Exclusive: Interview with RJ Fried of ‘Our Cartoon President’ Spills Season Two Secrets

 

RJ Fried: Executive Producer/Co-Creator of “Our Cartoon President.”

As the Season 2 premiere of Our Cartoon President is just days away from its debut, fans are on their toes about what kind of wonderful satire they’ll be able to see in the new season. With such an overly charged political climate, there’s no telling who or what will be thrown into the upcoming episodes a center for parody. Until the release of the newest episode on May 12th at 8pm(EST) on Showtime, fans can rejoice: we have exclusive, juicy, inside details about who we’re going to see this season, and what political plot points Trump is about to stumble into (just like real life!)

Chatting with Executive Producer/Co-Creator of the show, RJ Fried, we were able to get a sneak peek at the first two episodes of Season 2 — leading to a lot of laughs, satirical surprises, and questions about Our Cartoon President’s writing processes, casting decisions, staff viewpoints on empathy in satire, and a BubbleBlabber exclusive look into the future of the show.

I, of course, immediately couldn’t help but notice a particular Queer Eye guest star in the upcoming premiere.

Kayla Gleeson: “I watched the first two episodes: so funny, so good. I love how you guys got Jonathan Van Ness!”

RJ Fried: “Yeah! It was something we wrote in, and someone in the writer’s room said, ‘Do you think Jonathan Van Ness would wanna do this?” And we asked. And obviously, you know, he’s — first of all, I’ve never seen a staff so…like, it was like Oprah was here, or like the president — well, not this president, another president — was here. It was like, just crackling with energy throughout the building. And uh, yeah. He was fantastic.”

“So in a world filled with Trump parodies, what do you think were the ingredients that helped the series differentiate itself from the pack and find its own audience?”

RJ Fried: “That’s a great question. I mean, we have this benefit that we’re an animated show, and we can heighten things as much as our imaginations allow. I mean, this season, for example, Trump — to stop his sweating problem — is going to fight climate change, and in the process — realizing he’s hopeless to stop climate change — he’s going to install a massive air conditioner at the White House. That’s something that’s super easy in animation — in live action, not so much. So there’s that. There’s also not just its animation, but there’s also the fact that it’s Adobe style, where the character animator we use allows us to turn animation around quick. So we feel like we have a tool here that is one of the most effective ones out there to satirize this president.”

“I think I know the answer to this one, but as we look towards a pivotal election year, would you secretly be hoping to get another four years out of who is principally the star of Our Cartoon President?”

RJ Fried: “We care more about this country than we do about our cartoon. I could never look a Central American seeking asylum in the United States in the eye and say, “You know, I really could use that residual check.” I mean, like, there’s no contest that we would much rather have a different president than our cartoon one. That said, this show is not just about Trump: it’s about Washington, and all the people that are around Trump. It’s about Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, the pressure Trump gets from the right, and Ann Coulter, and Ben Shapiro. It’s Pelosi and Schumer joining up with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and how they balance that. And then also the democratic candidates — you haven’t seen Episode 3 yet, but that one is going to feature all the democratic candidates. Beto, Joe Biden, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris — Peter Buttigieg we actually did not originally have in the show, and then…my goodness, did he surge up the ranks really quickly and so we had to adjust and make up a character — which is a super fun character. He’s wearing his dad’s suit and it looks great. And so, you know, I think whether Trump is president or not, there’s plenty to satirize in Washington, it’s always been that way, so I don’t see that going away.”

“If Trump were to not be re-elected, could you see continuing the series with a different president, or do you think Trump’s too important to the show?”

RJ Fried: “Oh I am confident that whoever the next president will be will have their flaws. They might not be as extreme as this one, but if a democrat gets elected, I’m sure there will be republicans in congress who are apoplectic and acting in a way that is ripe for satire. There’s gonna be media figures — I mean, I do not forget that during the Obama presidency how every night Hannity was crying ‘foul.’ So, the power will shift, but there’s something about power just makes people behave badly. So yes, we hope to be right there with it — no matter who is president.”

“Could you potentially see a series that’s all about Trump HQ, should he not be re-elected? You’ve managed to create quite a cast of characters just inspired by the family itself, so the concept seems pretty ready-made.”

RJ Fried: “I mean, as far as I can tell from interviews, Donald Trump Jr. is starting to consider a run for president, which would be…”

“Wow.”

RJ Fried: “God bless him. So, you know, we’ll be right there, but that said, I think when this show started out in Season 1, it was very much a family sitcom. I think we’ve transitioned to a satire of Washington, more in the tradition of South Park. So, you know, I think that no matter what happens — and to be honest…it’s harder to write Trump than I would say most other presidents, because Trump’s taken us to a level of seriousness and extremes that is not lost on us. We care deeply about the issues that are out there, we recognize that they’re very serious, and we recognize that we’re doing a cartoon. And trying to balance that takes a lot of thought. And it’s something that — before we start typing — we talk a lot about, ‘What do we want to say about Trump? Is this being too dismissive or shallow about the issue?’ You know, there was a time where like, a fat joke about Trump made sense! And now, it’s just…near the bottom of the list of crimes that he’s committing right now. You know, overeating is not a big concern of ours right now. And so we take that very seriously. We want to comedy to ring true for people. So in some ways, writing a president who is not Trump would be a hell of a lot easier. But yeah, this one takes…really, a lot of thought.”

