The Unintended Consequences of Stephen Colbert's 'Our Cartoon President'

Stephen Colbert's effort to force the Trump presidency into a Simpsons-shaped television format has backfired

Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
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'Our Cartoon President.'
'Our Cartoon President.'Credit: Showtime
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

Satire does not have to be funny to be successful. No one has ever chuckled along to “Animal Farm,” one of the most influential and laugh-free satires of modern times. And Jonathan Swift’s painfully dark “A Modest Proposal” is credited with finally shaming the British into providing some much-needed relief for the starving Irish.

But humor remains one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of satirists.

Dictators, famously, can’t take a joke and satire has been used to devastating effect for centuries. In Serbia, opposition groups maintain to this day that satire and humor were instrumental in bringing down war criminal Slobodan Milosevic – and we all know how much “Saturday Night Live” drives U.S. President Donald Trump to distraction.

But, funny or not, satire demands a level of sophistication that is sadly lacking from “Our Cartoon President,” the brainchild of television’s satirist-in-chief, Stephen Colbert.

“The Late Show” host, who is a fearless and fierce critic of Trump, managed to convince Showtime that the cartoon version of the president, which often appeared on his show during the 2016 election campaign, was worthy of its own 10-episode run. The result – based, at least, on the half-hour first episode released this week by the network – is hugely problematic.

Teaming up with “The Late Show” show-runner, Chris Licht, Colbert promised that “Our Cartoon President” would provide “an ‘all access’ look at a typical day in Trump’s world, examining quintessentially Trumpian details of the presidency and his most important relationships.”

Instead, it provides a puerile caricature, which appears to be an amalgam of Trump and Homer Simpson. The similarity between Colbert’s depiction of Trump – who is voiced by the incredibly talented Jeff Bergman – and the patriarch of the Simpson family goes beyond their saffron skin tone. In “Our Cartoon President,” it wouldn’t have felt out of place for Trump to give us a trademark Homer “D’oh!”

In the very first scene, cartoon Trump breaks the fourth wall and addresses viewers directly. After a few mediocre and now-outdated jokes about “temporarily unfurloughed nonessential federal dead weight,” the president admitted – in the name of show’s creators – that “some are worried that this show might humanize me.” And, having warned us and themselves of that pitfall, Colbert and co. proceeded to fall headlong into it.

Colbert’s cartoon president is not a satire of the real one. At best, it is a lampoon. Trump’s narcissism is almost endearing, according to this version of the president. When he “wins” the State of the Union address – another of the oh-so-hilarious misunderstandings that befuddle our loveable protagonist – viewers almost feel like they should be cheering along with Donald Jr. and Eric.

The show even portrays Trump as a caring, if bumbling, husband. He is seen sharing a bed with Melania and he promises to get her “the most tremendous gift yet” for their upcoming anniversary. Of course, in a sitcom plot device as old as the White House, his best intentions are derailed by yet another misunderstanding.

The first episode of “Our Cartoon President” felt like a collection of the ‘Greatest Hits’ of Trump jokes. The president obsessively recounts his version of Election Night, Donald Jr. and Eric are blabbermouths who can’t stop talking about Russia and Vice President Mike Pence’s fervent religious beliefs are the butt of many a joke. These jokes might have been funny at first, but they’ve been used by so many comedians, talk-show hosts and cartoonists that they have lost their edge.

It almost goes without saying that the animation and the voices are flawless. There’s hardly a public figure in Washington who didn’t appear in that first episode, and they were all depicted with insight and accuracy. Politicians from both sides are handled with the same disdain and the show mocks Nancy Pelosi and Ted Cruz with equal cruelty. As it should, of course.

Seeing Stephen Miller hanging from hooks and impaled with other paraphernalia of hardcore BDSM, while churning out satanic speeches on his typewriter, completed a mental jigsaw that now makes perfect sense. For that moment alone, it might have been worth watching “Our Cartoon President.”

But one episode is enough. I get the point. “Our Cartoon President” cannot be current enough to be consistently funny; it takes so long to produce each 30-minute episode that, by the time the show is aired, the jokes will either be overused or passé. Colbert might well become a victim of his own ambition here. If he had stuck to shorter segments, he would have sidestepped not only the timeliness problem, but also wouldn’t have been forced into a giving his show an artificial narrative that is neither funny nor timely. Trying to force the Trump presidency into a "Simpsons"-shaped television format simply doesn’t work.

“Our Cartoon President” feels like a missed opportunity. Despite stiff competition from North Korea and Russia, Trump is perhaps the current world leader most deserving of a satirical assassination. But Colbert didn’t pull the trigger. He has lampooned him, for sure, and I have no doubt that some of his barbs will infuriate the president, but the format – and the execution – mean that Trump got off lightly.

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