LOS ANGELES – When Donald Trump announced he was running for president, comedian Stephen Colbert was afraid he wouldn’t get his late night television show on the air before the business tycoon dropped out of the race.
“My fear now is always that he moves so fast we won’t have the right joke when the moment comes,” Colbert says.
Many nights, the staff of “The Late Show” will discover they have to throw away 10 minutes of monologue and rewrite, he says. “I’m well aware of how fast the news is moving these days.”
To slow things down – and capture a bit of the president’s essence – Colbert and company have created an animated series, “Our Cartoon President,” to speculate about the relationships that have formed in the White House. “The great thing about the Trump administration is whatever you imagine, you’re right.”
Airing on Showtime, the new series doesn’t attempt impersonations or comment on specific situations. “It’s about the narrative of the White House,” says Executive Producer R. J. Fried. “We want people who watch this show months from now to still look back and enjoy it.”
“The Late Show,” Colbert says, is where he can comment on specific situations or decisions. Frequently, he takes jabs at the president. While many are playful, he does become concerned when Trump uses the term “fake news” to refer to stories the president doesn’t like.
“It’s a term that’s been used in various ways by autocrats to delegitimize the Fourth Estate,” Colbert says. “There’s no referee; nobody can challenge authority. That aspect is not new. Nobody wants to be disappointed in their world view, so if your leader says, ‘Everything you’re hearing is fake,’ it scratches an itch.”
Colbert says it’s natural for viewers to take exception with some of the jokes he does. “I’ve got (Trump followers) in my family and we love and hug each other.” The president, however, is ripe for parody – just as his predecessors were.
With “Our Cartoon President,” the producers are using a new form of animation that will enable them to change scripts, characters and situations more quickly than traditional forms. A script could be written, animated and put on the air in two or three months. A line could be changed right up to the airdate.
“We’re not investing a lot of animation time into Rex Tillerson at this point,” Colbert says. “But there are some people who aren’t going anywhere. The purpose of the show is not to respond to the references of today’s news cycle. It’s about what’s going on behind the doors of the most important house in the world with the most important man in the world.”
When Colbert took his show to Russia for a week of shows, he was struck by the way Russians were marketed to by government corporations, “the same way we are. I felt most at home watching a fast-food commercial where they’re trying to get me to cry as a father remembers all the time he had French fries with his daughter before he gives her away at her wedding. Underneath a western marketing veneer, there’s a very different world view that I couldn’t identify.”
While Colbert’s contingent was told it couldn’t say Vladimir Putin’s name when they were in Red Square, “Our Cartoon President” won’t ignore the Russian leader. He’ll be a character – and a source of comedy.
By reusing backgrounds for the characters, Fried, Colbert and their team can reduce the production time and focus on the humor.
If viewers see familiar sites in the White House, that’s by design. And, if Trump doesn’t always look like a target, that’s because Colbert does respect some of his beliefs.
“He’s a great booster of the idea that America is great,” he says. “I think pride in your country is a virtue.”
The character Colbert played on “The Colbert Report” would definitely have been a Trump supporter, he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy not to do ‘The Colbert Report’ anymore. Trump is such a similar character…it would be very hard for me to leapfrog him.”
“Our Cartoon President” begins this week on Showtime.