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Interview: Talking ‘Tooning Out The News’ With Showrunner R.J. Fried

R.J. Fried is a three-time Emmy-nominated and WGA Award-winning comedy writer, producer, and performer who has written for some of the biggest names in comedy, including David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, Sacha Baron Cohen, Bill Murray and Andy Richter. Fried currently serves as showrunner, executive producer, writer and performer on Paramount+’s Tooning Out the News, which is a daily, animated parody of cable news networks, with a cast of characters parodying top news stories and interviewing real-world guests, newsmakers, and analysts. The series is executive produced by Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Tim Luecke from Showtime’s Our Cartoon President.

We spoke Fried about Tooning Out the News, which has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Comedy, Drama Or Variety Series.

First of all, congratulations on the show. It’s incredibly entertaining. 

Thanks so much.

I understand that started production pre-COVID, but then everything shut down, correct?

Yeah, we were actually supposed to premiere on a Monday, and everything shut down that Friday. It was certainly a shock. But we were very fortunate because it’s an animated show. We had a lot of tech geniuses and great problem solvers around. We took the weekend to process it, and we said, “You know what, I think we can pull this off remotely.” We asked the network to give us a week to figure it out and decide how we were going to pull it off because obviously people were pretty freaked out at the time, and COVID is not inherently funny. So, we did a week of test shows and showed that we could handle it in a way that picks our targets properly and handle it in a way that could be comedic and enjoyable for the audience. I have to give a lot of credit to Paramount+ for getting us back on the air.

Was the timeline of the launch intentionally timed to coincide with the election? 

Technology dictates this sort of animation. It’s the first daily animated show out there. This was a product of Adobe Character Animator, which was very key in the development of this. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the program, but it’s basically like consumer-level mocap with animated puppets. So, I have a James Smartwood puppet on my computer, and whenever I move, the puppet moves. That was a new development that we used on Our Cartoon President, and we realized that it could be used to quickly turn around a cable news-style animated show. But yeah, Donald Trump obviously created a ton of interest, but a lot of it was just the timing of the technology.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been able to use technology to turn South Park episodes around in a few days, but you’ve obviously trumped that, no pun intended. 

Well, ours are just starting shorter. Typically, we are more in the 10-to-15-minute range. The biggest mistake you can make in animation is making your design more ambitious than the production timeline. This started as, “What is the show we could create in a day?” Then you work backward from there. So, your designs need to be simple enough that they can animate in a day, as well as add the graphics, etc. Like Lorne Michaels says, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” The biggest mistake I’ve found that animation productions make is they want a tight turnaround, but then they have a design package that is just too ambitious to accommodate it. That’s when you get into trouble. We do have bigger ambitions. We want to eventually build this out to be a 22-minute show at some point.

The show plays out as a cross between journalism and parody. Was that the original intent, or was that something that you fall into as you started to develop the show?

We set out to satirize. There isn’t a cable news satire series out there right now. Colbert Report was the last one. You have Trevor Noah and John Oliver, but they’re not necessarily parodying a character, so we felt like there was a market opportunity. I worked in cable news for a couple of years, and you start to see some of the flaws in it. We wanted to be able to satirize what cable news gets wrong, and part of that is honestly your research and your journalistic integrity. We knew that we needed to do it right. We have a research team, and while we don’t consider ourselves journalists, they’re as close to comedy journalists as you can get, and we do try to break news. That’s exactly what happened with Andrew Giuliani this past couple of weeks, and our coverage of Rick Wilson has been pointed to as being ahead of the curve on what exactly was going on with the organization. So, we take great pride in that we take it pretty seriously.

I’m curious as to the structure of the interviews because it’s reminiscent of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, but with that show, you got the idea that the guests were all in on the joke. With Tooning Out The News, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rob Reiner clearly seemed like he was in on the joke, but Rick Wilson, not so much. 

(laughing) And he was upset with the joke. It depends on the guests really. Similar to the Colbert Report, we kind of coach the guests on how to behave, which is being the straight person of the scene. We’re the characters, and we’re counting on you to actually put out good information and defend the truth. Our characters tend to be wrong and exaggerate, and it’s kind of on you to set the record straight. Someone like Rob Reiner, obviously, is going to do what he does best to be funny. But there are other guests that we’re just counting on to say, “Well, actually, this is how it is,” and then we get to make our jokes. With animation, you tend to get away more, but every once in a while, someone will get upset. And it’s kind of hilarious because it’s, you’re arguing with a cartoon, ultimately. The show has the potential to make them look silly, but it really depends on how they choose to handle it. James Carville retreated into heavy sarcasm.

