The “satirical view of the president, his family and his inner circle when the cameras are off,” as Licht describes it, was born out of the writers thinking about documentary-like access: What if a camera crew were invited to follow Team Trump to both wings of the White House, recording oddball moments even more faithfully than Michael Wolff did?
The striking result is that although lines like Trump’s “crushing it” are meant as satire, this cartoon president shows some warmth. Trump might be the butt of venomous barbs five nights a week on “The Late Show,” but for the sake of a narrative comedy, Colbert’s cartoon Trump is often a yellow-orange buffoon who would not be entirely out of place on “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” or “The Flintstones.”
Much like Homer Simpson, in fact, this cartoon Trump seems most comfortable when binge-eating, yelling at the TV (in this case, “Fox and Friends”) and operating perilously close to nuclear buttons.
One reason for the character’s warmth is the voice behind him. Jeff Bergman — who has voiced Homer and Fred Flintstone on “Family Guy” — provides a lived-in delivery that does not steer into over-the-top, Alec Baldwin-like parody.
“R.J. really drove that train,” Licht says of R.J. Fried, his fellow “Cartoon President” executive producer, as well as showrunner. “It was a big discussion actually, but at the end of the day, he actually sounds like Trump and not a caricature of Trump.
“When you have the cartoon, you don’t necessarily need the voice to be the main source of the satire, and you’d get sick of [a caricature] over 10 episodes,” continues Licht. “So his voice, to my mind, is perfect.”
That conceit of choosing character over caricature drives the entire series, says co-executive producer Tim Luecke, who is also lead animator on “The Late Show.” “We have to sustain 25 minutes at a time,” he says, so their Trump’s character design is built for “a full range of emotions.”
Still, the key to building their cartoon president, Luecke says, was to mine the comedic contrast between “the gravity of the office” and what the show sees as this “impish, cartoonish destructive force that doesn’t seem to be able to hold on to a single thought.”
All that was born from Colbert’s live 2016 election night special on Showtime, which kicked off with a nearly four-minute short featuring a cartoon Trump.
At that point, just after 11 a.m. Eastern time, the show was still angling its comic tone toward a Hillary Clinton victory.
Then gradually, the evening’s political reality set in.
That animated short, titled “Trump Begins: The Dawn of the Donald,” depicted the soon-to-be president-elect as a comic-book supervillain whose quest for office was sparked by “having his ego bashed by Barack Obama” at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner, as Luecke put it.
“Trump Begins” was “our last Trump jab,” Luecke says. “Obviously, a half-hour after it played on TV, things changed.”
Trump has been a major boon to “The Late Show,” of course, both comedically and in the ratings. Back in 2016, Colbert’s new show was still trying to find its comedic footing. Steering hard toward the president-elect seemed like the best way forward — and figuring out how to spoof Trump with animation was an intriguing part of that plan.
“The Late Show” had featured Colbert doing short, joke-driven interviews with its animated candidate Trump during the campaign, but “Trump Begins” “was kind of the spark in my mind: ‘Wow, we could do something more with the cartoon,’ “ Licht says. “We could really tell a story.”
What has anchored them going forward is the raw and unfiltered Trump himself.
“For it to work, it has to be based in some kind of reality,” Licht says of “Our Cartoon President’s” humor. “There’s a researcher that makes sure the writers’ room is aware of the latest stories and any kind of glimpse into what his behavior is.”
The “Our Cartoon President” producers see the animated show as an extension of Colbert’s brand — but just how much is the “Late Show” host involved in the Showtime series? Colbert is certainly a fan of TV animation, including his work on Robert Smigel’s SNL “TV Funhouse” shorts, as well as his own Tek Jansen character from his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.”
“Stephen has a very full plate with the daily late-night show, but he’s really having fun with the cartoon,” Licht says.
“I can say: His fingers are involved in every step of it, but his fingers are not underneath it, if that makes any sense.
“He touches every part of it.”