoon President, there’s the added complication of the long lag for animation. In this media environment, that dumb thing Trump said or did in December or even early January might as well be the Teapot Dome scandal.
With the new series, Colbert and his cohorts have determined that the only way to win this game is not to play. Our Cartoon President is a fuzzy and facile animated sitcom composed of reductive, occasionally lightly amusing, characterizations of the bumbling ineptitude associated with the Trump White House. Best as I can tell, the show is designed for people who want to mock the idea of Trump and his minions, but prefer not to deal with the practical realities of policy or actual incident and prefer the schadenfreude giggle of “They’re all stupid and amoral” over the plausibly uncomfortable confrontation of events that you might get on a Daily Show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee or, yes, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
Sunday’s premiere exemplifies the hollowness of the show’s approach. Its focus is the State of the Union, an event that took place nearly two weeks ago in the real world, and, due to those animation deadlines, it has nothing to do with the actual State of the Union as delivered by Trump. It’s just a nebulous “Donald Trump wants to win the State of the Union to boost his poll numbers” plot that features Stephen Miller as a dark arts-mining scribe; Ted Cruz as a hygiene-deprived lurker; Donald Jr. and Eric as a dunderheaded frat boy and imbecilic child, respectively; General John Kelly as the lone voice of grown-up reason; and Jeff Sessions as something of a slow-thinking Dumbo-eared rodent or elf. It’s all predictable, right down to the absurd wish-fulfillment implications that figures like Kelly and Jared Kushner are somehow better or more ethical than the environment they find themselves in.
There’s nothing perceptive here and there’s nothing current, with late-dubbed references to Stormy Daniels and “shithole” countries added so that the show feels simply stale instead of fossilized.
The second episode sent to critics, titled “Disaster Response” and also premiering Sunday, didn’t include the pre-episode message from animated Trump, the segment meant to add timeliness. I doubt a few buzzwords tying the episode into things that happened three weeks ago will have much impact on the relevance of an episode in which the president’s annoyance at certain semi-ceremonial duties leads to the assembly of a team of impersonators, an idea that comes to mind after watching a procession of wannabes on TV.
“It’s like everyone is you,” states animated Melania, presented generally as icy and unanimated, of the myriad people mimicking The Donald’s accent, cadences and obsessions with words like “tremendous” and “bigly.” It is, indeed, like there are 50 people doing the same version of Trump on television, a number that would balloon extravagantly if you toured comedy clubs across the county. Our Cartoon President adds another interchangeable Trump voice among many, certainly gaining nothing in this expanded form that he didn’t possess in his occasional Late Show appearances and markedly diminishing in his lack of timeliness.
(To make it clear, I don’t mean to fault any of the literal voices. Jeff Bergman is a solid Trump, Cody Lindquist a fine Melania. James Adomian makes Cruz extraordinarily annoying, which I think is the goal. Character actor William Sadler is perhaps too well-cast as Kelly, inhabiting the character with more immediate nuance than his real-life equivalent probably deserves. Colbert makes a vocal cameo on each of the first two episodes.)
The model Our Cartoon President is something like what Trey Parker and Matt Stone attempted with That’s My Bush!, a Comedy Central attempt to treat the presidency of George W. Bush as a multicamera sitcom with mixed but promising results. That’s My Bush! read the first months of the Bush administration, before 9/11 would make such things impossible, through an exaggerated Married With Children-style domestic lens and found periodic amusement in trying to make those conventions match or defy a public perception of Bush as a hair-brained lightweight.
Our Cartoon President lacks a comparably clear prism. It’s a little workplace comedy and a little family comedy, but even with the possibilities inherent in animation, it barely exaggerates the principal characters beyond their naturally occurring level of exaggeration. Cruz as a crazed lurker comes close. Ben Carson as a sleepy guy with meandering thoughts or Steve Mnuchin as a slick huckster prone to saying thoughtless things about the less fortunate do not.
And here’s the thing: I completely understand why Our Cartoon President would need to go for this tone and I actually understand why this might be a comforting tone for some viewers. It’s the lowest level of Trump-related dinner party conversation, but it’s also the level least likely to cause family schisms, extended discomfort or ongoing trauma. I’d just wish for something more pointed or edgy, more worthy of a premium cable platform and the talent involved.
Creators: Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, Matt Lapin, Tim Luecke and R.J. Fried
Voices: Jeff Bergman, Cody Lindquist, William Sadler, Griffin Newman, James Adomian, Gabriel Gundacker
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)