One of the few benefits to mankind to come out of President Donald Trump‘s administration is the creation of Our Cartoon President, Showtime’s cutting-edge animated series that mines news headlines and political propaganda for its brand of dark comedy. The characters are parodies of real-world politicians and news pundits, in as much as said individuals aren’t already parodies themselves; the plotlines are pulled from actual policies, talking points, and tweet-storms from the President and his administration; and the revolving door of cabinet members is as insane in real life as it is on the show. The only real fiction to be found in Our Cartoon President is the fact that you might feel some empathy for these animated D.C. villains while you may have a hard time doing so in our real world. Even if you haven’t seen the series on Showtime, you can judge for yourself since the irreverent comedy series is now on DVD.
Executive produced by multiple Emmy-winner Stephen Colbert, showrunner R.J. Fried and Late Show executive producer Chris Licht, Our Cartoon President follows the true-ish misadventures of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, and his merry band of advisors and family members. Now available on DVD, Our Cartoon President: Season 1 with World Class Amenities boasts 17 episodes and the Election Special 2018, as well as a wealth of bonus features for those of you who want to take a deeper dive and see how this insane series comes together in just about a week’s time for each episode. For more insight, be sure to read my interview with lead animator, writer, and co-executive producer Tim Luecke to see how “stupid West Wing” is animated, and more. As for the DVD, a special features breakdown follows below.
Introduction by Stephen Colbert (~1 minute)
- Recorded from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, or at least from that stage with a laugh track recorded, Colbert introduces the show, teases its contents, and promises to perform a burlesque dance if viewers cram a $50 bill into their DVD player.
Episode 1 “State of the Union” – Introduction to episode and two commentaries by co-creator and animation director Tim Luecke, animation director Steve Conner, animation director Mack Williams, and art director Kirill Yeretsky
- Introduction: The team talks about the timeline of the series from test animations using Adobe Character Animator, to shorts and clips, to a full-on series pick-up by Showtime (without a pilot or animation team),
- The show went from short animations to 25-minute weekly animated episodes, necessitating a team of about 100 animators. The initial plan for a small cast of 5 characters and few backgrounds eventually grew into dozens of characters and locations in Washington D.C.
- Yeretsky “plus’d up” a lot of Luecke’s original character designs. Eric Trump and Donald Trump remained much the same; Ivanka Trump got a new head and face design at the last minute. He talks about some of the animation limitations in the Adobe program that resulted in them shaping the character designs a specific way.
- The team talks about the difficulties of keeping up with the crazy news cycle and the revolving door of hirings and firings.
- The first 17 episodes are done on ones while the Election Special is done on twos; that factoid is explained in the commentary.
- Luecke confirms that the cold opens were put together between midnight and 5am the night before the deadline. This animation process started as a one-man operation but quickly grew to add a half-dozen animators to get it done more efficiently.
- The opening credits sequence is also animated each week, giving the show a weekly gag they could play into.
- The decision was made to animate all the high-resolution characters in a wide shot in order to give the editors more options when they’re making their cuts.
- If an administration member resigned or got fired during the course of the production, the animation team had to scrap old assets and create new ones, week to week.
- Since Showtime has no commercial breaks, they use beauty/establishing shots of Washington D.C. Yeretsky talks about how the two-dimensional characters don’t quite fit in these three-dimensional, historic locations.
- The scene with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi talking to Trump in the Oval Office was the show’s test for each animator, so the creative team has seen it play out hundreds of times.
- Yeretsky reveals that the animators’ offices feature a bunch of close-up photographs of Ted Cruz’s mouth, among other characters, in order to provide reference material. “It’s a real nightmare.”
- Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump were originally animated for a clip on The Late Show that would have seen them on a mystery-solving “Hardy Boys”-like adventure, but it never made it to air.
- Luecke says that the pair were always the Beavis and Butthead of the show, and if there was ever a spin-off, it would feature them.
- The fire truck in Trump’s nightmare sequence was the first vehicle animated for the show and it set a standard for the oddly proportioned vehicles seen throughout. Trump driving it into the House of Representatives for the State of the Union address is an homage to the 90s Chicago Bulls introduction.