“Parody or satire, it’s always good to make sure you’re not hurting the people you’re trying to lift up in the process while taking down the opposition — and I think the show does a great job with that. That did answer one of the questions I had, which was, ‘Are there some areas that Donald Trump has traversed to in terms of policy that you ultimately felt were too difficult to turn around and make into a joke?'”

RJ Fried: “When something happens, there’s always going to be bad factors. Obviously, we would never make fun of victims. But, you know, there’s always going to be bad factors. I remember the day where we found out about, you know, the so-called ‘baby caging.’ It was a truly awful day for — to be clear, the people who were victims of it — but as a member of the writer’s room, like…we went home for the night. We just…it was like, we didn’t feel like being funny that night. And, you know, we had to kind of come back in the next day and be like, ‘How are we going to address this? And how do we — not make light of it, but who is responsible for this? And who deserves to be part of the show?’ Obviously like, Stephen Miller, and, you know, the president himself. So I think — no matter what it is — to help people work through it and understand it, comedy is a very valuable…I don’t want to say weapon, but it’s just very helpful to help people get some catharsis after working through these things.”

“How do you write Our Cartoon President so that it’s funny and devoid of the common Trump tropes?”

RJ Fried: “It requires some thought. When we have the submission rounds when we have writers submit their ideas, we warn them right upfront: we’re not looking for ‘hair,’ or ‘tan,’ or ‘small hands’ jokes. We want point of view. This show works hard at having that — and you know, we have the benefit that we don’t have an audience in front of us. We’re allowed to go a little more broad — we’re on Showtime, which is a great network for us. Showtime is a great edgy network. So they’ve allowed us to kind of dig deeper and go for harder jokes. With Stephen Colbert, he’s one of, if not the best comedic satirists of our generation, and look no further than his speech at the White House correspondence dinner. I used to watch that thing once a year to remind myself how amazing it was that it even happened. And there’s more! There’s Sacha Baron Cohen, Jon Stewart, there’s Robert Smigel with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I mean, these are, I think, the show’s idols who we look up to and make us try to think hard about the comedy we’re doing and make sure it reflects the world that people see around them.”

“What are some of the areas of focus for the show’s second season versus the first one?”

RJ Fried: “The show is definitely shifting from a family sitcom to a satire of all of Washington. So the world is getting much bigger this season. There’s the ‘Trump Tower Moscow’ episode, and the ‘Party of Trump’ episode. We’re also going to talk about the Culture Wars. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell — who we know from the commercials that run all night — has kind of joined the culture war in the Trump administration. And that’s something we’re going to satirize; it’s planned, it’s amazing. We’re going to talk about the president’s mental fitness, which is kind of a really touchy subject. He will appear in his version of The Apprentice, for showing the country that he’s mentally stable. That’s going to be something called ‘The Big Brain Showdown,’ which will appear in Episode 5 with Dr. Ronnie as the host. I don’t know if I mentioned yet, but Tim Robinson is going to be playing Judge Kavanaugh. We’re going to hit climate change as well, in the 8th episode. We’ll also do ‘space wars’ in Episode 10, and then there’s this episode that I’m so excited about called ‘Save the Right.’ Trump and Ben Shapiro will lead a civil rights movement for conservatives, who have felt so victimized by the left. It’s highlighted by a song called ‘Save the Right.’ Gabriel Gundacker who — you might know from the ‘Zendaya is Meechee’ clip?”

“Oh my gosh [laughter] yes!”

RJ Fried: “That’s Gabe Gundacker! He’s a writer on the show. He composes the music — he composed the song in the first ‘Trump Tower Moscow’ episode.”

“Oh that’s wonderful! He’s like a comedic genius.”

RJ Fried: “It’s infuriating how talented he is. And he’s so young. It’s truly despicable. Like, with the ‘Save the Right’ song, you can just see him smiling in the writer’s room, he’s got an idea for a song, he goes, and one or two hours later he comes back with this brilliant piece. He also plays Don Jr., he plays Brian Kilmeade, he plays Stephen Miller. Yeah, he’s been amazing. We’re so blessed we caught him in a moment in time where he can do this show. I’m sure in very short order he’ll be too famous for us, but for now it’s great.”

“How did you land on Jeff Bergman being Donald Trump with so many Trump impersonators/impressionists out there?”

