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Stephen Colbert's cartoon news show can be as scary as the real thing

Herschel Walker recently received an unexpected on-air phone call from square-jawed TV news anchor James Smartwood, who asked the badge-carrying Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Georgia to help recover a stolen laptop.

Walker politely took the anchor’s phone number and promised to follow up. But just like Walker’s law enforcement credentials, the crime wasn’t real and neither was Smartwood, one of the animated characters on “Stephen Colbert Presents Tooning Out the News” on Comedy Central.

Colbert could barely contain his glee when asked about the moment on the program during a recent Zoom call at his office at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York.

“I don’t need anything for Christmas this year because I got my present,” the CBS “Late Show” host said.

But nearly all of the guests who appear on “Tooning Out the News” do so willingly, perhaps showing that many TV talking heads live by the Gore Vidal quote “Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

The weekly half-hour program that follows “The Daily Show” on Wednesday nights features cartoon character anchors and commentators interviewing real journalists, celebrities, politicians and even White House Cabinet members across a line-up of four shows, “Big News With James Smartwood,” “Hot Take,” “Inside the Hill” and “Virtue Signal.”

Guests showing up to chat with two-dimensional cast members include author Salman Rushdie, attorney Alan Dershowitz, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and U.S. senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The guests play it straight but also play along as the performers who portray the anchors and commentators on "TOTN" send up the tropes familiar to cable news viewers — alarmist captions on the lower third of the screen, outrage based on little actual knowledge of an issue and strong opinions delivered without a hint of self-doubt.

The right-leaning characters can be counted on to rationalize every move by former President Donald Trump.

“Trump is projecting supreme confidence,” said "Hot Takes" co-host Bonnie Davis (voiced by Laurel Zoff Pelton.

) in covering Trump’s recent 2024 presidential candidacy announcement at Mar-a-Lago. “Nothing says I can draw a crowd anywhere like holding a rally at your house.”

The responses — and frustration — from the left are familiar as well.

“Tonight we can officially declare the MAGA movement is dead and buried, and we’re getting pretty good at declaring that because we do it every three months,” said "Virtue Signal" host Kylie Weaver, voiced by Maureen Monahan.

Imagine if a private equity group or media company invested in a cable news network founded by Colbert’s character on “The Colbert Report,” where he played an overly zealous conservative pundit. That sort of explains how “Tooning Out the News” came to be.

In 2019, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, the short-lived streaming service that attempted to specialize in short-form content, approached Colbert and his production company about creating a program.

"They came to everybody with a bucket of money," Colbert said.

Colbert and then-“Late Show” executive producer Chris Licht pitched the concept of an animated show that poked fun of TV news. While late-night TV provides an abundance of topical humor, lampoons of the news genre have been missing since Colbert left Comedy Central for CBS in 2015.

"Nothing out there was doing a really self-important satire of the medium as opposed to the message," Colbert said.

One reason TV news satire may have disappeared is that the intensely divided political landscape has become difficult to spoof.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, noted how tweets from humor outlets such as the Onion or humorist Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker have become harder to identify as comedy.

"I have great sympathy for the comic writers and performers," Sabato said. "How can they ever top what America has experienced for real in the last few years?"

When CBS Studios executives heard about Colbert’s project, they wanted it for their parent company’s streaming service and were willing to match whatever Quibi offered.

“We kind of wanted to do it with Quibi because we thought it would be fun, because we’re dumb,” Colbert recalled. “We said, ‘OK, we’re good corporate citizens here. We’ll do it for CBS Studios.’ And of course, Quibi disappeared in a hail of bullets and blood like 15 minutes later.”

Two men men in tuxes smile holding emmys
Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht at the 73rd Emmy Awards on Sept. 19, 2021. (Dan Steinberg / Invision via AP)

Colbert and Licht enlisted R.J. Fried, a “Late Show” writer who previously worked on “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” at cable network MSNBC, to develop a roster of fictional TV news types.

