Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with Our Cartoon President showrunner R.J. Fried about the series being one of the fastest animated shows on television and how he’d like to see the Trump administration end (both on the series and real life).
Donald Trump might be the most-parodied president in history.
From Saturday Night Live to The President Show to every late-night impression, everyone has an imitation of the Donald.
Our Cartoon President, on Showtime, is one of the most recent iterations entering the comedy canon. Executive produced by multiple Emmy® winner Stephen Colbert, showrunner R.J. Fried and Late Show executive producer Chris Licht, Our Cartoon President follows the tru-ish misadventures of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, and his merry band of advisers and family members. Season 2 premieres on Showtime on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT (so you won’t even miss Game of Thrones!).
Showrunner R.J. Fried and I had a great chat about what makes this take on Trump different from others, whether he feels guilty for Trump indirectly providing him employment, and why he’d love to be sued by our president.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on Season 2! Were you surprised at all to come back for another season?
R.J. Fried: With TV, you never know what’s going to happen. We’re at a very interesting time in television where there are so many shows. Patience is probably the shortest it’s ever been, too, for shows to find their footing. We’re grateful for an opportunity to do another season. We wish it wasn’t necessarily with this president, but we’re doing what we can to help this country through it all.
AD: Do you ever feel guilty that Trump is providing you with work? It must feel like a Catch 22.
RF: Yes! We do feel guilty. We are glad that we have this instrument to help our audience through it. Ultimately, we want the comedy to get at the truth of what’s going on out there. That’s what we feel like is not only funniest, but also most impactful, to really have jokes that expose what’s really going on.
You’re right, it’s become harder and harder. There are jokes from Season 1 that just feel completely toothless now. We used to make fun of the bad food he ate. Of all the problems with this administration, his overeating is not something we’re really worried about right now. You have to think really hard about what you’re saying and if it rises to the gravity of the issues that are out there. I don’t know if we were successful at that all the time in Season 1 and it’s something we’ve really tried to correct in Season 2 and make sure the satire is as sharp as possible.
AD: Since Trump’s administration changes all the time, how challenging is it to stay up-to-date with topics and “characters” on the show?
RF: It’s pretty hard. We try to pick story lines that last at least a few months. There are certain characteristics that we find don’t go away. We continue to get really lucky over and over again with the topics. For whatever reason, these things come back. For example, the first episode of Season 2 deals with Trump Tower Russia, and we started writing it about five months ago. We research hard about what we do and we try to really get what motivates people, and we just knew this Trump Tower Russia vision he’s had since the start of his administration was never going to go away. It was something that was always going to be in his heart, the heart being full of “You need to make tons of money.” Lo and behold, now that’s really bubbled up into the zeitgeist again.
The second episode is called the “Party of Trump” and there’s this plotline with the Never-Trumpers, led by Mitt Romney, someone who consistently says he’s against the administration but never actually does anything meaningful. That’s something that’s popped up over and over again. Mitt Romney has come out with a number of statements saying that he disapproves of the the president’s actions described in the Mueller Report, but, where’s the vote? Where’s the vote to hold him accountable? There are certain behaviors that are pretty consistent. Luckily, politicians tend to stay on brand throughout their tenure.
AD: What do you think Our Cartoon President adds to the political conversation that other shows don’t?
RF: We have this great tool that other shows don’t have the benefit of, which is we’re animated. It helps us to really elevate the comedy. We don’t tell the lawyers, but we get away with a lot because it is animated. I think it allows us to be edgier, in the same way South Park or Family Guy gets to. There are things that our animated characters say that if they came out of a live-action character’s mouth, it would just be too visceral or dark. Animation has a way of allowing you to speak to the harder truths while allowing people to still laugh.
AD: What’s it like in the writers’ room? I would imagine it would be fun but also macabre, writing about the destruction of the world in some ways.
RF: We spend a lot of time talking about, like, what does the plot line say about Trump? Sometimes you just really wish you could write for Dawson’s Creek or something because you can just write the characters. (Laughs.) We spend a lot of time before putting pen to paper [asking]—What does this mean? What does this say about this issue? Are we too flippant about it? There is a lot of conversation. Also, we’re one of the fastest animated shows on television, probably the fastest outside of South Park. We have to do things very quickly. Luckily, I came from a background in late night. A lot of the writers came from backgrounds in late night. We only have a few days to write the first draft of the script, so we have to keep moving. It’s really long hours and it’s just a very intense environment, almost like a late-night mentality plugging into a sitcom world. That’s why we try to make every line in every show funny. We’re glad we get to experience the catharsis that comes with satirizing this administration, but it’s an intense environment.
AD: Have you ever gotten any feedback from Trump’s camp? Any threats to be sued?
RF: Oh my God, we’d love to be sued! We have not heard anything from the Trump administration. I’m curious if they watch the show. We’ve had little hints of intelligence that there are people within that world who have seen it. I attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year, and I heard from some people that they had seen it. Boy, if the president would tweet about that, it would be wonderful!
AD: He probably just needs to turn off Fox News and go to another station! You really don’t pull any punches. Are there any limits of where you won’t go with parody?
RF: The most important thing is that you’re not going after victims. Things are certainly harder. The forced family separation was a horrible day for the victims and was a bad day in the writers’ room. You kind of snap out of becoming a comedy writer and you become a human. You don’t want to work that day, and we didn’t work that day.
It takes time to figure out who the bad players are in the story and what we can do about them. It requires a little more thought, but you always want to try to find the right angle. Then there are certain people who are not active participants in the Trump family, so we try to stay away from them. It’s funny. I think the men on the staff are more hesitant to go after Melania Trump, and it’s the women on the staff who want to hold women like Melania more accountable in their role of what’s going on. It’s been very interesting for us, and it’s something I’m glad we do.
AD: Do you have an endgame in mind for this show? How do you envision it ending?
RF: There’s always been this image in our head from Vietnam of the helicopter taking off from the roof with people hanging off it, trying to be the last one to board. I could see that being an end to the Trump administration. People are intent on this ending with an election. They’re probably right, that’s probably what will happen, but it’s really up in the air. There’s so much tension on the Democratic side about what to do about this investigation and the obstruction of justice accusations. Probably will end up with an election. Washington never fails to attract people worthy of parody. I have no doubt, if it’s a Democrat or Republican, they’ll be worthy of parody. I’m not too worried about this show having staying power.
Season 2 of Our Cartoon President starts on Showtime Sunday, May 12 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.