"I love my country more than I love a good joke," Stephen Colbert says.
On a sleepy Saturday here at the TV critics press tour, a day on which CBS presented more of its formulaic crime procedurals, Colbert arrived and injected some hilarity and savagery about the bizarre political climate of the Trump era.
He's an executive producer of yet another entry into the ever-expanding arena of Trump mockery. Our Cartoon President, an animated series coming to cable channel Showtime (owned by CBS) on Jan. 28, a weekly half-hour series that will open with a one-off episode that "anticipates" Trump's scheduled State of the Union address two days later. The show will then air weekly, starting February.
Anyone who thinks there's saturation of Trump humour – The President Show on Comedy Central, set in the Oval Office, those Saturday Night Live sketches, all the late-night shows awash in news humour – is wrong. Says Colbert, anyway.
Colbert's nightly jeering at Trump has made his nightly show number one in the late-night ratings and, well, there's more material to be mined. "There's always fresh material," Colbert says, but he'd actually be happy to have less. That's what he means by, "I love my country more than I love a good joke." He sees it as patriotic to jeer at Trump. And that was about the only remark that wasn't sniping or snark.
About Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff's book published last Friday, he said, "I think Michael Wolff stole our first 10 episodes. Everything that's in his book is in our show, and we just guessed. Wolff's book tells you that what you imagine life in Trump's White House is like after the cameras are turned off. Turns out what you imagined is what it's really like. You were right!"
Our Cartoon President is, according to Colbert and fellow executive producer Chris Licht (the showrunner on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert) and R.J. Fried (a former writer for David Letterman's show), "a character comedy, not jokes about what Trump did that day."
So, one envisages something rather like The Simpsons but set inside the White House. (Showtime only presented a trailer and a one-minute message from the cartoon president in which he called TV critics "losers.") Animation is a slow process and it seems implausible that an animated show could possibly match the hectic pace of Trump news.
However, the twist here, according to Colbert, and what made him really interested, is new technology allowing for a faster animation process and Our Cartoon President can have an up-to-date opening for each episode. After that opening, it's a matter of entering the universe of the Trump family and White House personnel.
But Colbert says he's being careful to avoid out-of-date material. "We're not putting a lot of animation time into Rex Tillerson. Not any more than I would animate a mayfly," Colbert says sarcastically, in answer to a question on what characters will be mainstays. He doesn't expect Tillerson to be around much longer, obviously.
The media, especially TV, will be prominent on Our Cartoon President. (Most Showtime series air on The Movie Network and CraveTV in Canada.) In the trailer, a version of Fox & Friends, reportedly one of Trump's favourite shows, was featured. "They're very much a part of the White House, we believe," Fried says. "And so does Trump!" Colbert added.
Asked if he's concerned about fatigue with Trump as a source of comedy, Colbert was quick to say, "He's the president, so you can't ignore him. That would be like oxygen fatigue."
Watching Colbert in person, there's an overcaffeinated quality to his humour, the constant barbs and ceaseless one-liners. When asked if we will see Steve Bannon on Our Cartoon President, he shot back, "Not if he sees you first!" Then he paused – a rare thing for him – and suggested, "In a pinch, Bannon could be back tomorrow if he becomes a viable character in Trump's world."
It borders on headache inducing to watch and listen to Colbert in full flow, and he only slows down a little to explain that when he imitates Trump on his nightly CBS show, he's not meaning to mimic Trump himself. His fodder is the strange way that Trump communicates. "I think the great benefit comedically is how uncontrolled his communication with the world is."
He went on to explain that as a comedian trading in Trump mockery he has a very particular role. "I'm not an advocate, an educator, I'm more like a buddy."
Exactly what he means is unclear. Colbert is so amped, so concentrated on jeering at Trump. It's a patriotic duty thing.