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“If someone reads into this joke, can we defend it?”
That question is often on the mind of R.J. Fried, showrunner of Our Cartoon President on Showtime. Alongside the ever-changing political cycle, which currently includes Democratic debates and a race for the nomination, the series satirizes presidential candidates and campaign happenings in a weekly dose of politically charged entertainment.
Originally conceived by a group within The Late Show that includes host Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, Tim Luecke and Matt Lapin, Fried joined after the concept had been picked up by Showtime for a series. He’s a former Varsity hockey and lacrosse player from Harvard University who grew up watching and drawing inspiration from The Colbert Report, Conan O’Brien and humorist Robert Smigel.
After plowing its way through a season three premiere episode that dramatized President Trump extorting Ukraine to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden, followed by the impeachment inquiry, Mike Pence worrying he’ll become president if Trump is removed from office, Trump writing a book called My Struggle, Elizabeth Warren trying to make the world “good” again and more, the show has arrived at its mid-season juncture, where Michael Bloomberg’s campaign has stumbled, much like real world happenings.
Taking a break from the news cycle, Fried spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the responsibilities of the writing team, the freedom of animation and times when the news is just too deflating to immediately interpret. Of the show’s general mission, Fried emphasizes, “We’re not politics. We are satire, and so we are satirizing and pointing out hypocrisy amongst the power players in Washington. We focus on what we’re saying and whether it’s defensible, rather than how it’s necessarily being received.”
Along the way, the writers are tasked with exhaustively researching the candidates, campaigns, personalities and situations, sometimes before the latter even occur. “We’ve gotten eerily lucky this season. This week, our episode was about Joe Biden looking to get Obama’s endorsement. I think it was 12 minutes into when the show was airing when CNN dropped a tweet saying Obama and Biden have spoken and he’s not giving his endorsement. It was literally simultaneous to the episode airing.”
In order to make that happen in such an effective way, the team — described by Fried as “news junkies” — think ahead about what’s coming up and what’s on the calendar when the episodes air. “You have to be creative on the writing side and also not write yourself into a corner three months out. What’s why we focus so much on the characters,” explains the showrunner.
Has he gotten feedback from the general public? Absolutely. “I’ve gotten hate tweets from Republicans, I’ve gotten hate tweets from Democrats,” he says. “We make sure that we’re covering both sides.”
Considering the possibility of any hot-button issues being off-limits, Fried responds with, “No, there can’t be. I hate the idea that somehow this administration killed comedy; it feels like we always have to find the right angle. The burden is on us to ensure that we’re coming up with a good, smart joke that has a fair target that isn’t being too flippant.”
In the writers room, which Fried says can be up to eight people [according to story requirements] and combines “sharp satirists and people who are good character writers,” material is read and reread aloud to ensure that they feel right.
“We don’t mind getting in trouble, [but] we want to get in the right kind of trouble, in a way that’s defensible. So we ask ourselves: If someone reads into this joke, can we defend it? If it’s going to make people upset, but we can defend it credibly, and we can make it in a way that feels right to us and we’re speaking truth to power, then so be it.”
This is where the medium itself is a benefit. “We have this beautiful tool which is animation, and it allows us to get away with a lot more,” says Fried. “It’s the same magic behind South Park. We hear this a lot, which is, ‘Trump must make your show so easy,’ [but] it’s kind of the opposite. He can make the show really hard; these are serious issues, and there’s some real pain out there. How do we tackle this in a way, with it being a cartoon, that isn’t too flippant, too dismissive?”
That’s the challenge he faces each week and while that has never backfired, the real-life political events do take their toll on the writers. “I’ll never forget when the reports started coming out about the caging of infants on the border,” recalls Fried. “It was a night where we were all really emotionally affected by it and we thought, ‘let’s just go home.'” But they kept on pushing forward.
“There was an opinion out there that Trump was an extreme campaigner and that once he got into the White House, surely he would be tamer,” says Fried.” And that did not come to fruition. If anything, it was even more amplified. So, the show has gotten edgier over the course of three seasons.The world has [also] gotten bigger; Trump has this way of sending out waves that bring a lot of people — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg — who get dragged into Washington in a way that presidents previously did’t necessarily force them to do. It becomes our responsibility to account for it creatively.”
Fried says they account for it at breakneck speed. “I think we start building [episodes] three or four months out, then the topical cold opens are built that week. We write them on Tuesday, record them on Wednesday, animate them on Thursday to Friday morning. Every episode is sort of a living organism and has to change as time goes by.” He gives the example of Bloomberg joining the race, which they were not expecting. “We’re making tweaks to episodes along the way and making sure they align with reality.”
Thinking about his experience on the show, Fried concludes, “It’s been a thrill, and refreshing creatively, to go after the Democratic candidates. But one thing we’ve found is that every episode is like 10,000 little decisions. The first season we didn’t necessarily get all the decisions right. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten better and better at hitting the steps we need to take in order for the whole dance to look good.”
Of the way forward, Fried stresses the goal for it to continue even if the White House changes hands. “We do ultimately want this to be a satire of Washington. If Donald Trump is not the next president, we’re prepared.”
Our Cartoon President airs Sunday evenings on Showtime.
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