How ‘Tooning Out the News’ Became TV’s Toughest Interview
“Tooning Out the News” creator R.J. Fried tells “The Last Laugh” podcast how he convinces so many powerful people to get publicly flayed by his cartoon news anchors.
Ten years before he created the hilarious, Stephen Colbert-produced Tooning Out the News, R.J. Fried spent time in the trenches of actual cable news, working for MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. That experience, along with his years as a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, helped prepare him to run what has somehow become the most consistently funny and hard-hitting political comedy show on TV.
On this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Fried breaks down how he gets people like Alan Dershowitz and real-life members of Congress to subject themselves to brutal interrogations from the show’s cartoon news anchors—and reveals which right-wing pundits he’s turned down.
When I first spoke to Fried last April, he had just launched Tooning Out the News by getting ahold of Rudy Giuliani’s cell phone number and prank calling him as his cartoon news anchor character James Smartwood to ask about an alleged stain on a chair at the Grand Havana Room. So I began our podcast conversation by asking him if there are any updates on the scandal he quickly dubbed “Stain-gate.”
“No updates on Rudy,” Fried says with a laugh. “Every once in a while we’ll flirt with giving him a call back to see how things are going. So far he hasn't picked up. Something tells me my phone is—maybe he knows who’s calling nowadays. Now it’s on to Andrew Giuliani.” When I make a joke about the former New York mayor’s comical pile of electronic devices, he adds, “Now he doesn’t have any phones. It sounds like the FBI has all his phones.”
While Giuliani didn’t exactly intend to appear on a cartoon news show, other prominent conservative figures like CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio—and, infamously, former Daily Beast columnist and Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson—have knowingly subjected themselves to unexpectedly brutal grillings from the show’s cast of animated interviewers.
“There is this thing, which you’re probably aware of, which is that people like being on television,” Fried explains dryly. “And that tends to maybe appeal to their worst instincts.”
Arpaio, for example, “was more than happy to come on, to the point where it was almost off-putting and afterwards informed us that he had a great time and would love to come back,” he reveals.
Fried says he’s eager to have even more right-wingers on the show but at the same time adds, “There are definitely guests we’ve turned down because we didn't want to give them a platform.” He cites commentators Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren as figures who “might gain more from it than we would.”
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to ‘The Last Laugh’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.