In the second episode of Our Cartoon President, a Showtime animated sitcom based on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert shorts that regularly poke fun at Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief flips channels past more than one comic impersonating him on television.
Melania Trump — who, in one of the more fantastical elements in this series, actually sleeps in the same bed as her husband — immediately starts laughing at the fake Donalds. “It’s like everyone is you,” cartoon Melania says. “They’re like, ‘Bigly!’ ‘Tremendous!’”
That comment describes precisely what’s wrong with Our Cartoon President, a depiction of what goes on inside the White House that’s exaggerated a tad for laughs, yet still feels remarkably tepid compared to what we’ve already read in Fire and Fury. It is, indeed, like everyone is Donald and already doing their own riff on President Shithole, including Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, Anthony Atamanuik on Comedy Central’s The President Show, a vast array of random individuals on social media, and practically every late-night talk show host who currently holds a steady job, including Stephen Colbert, executive producer of Our Cartoon President. Jokes about Donald Trump tend to feel fresh for only about five minutes, until the president himself sinks to a previously unimaginable low and provides the Twitter meme assembly line with a new product to repackage. Even that is a form of recycling.
You have to bring something especially smart and inventive to the table to excel in the overcrowded, increasingly stale world of Trump humor, and Our Cartoon President isn’t either one of those things. The stinger at the end of the first episode — which focuses on preparations for the State of the Union address and is already streaming online ahead of its Sunday night premiere on Showtime — finds Trump finally getting his hands on the nuclear football after trying to snag it throughout the episode. “Gotcha!” he shouts triumphantly. We’re supposed to laugh. My first instinct was to Google the phrase “How to build a bomb shelter.”
Striking the right tone is trickier and more crucial than ever considering that much of what this administration does is more cause for alarm than chuckles, and the show fails to hit a sweet spot more often than it succeeds. Our Cartoon President, whose animation is overseen by Tim Luecke, co-creator of The Late Show’s animated Trump vignettes, anticipates this type of criticism. “Some are worried that this show might humanize me,” Trump says at one point. “Well, too late, folks. After my recent physical, Dr. Ronny assured me I am a human being and there is no cure for that.” But just acknowledging the worry ahead of time doesn’t make it less founded. Turning Trump, his staff and his family members into characters in a wacky sitcom applies some level of normalcy to situations that are totally abnormal. The Trump qualities that the series magnifies — his ego, his TV addiction, his laziness, his callous behavior toward everyone, including his children — have already been so widely acknowledged and mocked that it seems like a waste to make them the basis for an entire half hour of television.
The show is funnier and more interesting when it spends time on more peripheral figures in the Trump circle. There is literally no other context in which the following sentence would be true: Eric Trump is my favorite character out of everyone here. Drawn to look like a perpetual mouth-breather and given the voice of a congested 8-year-old boy, Eric is like Hermey the Elf from the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but with a severe case of affluenza. He’s so simpleminded, eager to please his dad, and so silly-looking that I couldn’t help but be amused by him, especially when he makes an appearance on The Sean Hannity Show and innocently asks about the Russia investigation. “If it was fake, why would Dad be so mad about it?” he wonders out loud. “You’d think he’d be like, that’s nothing, we’re moving on.” If Eric and his brother Don Jr., depicted as the alpha bro-douche in their relationship, had been made the stars of a Trump cartoon, with their father relegated to occasional cameo appearances, I’m not sure it would have been a great show. But at least it would have offered a new comedic angle on this White House. (It also might have pissed off Trump to not be the center of cartoon attention, which is reason enough to have given it a shot.)
A Melania-focused series might have been interesting, too, but not as she’s handled here. While most of the members of Trump’s inner circle are based on hyperbolized takes on the qualities they display in reality — Ivanka spits out nonsense buzzwords, Mike Pence is ridiculously pious and dull — cartoon Melania has little connection to the image the genuine woman projects. In Our Cartoon President, the First Lady regularly advises her husband and seems eager to spend time with him, which is so far out of touch with how she actually comes across that it seems sexist to portray her in this way. It’s another reminder that there’s no way to truly win by making Trump & Co. the focus of a scripted series right now. When you stray too far from how they really are, you seem clueless. When you get too close, it doesn’t seem all that funny anymore.