How Colbert’s ‘Tooning Out the News’ Ensnared Rudy Giuliani
The man behind this surreal new animated news series explains how he convinced Giuliani and members of Congress to get interviewed by cartoons. Plus, watch an exclusive clip.
When you’re being interviewed by someone on Zoom, does it really matter if they’re a cartoon?
Tooning Out the News, a delightfully weird and hilarious new animated series that counts Stephen Colbert as one of its producers, was originally supposed to premiere on March 16. Then the coronavirus crisis hit. Like so many others, the show was forced to halt production and delay its premiere. And yet the version that started airing this week on CBS All Access feels somehow perfect for these times.
The premise is simple enough. Fictional cartoon news anchors interview real-life figures. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman are among those who have appeared in the first handful of episodes. It’s how they’ve managed to pull it off during a pandemic—and how consistently funny it has been—that is truly remarkable.
At the helm is R.J. Fried, a veteran comedy writer and news producer who co-created the similarly absurd Our Cartoon President for Showtime. As he tells me during—what else?—a Zoom meeting from his home in Calabasas, California, he was already trying to achieve something “unlike anything that’s ever been done before” with Tooning Out the News before the pandemic made it that much harder.
“The whole thing was completely new,” Fried says. “It felt like someone said, ‘Go get a Christmas tree in Siberia’ and now we’ve been hauling it back for months and months.”
In order to achieve the vision they had in mind, the team built a state-of-the-art studio with special cameras that would motion-capture actors to allow for same-day animation based on the latest news developments. “It was so gorgeous and beautiful,” Fried says wistfully. “And then the virus decides that we can’t be there anymore.”
Instead, they had to figure out how to replicate the same process from everyone’s separate homes. In the process, Fried realized they had a “huge strategic advantage.” While most other news anchors are stuck broadcasting from their homes with crappy lighting and bad makeup, the cartoon anchors of the fictional “Big News” and “Inside the Hill” have never looked better.
“We’ve always wanted the show to have an ego about it,” Fried says. “It thinks it’s the best network on television.” He compares it to the Fox News building in midtown Manhattan, which presents its anchors “like they’re gods amongst men.”
As for the real-life guests who populate the shows, he says they’ve been “great sports,” even though it’s not always clear that they know what they’ve gotten themselves into.
With Colbert as an executive producer, it’s hard not to be reminded of his infamous in-character interviews with politicians, authors and others on The Colbert Report. In his role as right-wing blowhard pundit, he would force them to sharpen their own arguments, which often produced more incisive conversations than typical late-night chats. The cartoon anchors similarly push guests out of their comfort zones, as evidenced by the exclusive clip below, which features Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) offering her opinion on “raw-dogging.”
And then there is Rudy Giuliani, who has somehow made multiple appearances on the show within its first week on the air. “That was not something we walked into this week thinking would happen and it has blown up in this big way,” Fried says.
When they booked former Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi to appear on the show this week, they were aware that she had Giuliani’s personal phone number. So they just asked if they could give him a call.
Before the taping, Fried ended up playing phone tag with the president’s lawyer for a while and since he’s working from home, his 6-year-old son had his iPad and kept ignoring the calls. “So on Monday, my 6-year-old hung up on Stephen Colbert, [Late Show producer] Chris Licht, and Rudy Giuliani,” he says with a laugh.
Giuliani’s initial appearance went so well that it has led to a recurring joke about an alleged stain he left on a chair at the Grand Havana Room, a members-only club in New York City. On Wednesday’s show, they got Giuliani on the phone again, this time with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), to talk about what has since been dubbed “Stain-gate.” Fried said he doesn’t expect that to be the last time they get Giuliani on the phone.
Before becoming a full-time comedy writer for The Late Show during the last few years of David Letterman’s reign, Fried helped launch The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC in the fall of 2010. He recruited other former cable news producers to work on Tooning Out the News and has tried to replicate the same rhythms for their daily broadcast.
“In order to satirize something you have to know it,” Fried says. That includes making sure the cartoon anchors are breaking news just like everybody else. “We definitely want to shock people with how quickly we turn this around,” he adds.
For instance, the same day Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, fictional anchor James Smartwood joked that the news was “shocking Americans into remembering that an election is still happening” and actually got Swalwell to endorse Joe Biden for the first time. “Count me in!” Swalwell said before the host called him “the elder abuse candidate for our time.”
Launching a satirical cartoon news show during the coronavirus crisis may not seem like the best timing in the world, but just as Our Cartoon President helped put the absurdity of the Trump presidency in perspective, ultimately Tooning Out the News feels oddly fitting for this moment.
As they got back to work, he was asking himself, “Can this show tackle what’s going on in a way that is still cathartic?” For Fried, this sentiment was best summed up by a scene they created for the first test show back after they had to shut down production.
The hosts of “Inside the Hill,” a very thinly veiled parody of Morning Joe, opened their broadcast by saying, “I’m Rich Ballard and holy shit.” And then, “I’m Sarah Sabo and Jesus fucking Christ.”
“It felt like the right emotion at that time,” Fried says, “which is like, ‘Hi, this is fucking crazy,’ and kind of going from there.”
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