Aug 03, 2020

"We're in this weird point where the news is so dark that somehow perhaps a cartoon is most equipped to deal with it."

Eye On is a Q&A series that spotlights CBS television executives and creatives.

This spring, CBS All Access launched the animated current events program Tooning Out The News, where each week anchor James Smartwood and his team of cartoon pundits satirize 24/7 cable journalism. They cover top stories and interview live-action guests, on segments with titles like “Big News” and “Hot Take” exploring the day’s main headlines. Clips running five to seven minutes are released individually Tuesday through Friday, with a new segment included on Friday in a compilation of the full week’s segments.

The show comes from executive producers Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and RJ Fried and Tim Luecke from SHOWTIME®’s Our Cartoon President another animated news satire. The idea to parody the popular cable news format took shape with short clips featuring cartoon pundits on The Late Show, followed by standalone segments streaming on CBS All Access. Now, the team continues to provide content to The Late Show while working on a parallel track to produce the week’s segments.

“There's someone working on the show at pretty much every hour of the day,” said executive producer and showrunner RJ Fried. In order to stay topical, Tooning Out The News uses animation software that allows for same-day turnaround. The fast-paced production schedule requires extensive planning and communication, and when the show started being produced remotely, voice actors and animators were sent equipment for home recording and animation. We spoke with Fried about how the show comes together every week, how they plan for guests, and his goals for the future.

How have you and your team handled running the show remotely?

It's been a lot of Zoom. But the biggest challenges that we faced right away were large file sizes. You have to come up with a workflow where you're exchanging the smallest files possible. And that's part of the reason audio is great to deal with, because it's just small .wav files. Overall, the great thing is if you look at the show, you have no idea how it was produced. We have this strategic advantage over many live-action late night shows – our show can look as beautiful as we want.  Another advantage is all our guests are now at home, and they don't have to go to a studio. The barriers to coming on the show are much smaller. It's really just clicking on a Zoom link. So we've been very fortunate – we've had some great guests on the show.


How do you determine which guests fit which segments?

It really is a strategy of: is the guest going to get the joke of this show? Is the contrast between the show and the guests funny? There was something kind of great about, for example, “Inside the Hill,” which is a very upscale, blue-blooded cast, and Congressman Ro Khanna. Khanna is a congressman of the people; he gets the issues that are facing average Americans. And that was a really great contrast between those two.

And then there was Congresswoman Katie Porter. “Hot Take” is probably our most over-the-top show, and we thought, she's got a great sense of humor, she'll get it, what she's up against.


It really just depends on who the guest is and whether they'll get the joke. But there are some segments where we really want to have a point to make. So we'll have to pick a set-up where we feel like we can articulate successfully what we want to say.


Who have been some of your favorite guests so far?

I mean, God, so many of them. Congresswoman Karen Bass was amazing. She was so good on the issues, and I'm not surprised at all that she's on the VP short list. Julian Castro was awesome. He played right along when we asked him to help us crown the “Thick AF” Player of the week. Donny Deutsch immediately got the joke, which was great. I think the guests that have the most fun tend to be the most successful.

That said, we don't want to be partisan at all. So when we have something to say to liberals or conservatives, we want to make sure we say it and challenge them. Even though we are a cartoon, we care deeply about our credibility with our audience. We want to do the news better than the news. We want to make sure we have credibility, and we're not just sucking up to our guests. 


What are your goals for the show? What do you want viewers to take away from it?

I think it's a really tough time out there. We want to provide some catharsis for our audience, a sense that they're not crazy, there are things going on out there, and that whatever they're feeling, we feel too, and we're helping them make sense of the world.

We are a satire of cable news, and I think there are a lot of problems that we want to highlight.  We're trying to expose the problems in the relationship between the news media, our government and business. I love stuff that is silly yet exposes a darker, deeper truth about the relationships that are in our government and in justice. And we want to do that in the most subversive, funniest way possible.  We're in this weird point where the news is so dark that somehow perhaps a cartoon is most equipped to deal with it.


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