- The team talks about using Adobe Character Animator and After Effects as a hybrid way of animating this show, kind of pioneering the process as they went. The show’s team and David Simon and the Adobe team were always on hand to help address any bugs or issues they had with the software.
- Luecke was using Adobe’s software to do real-time, motion-capture animation to animate a cartoon Trump on The Late Show that could respond on cue. That idea eventually grew into the full, animated series.
- Williams, an animation director on Archer, is referenced a lot in the book “The Art of Archer”, which Luecke and the team happened to have in their office when they brought him in to interview for a position on the show.
- There are lots of specific notes in here for amateur or experienced animators to appreciate, though a lot of it will sail over the heads of folks who aren’t diehard animation fans.
2016 Election Special Clip (with optional ~5 minute introduction by co-creator/consulting producer Matt Lappin and co-creator/co-executive producer Tim Luecke)
- Lappin and Luecke talk about using Adobe Character Animator for their animation process and just how the series itself came about, starting with this pilot that aired on Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night … just about 20 minutes before Trump was awarded the election.
- They also cite Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” as a story about an empathetic villain. Lappin also shows off his admittedly bad tattoo based on the Joker from that story.
- In the pilot, Trump’s origin story is a combination of having the world’s worst father and being mocked by President Barack Obama, resulting in him trying to fill an unfillable void.
- The idea being that if you can feel some empathy for Trump, you can defeat him and his lack of empathy.
- The team had 18 days to write, animate, and produce a three-and-a-half minute short, which is super quick relative to normal animation processes.
Cartoon Trump on The Late Show Clip (with optional ~2 minute introduction by voice of Trump, Jeff Bergman)
- Bergman shows off some of his previous voice work before talking about the audition process and how he ended up getting the gig.
- Bergman talks about crafting the voice of their version of Trump, not just his own take on it, but the various takes from all of the writers.
- The clip came just before Trump’s first State of the Union address.
White House Correspondents’ Dinner Clip (with optional ~3 minute introduction by Executive Producer Chris Licht and showrunner/Executive Producer R.J. Fried)
- Licht talks about getting a clip of Our Cartoon President to play during the prestigious dinner.
- They talk about crafting the 2-3 minute clip with help from insiders in order to focus on journalists (fitting the dinner’s theme) and pacing it properly for a live audience as a performance piece.
- Thanks to Trump not attending the dinner, they were able to introduce the Cartoon Trump as a special guest.
- The facts that the clip was going to lead the show in a room “designed to tamp down on humor” and that they had to keep it secret were just a couple of things complicating the creative process for the team.
- They mark it as a huge moment for the show that propelled the series into the conversations of the Washington D.C. / New York City media culture.
- The clip is full of very inner-circle jokes, so I’d imagine it played really well in the room.
Episode 11 “Russia Investigation” Table Read
- Jeff Bergman calls in over the phone, and Stephen Colbert stops in as well (to voice Wolf Blitzer), as R.J. Fried leads the team in announcing voice roles and setting up the script.
- If you were wondering where the name Jean-Luc Tannenbaum came from (so was Colbert), it’s because they needed a name no one could possibly conceivably have.
- Fantastic look behind the scenes at not just the process of producing the show, but also a sampling of the many people who work hard to get the episode made in under a week.
Episode 5 “The Wall” – Introduction to Episode and Commentary by staff writer and Sarah Sanders/Maggie Haberman voice actor Jennifer F. Jackson, staff writer and Don Jr./Stephen Miller/Brian Kilmeade voice actor Gabriel Gundacker, staff writer and Hope Hicks voice actor Eliana Kwartler, and staff writer Bob Powers. (Oddly enough, you can play just the intro, which leads into the normal episode, or you can play the episode with commentary … though it includes the intro again.)
- Introduction (~6 minutes): The team talks about the mood of the writers’ room, the “grueling” pace of the schedule, and the snacks. But also the insane pace and twists and turns of the news cycle. And also the snacks.
- They talk about the cold open that’s written just a couple of days before the episode airs to stay as up to date as possible.