Fried and a team of writers created a backstory for each one, ranging from overwrought, right-wing loudmouth Tyler Templeton (played by Jack Bensinger) to Eleanor Palmer, a veteran Washington columnist for the Wall Street Journal who brings an “I’ve seen it all” attitude to the proceedings. Not surprisingly, a few real-life TV news people have told the producers they recognize themselves and colleagues on the show.

The production team includes a number of former cable news producers including Julie Zann, who worked as a booker at Fox News and CNN. She succeeds at corralling guests from both sides of the political aisle.

The hosts on “Tooning Out the News” let you know where they stand in nearly every line. "Good evening only to the people who saw ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ nine times this weekend like me," Weaver said when she opened a recent segment of “Virtue Signal.”

Though some jokes are written ahead of the show's taping, Fried said the performers are not over-rehearsed so they can bring the spontaneous feel of cable news to the production. He also requires the cast to deliver their gags with unwavering conviction.

"We tell the performers, 'You believe everything you’re saying,'" said Fried, who provides the voice of Smartwood. "Don’t wink at the audience ever. Don’t ever hedge what you're saying. Stare them in the eye and tell them this is what you know to be true."

The anchors and panelists on the “Tooning Out the News” shows interview guests in real time. Using Adobe Character Animator software, the recorded dialogue of characters can be quickly synced with their animated images as if they were puppets. While animated series usually take months to produce, an episode of “TOTN” is turned around in a few days before airtime to stay current.

The animation work is done remotely and at a studio in the Ed Sullivan Theater.

“Tooning Out the News” started out as bite-sized shows appearing daily on streaming service CBS All Access in 2020 and then on its successor Paramount +, while also airing as vignettes on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

The series earned Emmy nominations in its first two seasons but did not generate enough streams to earn a third year on Paramount+. One obstacle is that viewers don’t yet have a streaming habit for topical talk or comedy shows that riff on the day’s events.

Netflix is littered with failed efforts in the genre, including ones hosted by comedians Chelsea Handler and Michelle Wolf. Tuning into news and topical TV is still associated with traditional TV viewing.

After Paramount+ dropped "TOTN," its corporate cousin Comedy Central picked it up in a weekly half-hour version and has seen the audience levels grow since its September premiere.

Chris McCarthy, chief executive of Paramount Media Networks and MTV Entertainment Studios, was happy to have Colbert’s brand of humor back on the network he called home for more than a decade.

“Both Stephen and Comedy Central have become synonymous with satirical and comedic takes on the topics of the day, and with ‘Tooning Out the News,’ we saw an entirely new way to do it. So we worked together redeveloping it into a weekly and initial results are very promising.”

Ratings have been modest on Comedy Central so far, but the series has shown growth since moving to the network, according to Nielsen data.

The program has added several real-life journalists as contributors, including CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang and PBS "Firing Line" host Margaret Hoover, adding more authenticity to the proceedings.

The producers of "Tooning Out the News" are vigilant in keeping the shows steeped in reality, and are not afraid to make viewers a bit uncomfortable. The night following the midterm elections, the program showed an actual roundtable discussion with four men, all of whom supported a ban on abortion with no exceptions for incest or rape.

"I gathered a diverse group of abortion thought leaders to engage in a fertile discussion about policing women's fertility," said host Austin Sparks when he introduced the segment.

After the panelists shared their views, Sparks, voiced by the show's senior writer Addison Anderson, had them take questions from several preteen girls.

"My mom won't let me get a dog because she says I'm irresponsible — think raising a baby will prove to her I'm ready for a puppy?" asked one.

It did not come off as a gotcha moment.

"The show took these gentlemen’s positions seriously and respectfully and did a logical extension of what that position meant," Colbert said.

Since "Tooning Out the News" launched, Licht has gone back to cable news as head of CNN.

"How did I feel?" said Colbert. "Sorry for him. 'What are you doing? We have fun over here, don’t you understand? We get to talk about all that stuff without putting up with any of that bull—.' He’s got a better heart than I do so he wanted to try to do the right thing."

Fried said CNN will not get a free pass on "TOTN" now that Licht has defected.

"We’re wildly proud to have worked with him and still call him a friend," Fried said. "That said, we love going after CNN and its personalities. There is no punch we will pull."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.