RJ Fried: “That’s a great question. We listened to hundreds — it was like 500 submissions, we got for that role. I think the important thing for us was that the voice was a voice you could live with long term. There’s some amazing Trump impersonations out there, but we needed something big enough to work in animation — because animation is so dialogue heavy, it requires a voice that’s a little bit bigger than say, live action. It also required someone who felt like a real person. So, you know, we had some ones that were pretty heightened, but the concern all along was, ‘Well can we live with that for multiple seasons?’ And so Jeff Bergman, who’s a legendary voice actor — he did Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, he’s done work for The Simpsons family — he’s just been everywhere. And on top of it, an amazing, amazing guy — he just came in with this tape that felt like a real person. On top of being a super talented guy, a nice guy who you really wanna work with…his talent is just unbelievable. I mean, I’ve seen his reel of 50 different characters…it’s mind boggling. He is a voice over talent. He has such artistry around it. He can just do the full range — he’s one of the performers who can listen to a voice and just mimic it back to you.”

“Who were some of the most fun characters to lampoon in the first season and are you excited for any new ones?”

RJ Fried: “Yeah, I think the first season really focused on the family, and we really wanted to work hard at establishing those relationships. I think the second season really brought in the world, and I think the exciting things has been certainly writing the democratic candidates, who will all appear this season. But also, like: Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, and Mike Lindell — these people who have kind of been dragged in — sometimes willing, sometimes unwillingly — into Trump’s world. It’s been really fun to expand out the world. Some characters I think you can play with and have more fun with. The closer you get to Trump, the more thought it requires around, ‘What are we saying here?’ Plus, you get the Trump family, and obviously the people who are perhaps protecting him, such as Mitch McConnell. So yeah, I think people will find that Season 2 is a much bigger world with a bigger take on Washington and its craziness.”

“How does doing a show inspired by current events have an impact on the writer’s room?”

RJ Fried: “Yeah I mean, we’ve had to adjust. Last year we got really lucky. Like, nothing big happened that we had to change. Luckily, our animation is pretty flexible, but we can’t rewrite the script 5 minutes beforehand. So yeah, we try to write stories that can live long term. That said, Kirsten Nielsen, the head of Homeland Security was part of the world, and resigned and went away, so we had to adjust to that — and the Mueller report has been a bit of a moving target. We have research that we read every morning, we all read it and make sure we’re all up to date on the issues. We want the jokes to be smart and reflect what’s going on in the world. Obviously there’s some room for silliness, but we also want to make sure this is a sharp satire. But yeah, we have a lot of news-heads in the writer’s room, and we’re constantly keeping an eye on things — trying to recognize, I wouldn’t say the micro-story, which is like the day-to-day which we can address in the topical cold opens that we release a week before the show — but more of the kind of the things that last over the course of a few months, and the issues that are going to be around for a few months. You know, for example, in the first episode about Trump Tower: Moscow — it turns out that this lucrative hotel can explain a lot of his behavior over many many months. I think there’s a line in there at the end in which Don Jr. says, “Mueller’s trying to figure out what’s going on, the democrats…everyone’s trying to figure out what’s happening, and it’s just all about how much you love money.” And it’s amazing that this president is so willing to up and imbalance the powers of World War 2 in the name of building a hotel in Moscow, and making a bunch. It’s a long term trend we try to address in each episode.”

“You have experience in working on quite a few animated series, how does this one differ in terms of its production?”

RJ Fried: “This is animation unlike anything that’s out there. Because of what Adobe’s able to do with their technology, because of what Tim Luecke — who is a co-creator and the animation lead — is able to do with that technology, we are able to make episodes very very fast, and swap out lines last minute to keep it updated. Unlike cel animation — which is the digitally drawn animation that’s in Family Guy, it’s like puppets. Our Adobe characters are basically puppets, and it allows us to do so much with them. I encourage people to check it out — it’s amazing, the motion capture animation you can do. On top of it all, we have an art director named Kirill Yeretsky  who’s amazing, and has built some fantastic artwork around it. So they’ve made a show that is not only gorgeous, but can turn around really quickly. No one else is doing a show like this, and we’re so excited to so what we can do with that.”

“Anything else to say to the fans?”

RJ Fried: “The satire for this season is sharper than ever, deeper than ever. I think they’re gonna see Our Cartoon President has really evolved from Season 1 and become an all encompassing satire of Washington, and we could not be more thrilled for people to watch it. We premiere on Sunday, May 12th, at 8pm. The show’s gonna be on Showtime anytime, it’s gonna be on Hulu, Apple, everywhere. YouTube, we’ll have clips. We can’t wait for people to check it out!”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kayla Gleeson

Kayla Gleeson is an entertainment writer and media player, with work involved in shows such as Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" and Chicken Soup for the Soul's "Hidden Heroes." In addition to her work on BubbleBlabber, she also has dozens upon dozens of published articles for RockYou Media. Aside from immersing her life in cartoons, she loves to write and read poetry, be outdoors, go to conventions, and indulge in Alan Resnick stylings of comedy.

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