Your characters often have lengthy responses. How much is that is written in advance? Are you completely writing responses based on what the guests say or are you trying to navigate or steer the interview to accommodate your writing?

We write all the questions ahead of time. That said, we want to be ready with the next step, especially if we are going to be challenging someone on something. You have to have a plan. We say, “Okay, they’re probably going to say this, and then we need to be ready with this.” That was certainly with the Alan Dershowitz interview because he had defended these things in the past. We kind of knew what he was going to say, and he stuck to his script. Sometimes we will say, “If he says this, there’s this joke if he says this, there’s this joke.”

Are you concerned about burning bridges? When you were writing for Triumph, you could hide behind the words while Robert Smigel was out on the firing line with his hand up the puppet. In this case, you’re more liable for the content. Is that a concern for you? 

Yes, but the hope is that if you do it right and you’re a fair arbiter of the news, people will respect what you’re doing. We don’t consider ourselves partisans. We do go after both sides, and we get hate from the left and right. I think our goal was to be respected enough in this space that people are still willing to come on, and so far, so good. We don’t get as many Republicans as we’d like, but it was definitely a risk that we took. We make our calls, and nine out of ten interviews are not a Rick Wilson type of interview. Jon Stewart and Stephen [Colbert] used to go after everyone, and they built up credibility amongst the audience, and people were still happy to come on.

How involved is Stephen Colbert in the production of the show? 

Well, certainly more so upfront and steering the ship, along with Chris Licht, who’s the showrunner for The Late Show. I give Stephen a lot of credit because he’s the one who has defended the comedic purity of it at all levels. Every once in a while, we’ll bring a question to him like, “Hey, this might get us in trouble. Do you think we can defend it?” Steven and Chris always say, “As long as we can defend it, we stand by it.” With the internet landscape as it is, we’ll consult together and decide if we should go out on a limb and criticize a particular person. Do we feel good enough about it so that when the phone starts ringing? Do we feel like we did the right thing? And for that, I credit Chris and Stephen for always siding on artistic integrity.

Unlike The Colbert Report, you’ve got multiple characters, each with their own personality. Were there any particular inspirations for these characters? Did you pick and choose from different pundits you’ve seen?

Ultimately, you’re trying to satirize tropes. We have our establishment show, which is kind of going after the pundits who are more concerned with optics than actual policy. Inside the Hill is more of the limousine Democrats, who are maybe more concerned with protecting their bank accounts than policy. I think Big News is one where we’re looking to satirize empty-headed, at times completely factually wrong network news. Virtue Signal is obviously going after blind liberalism. I think it’s more of just seeing what kind of tropes are emerging, at both the character and the show level, and trying to satirize those. But as the landscape continues to change, you might notice a new pattern or a new type of pundit that is coming out. We have some new characters we definitely want to bring on. We have a character who is our so-called rational war hawk; the person who is happy to go into whatever country as long as we don’t waterboard and we’re still maintaining our dignity. We have our renegade journalists who pretend that they’re the Han Solo of journalism. So, we have our work continuing to expand the world, and then we will also as new tropes emerge.

Before I let you go, I would like to ask about your writing history. You’ve written for some very big names in comedy. How do you draw the line between writing in their voice and having your own humor coming through in the comedy?

That’s interesting, because with the landscape today, there are so many different shows that, more than ever, there is a great incentive to write in your voice. It’s not like the old sitcom days when a sitcom spec was the big currency in Hollywood, you had to write your Two and a Half Men spec. There are so many options, so you can really preserve your own voice. I should mention that there are some brilliant writers who are not right for Tooning out the News, but they’re perfect for Our Cartoon President or whatever it is, and that’s totally fine. II was rejected all over town, and it wasn’t until I started really focusing on my comedic voice that I became more and more comfortable with what I thought was funny. We tell our writers on day one, “Bring yourselves to the show. We hired you because of what we saw in your voice, and do not, under any circumstances, look around the room and say, ‘Oh, that person’s getting stuff on, I need to do more of that.'” We have that person and they’re sitting right there. I definitely encourage people to find their voice, figure out what they think is funny, and let the world find them and staff them in the right place.

Tooning Out The News is available on Paramount+The 73rd Annual Emmy Awards air on September 19th on CBS.

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