- Jackson mentions wanting to tackle Trump’s Wall in an episode, though it took the writers’ room a while to land on a particular story angle for it. Trump’s inability to get the wall built tied into his failed casinos and sham construction projects.
Commentary: The Alex Jones cold intro happened the week that the talk show host was kicked off of social media. The team ponders over the fact that aggressive conservative hosts have to sell “snake oil.” James Adomian ad libbed Jones yelling “1776!” at the end of the cold open.
- “Donna”, the woman Trump cites during his speech, is a stock photo of a woman. And the dog driving a car that the Trump boys watch is just one of many such stock videos in that particular category.
- Trump’s comment about “baby cages” was added into the script just as the child concentration camp stories started to make their way into the news.
- The commentary kind of devolves into a discussion of what Jared and Ivanka talk about when they go home at night, and a comparison of Arby’s Horsey Sauce and Guy Fieri’s Donkey Sauce.
- “I’m Bolf Witzler, and I just made a mistake,” is one of Eliana’s favorite jokes that Jennifer came up with, but it has yet to make its way on the show.
- Kathryn Allison and James Monroe Iglehart, who sing the end credits song, also get to sing along with Miller and Sanders. The Late Show band also plays the music for it, though it was originally created by Gundacker.
Episode 18 “Election Special 2018” – Introduction and commentary from executive producer and Vladimir Putin/Steve Doocy voice actor R.J. Fried, story editor and Steve Mnuchin/John Bolton voice actor Zach Smilovitz, and story editor/writer and Paul Ryan voice actor Mike Leech
Introduction (~5 minutes): The trio talks about the benefit of more time to make this special, but also the fact that it’s a longer episode than usual at 43 minutes. They also had to find a story spine that worked but didn’t get completely outdated in the run-up to the airdate
- Hillary Robot was originally going to quote Michelle Obama to deliver the line, “When they go low, we kick them!”, but Eric Holder said the exact line during their production process, so they changed the animation to fit.
- Commentary: Michael Shannon narrated the election special.
- The special was modeled after action movies like Armageddon and Jurassic Park, especially since it was recorded just before the midterm elections.
- Stephen Colbert is Wolf Blitzer on the show, confirmed. Godfrey also performs Obama.
- Originally, the note was that the Schumer/Pelosi bit in the special should be pulled back a bit, but the team felt it balanced out the other characters well.
- Most of the script was written months before the airdate, but within two weeks they updated the jokes and beats.
- Editor Thomas Berkley is the audience member who shouts out, “Ugh, you’re bumming us out, lady,” during Pelosi’s speech. He originally recorded it as temp audio, but it kept getting laughs so it stuck.
- Originally, Trump’s nightmare sequence was cut from the show since they didn’t think they’d have the resources to pull it off. (Enjoy the Twilight Zone reference, featuring Fred Santangeli as Fred Trump Sr.)
- The team stresses just how vital and efficient Adobe Character Animator is to their process.
- The special takes aim at big-name Democrats, too, like Schumer and Pelosi’s inability to connect with Middle America and how quickly they give up on a particular legislative promise, the party’s willingness to take Wall St. money, the Obamas working with Netflix, and the problematic and politically active Clintons in the modern era.
- The three writers all started working together for David Letterman, followed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. They suggest that you go frame-by-frame through the transformations of the microphone turning into Fred Trump, calling them “disgusting”, and complimenting the sound design.
- Trump’s comments about someone hacking the Hillary Robot at the end of the special are taken almost verbatim from Trump’s actual comments about Russian hacking and meddling.
- The closing credits were put together in homage to classic cartoons that ended with stills from the episode, matched up to the theme song.
The Evolution of Fear (with optional ~2 minute introduction by co-creator/animation director Tim Luecke, animation director Steve Conner, animation director Mack Williams, and art director Kirill Yeretsky)
- The team talks about the fear song that Donald Trump Jr. sings to his father in the election special.
- Luecke walks through all the bells and whistles that the team was able to bring into the special, things they weren’t able to do on the previous 17 episodes due to time. The special is more like a traditional, frame-by-frame, hand-drawn animation production.
- This featurette is a step-by-step, piece-by-piece look at the process of making the sequence from character design and animatics all the way through the production pipeline.