Otter Lee Talks to Mediate About ‘Tooning Out the News’
Tooning Out the News, an animated political satire executive produced by Stephen Colbert, RJ Fried, Tim Luecke, and Chris Licht, has been parodying top news stories to viral success since March 2020.
Daily episodes of Tooning Out the News feature short segments from the show’s slate of mock news programs, ultimately leading up to a full weekly episode meant to mimic a typical cable news channel.
The magic of the series is that it exists in a cartoon world, allowing the anchors to interview a range of guests with little regard to their own reputations — something most cable news hosts are forced to consider. The set up allows the anchors to ask blunt questions reporters would struggle to say to their guests, and in turn pushes the guests to make remarks they normally wouldn’t on air.
Otter Lee, who voices Virtue Signal and Hot Take correspondent Otter Lin, chalks the latter up to guests wanting to play along with the cartoons by exaggerating their own personalities, almost creating caricatures of themselves.
“I think the ones who do that have more fun with it,” Lee told Mediaite.
I sat down with Lee — who will also voice a character on upcoming adult animation series Fairview — to discuss his favorite (and least favorite) guests, his experience improvising while talking to some of the top names in politics, and who his character was modeled after.
Mediaite: Can you talk a bit about the making of Tooning Out the News and your day-to-day working on the show?
Lee: I’m amazed at how much they’re able to churn out with such little time. The day-to-day is really fun. You just get to play around and be silly with the greatest team that I’ve ever worked with. I love Maureen Monahan, who hosts Virtue Signal. I love Jack Bensinger, who hosts Hot Take. It’s just fun because essentially we get to pop in, do a catch up really quickly about our week, and then we just hop right into a rehearsal.
The scripts are so topical and so current that most of the time we get the script, we read through it once or twice, and then bam, we’re with the guest.
We have a wonderful research team who keeps us very well informed.
You don’t always know how each guest is going to respond to a question. How has it been having to improvise on the show?
I spent so much money on improv classes, it’s good to make some money back from that now. I think what helps is that we’re really encouraged to play around. Yeah, there’s a script, but if something fun comes up, we’re definitely welcome to play off of it. Sometimes it’s a choose your own adventure where we’ll predict what they’re going to say.
We had a little chit chat with [Congressman] Darren Soto at the end of an episode. I asked him to get my ban from Busch Gardens revoked, joking that I’ve always wanted to ride a giraffe. And he said, ‘Oh, I actually live closer to Disney World, so hit me up for tickets.’ And I improvised something crazy and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to ride a giraffe on Space Mountain. I’m going to be like a decolonized Khaleesi.’ And he responded to that by saying, ‘Well, here in Florida, we don’t believe in colonialism.’ And that was just a moment where everybody in the studio was like, wait, what? I was just so shocked because there was absolutely nothing that could have prepared us for that.
Some of the cartoon anchors are clearly modeled after real life hosts, such as Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Was your character inspired by a specific correspondent or media figure?
It’s really just me. I’m one of three anchors on the show who shares a first name with my character. I was kind of worried at first because everyone else on the show, their character is sort of based on a stock model who came in so they can get some distance for them, and I’m positive they just took an old headshot my dad took of me from 2018. If you look at his face and my face, it’s an exact replica. They have one photo of me without bangs and were like, we’re going to go with this one.
In playing a hyperbolized version of myself, I’ve had moments where the writers have written a line for me, and I’ve been like, ‘Wait, I did not volunteer that information — how did you know that I was going to drink matcha and watch White Lotus this weekend?!’ It’s spooky.
Who was your favorite guest so far?
My first — you never forget your first! I really had fun with Rep. Pramila Jayapal. She’s been in the news a lot lately, but she was really fun talking about how Alexander Hamilton was a slave owner. I’m always impressed because no matter how prepared we think we are, the politicians and congresspeople are always so good at pivoting. I know a lot of people think that we go out of our way to make them look bad and edit around them, but no, usually they’re just on their toes the whole time.
One of the other fun guests we had was–she’s an unpopular one now, but this is before Joe Biden nominated her for a cabinet position — Neera Tanden. She’s very unpopular amongst both more left-wing liberals and right people. That was for a Hot Take episode.
Our liberal guests tend to be more worried about saying the right thing, so usually they’ll hold back. I feel like the more right leaning guests, they just like the screen time, they’ll just say whatever!
This wasn’t on the record I was on but before I got to be in the show, I would sit in on a couple of records. I’m not going to name names — I can’t remember who it was — but one right-wing guests was hitting on one of the cartoon characters!
I’ll just say, I didn’t have the most fun with General Wesley Clark. I saw him pop on the news the next day and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s that guy.’ I wont say I had PTSD but …
He very much had an idea of what he wanted to say, and he just steamrolled. I mean, he’s a general, right? So that’s that’s part of American military policy, right?
Who would be your dream guest?
Tammy Duckworth because I think she’s just such a badass. I feel like I have a lot of fun with Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao.
My personal hope is I get more cute guests, you know? They had Ronan Farrow on and I was like, ‘Damn it, I wanted to be on that episode.’ But I’m totally not saying I would flirt with a guest as a cartoon character!
Maybe Ivanka Trump. I just think it’d be so funny because I would just love to see what she would do in that scenario. Jared Kushner would just hover behind her like a specter of nepotism.
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