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

Herschel Walker recently received an unexpected on-air call from edgy TV news anchor James Smartwood, asking the Georgia-badged Republican US Senate nominee to help recover a stolen laptop.

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

Colbert could hardly contain his delight when asked about the moment on the program during a recent Zoom call to 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 host told CBS’s “Late Show.”

But nearly all of the guests who appear on “Tooning Out the News” do so voluntarily, perhaps showing that many broadcasters live by Gore Vidal’s quote, “Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on TV.”

The weekly half-hour program, which follows “The Daily Show” on Wednesday nights, features cartoon character hosts and commentators interviewing real-life journalists, celebrities, politicians and even White House cabinet members in a series of four shows: “Big News With James Smartwood ‘, ‘Hot Take’, ‘Inside the Hill’ and ‘Virtue Signal’.

Guests speaking with 2D cast members include author Salman Rushdie, attorney Alan Dershowitz, New York Mayor Eric Adams, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and US Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Guests act it outright, but also play along as the cast, who portrays “TOTN”‘s hosts and commentators, send up the tropes familiar to cable news viewers — alarming subtitles in the bottom third of the screen, outrage based on little factual knowledge based on subject matter and strong opinions delivered without a shred of self-doubt.

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

“Trump exudes supreme confidence,” said “Hot Takes” co-host Bonnie Davis (voiced by Megan Stalter) while reporting on Trump’s recent announcement of the 2024 presidential nomination in Mar-a-Lago. “Nothing says I can draw a crowd anywhere like holding a rally at your home.”

Split image of a cartoon man on the left and a woman on the right

Tyler Templeton of Tooning Out the News interviews Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri.


The reactions – and frustration – from the left are also well known.

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

Imagine a private equity group or media company investing in a cable news network founded by Colbert’s character in The Colbert Report, where he played an overly zealous conservative pundit. That kind of explains how “Tooning out the News” came about.

In 2019, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, the short-lived streaming service trying to specialize in short-form content, turned to Colbert and his production company to create a program.

“They came to everyone with a bucket of money,” Colbert said.

Colbert and then Late Show executive producer Chris Licht introduced the concept of an animated show poking fun at television news. While late-night TV offers a wealth of topical humor, the news genre’s taunts have been absent since Colbert left Comedy Central for CBS in 2015.

“Nothing out there did a really smug satire of the medium as opposed to the message,” Colbert said.

One reason for the disappearance of TV news satire may be that the highly divided political landscape has become difficult to manipulate.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, noted that tweets from humorous outlets like The Onion or New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz are becoming increasingly difficult to identify as comedy.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the comic book writers and actors,” said Sabato. “How can they ever top what America has really seen in recent years?”

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

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

Two men in tuxedos smile with Emmys

Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht at the 73rd Emmy Awards on September 19, 2021.

(Dan Steinberg/Invision via AP)

Colbert and Licht hired RJ Fried, a “Late Show” writer who previously worked at cable network MSNBC on “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” to develop a series of fictional television news types.

Fried and a team of writers created a backstory for everyone, ranging from the overwrought right-wing loudmouth Tyler Templeton (played by Jack Bensinger) to Eleanor Palmer, a veteran Washington columnist for the Wall Street Journal (played by Simone Norman). “I’ve seen it all” attitude towards the procedure. Unsurprisingly, some real-life TV news has told producers that they recognize themselves and their castmates on the show.

an animated message panel

The cast of “Hot Take” in Comedy Central’s “Tooning Out the News.”

(CBS Studios)

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 manages to capture guests from both sides of the political aisle.

Tooning out the News hosts let you know where they stand on almost every line. “Good evening only to the folks who, like me, have watched ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ nine times this weekend,” Weaver said as she recently opened up a segment of Virtue Signal.

Although some jokes are written before the show is taped, Fried said the cast doesn’t rehearse too much 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.

Portrait of a man in a suit standing and smiling

Stephen Colbert wanted Tooning Out the News to fill the void left by The Colbert Report’s departure.


“We tell the cast, ‘You believe everything you say,'” said Fried, who provides the voice of Smartwood. “Never wink at the audience. Never inhibit what you say. Stare them in the eye and tell them you know this is true.”

The hosts and panelists of the Tooning out the News shows interview guests in real time. With Adobe Character Animator software, the characters’ recorded dialogue can be quickly synchronized with their animated images, as if they were puppets. While animated series typically take months to produce, an episode of “TOTN” is shot a few days ahead of airtime to stay current.

Animation work will be done remotely and in a studio at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

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

The series received Emmy nominations in its first two seasons, but failed to generate enough streams to earn a third year on Paramount+. One obstacle is that viewers haven’t yet gotten into a streaming habit for breaking talk or comedy shows related to the day’s events.

Netflix is ​​littered with failed endeavors in the genre, including ones hosted by comedians Chelsea Handler and Michelle Wolf. Posting news and current affairs television is still associated with traditional television.

After Paramount+ dropped “TOTN,” its cousin Comedy Central picked it up as a weekly half-hour version and has seen growing audiences since its September premiere.

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

“Both Stephen and Comedy Central have become synonymous with satirical and comedic approaches to the issues of the day, and with ‘Tooning Out the News’ we saw a whole new way to do that. So we worked together to turn it into a weekly newspaper and the early results are very promising.”

Ratings on Comedy Central have been modest 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 make sure the shows are steeped in reality and aren’t afraid to make viewers a little uncomfortable. The night after the midterm elections, the program showed a real round table discussion with four men, all of whom supported a ban on abortion with no exceptions for incest or rape.

“I have brought together a diverse group of abortion thought leaders to have a fruitful discussion on women’s fertility surveillance,” said presenter Austin Sparks when introducing the segment.

TV screen with an animated man in a window on the right and four windows with real men on the left

Animated news anchor Austin Sparks hosts a discussion on abortion on Tooning Out the News.

(CBS Studios)

After the panelists shared their views, Sparks, voiced by Addison Anderson, the show’s senior writer, had questions answered by several teenage girls.

“My mom won’t let me have a dog because she says I’m irresponsible — do you think raising a baby will prove to her I’m ready for a puppy?” asked one.

It didn’t come out as a gotcha moment.

“The show took these gentlemen’s positions seriously and respectfully, and performed a logical expansion of what that position meant,” said Colbert.

Since the launch of Tooning Out the News, Licht has returned to cable news as head of CNN.

“How did I feel?” said Colbert. “I feel sorry for him. ‘What are you doing? We’re having fun over here, don’t you understand? We can talk about all that stuff without having to put up with any of that bullshit.’ He has a better heart than mine, so he wanted to try and do the right thing.”

Fried said CNN won’t get a free pass for “TOTN” after light overflowed.

“We are very proud to have worked with him and still call him a friend,” Fried said. “Nevertheless, we love following CNN and its personalities. There is no punch we will draw.”

‘Stephen Colbert Presents Tooning Out the News’

Where: ComedyCentral

When: Wednesday, 11 a.m

Valuation: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14 years old) Stephen Colbert’s cartoon news show can be as scary as the real thing

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