In an election cycle this bizarre, it makes a certain kind of sense to see some of the week's news reported on by puppets.
Although Paul F. Tompkins's felt-infused satirical news show, No You Shut Up, recently began its fourth season on Fusion, it's the first time the show has been around to catch all the primaries, caucuses, and endless debates. (Seriously, enough with the debates.) Lucky for its creators—and viewers—NYSU is getting to cut its teeth on election coverage in the apocalyptic circus year that Ben Carson and Donald Trump chose to run for president. It's a political parody baptism by fire, and it's a challenge Tompkins has been waiting for.
Last year, in the show's third season, Tompkins and his small staff had to figure out how to go from 15-minutes to a half-hour. They created more recurring segments, booked more guests, and quickly found their footing. With one seismic shift under their belts, the NYSU crew now has the even greater task of distinguishing their election coverage from everyone else's in the game—and doing so with a weekly broadcast. Unlike The Daily Show and all its former correspondents' new ventures (Full Frontal, Colbert, Last Week Tonight, The Nightly Show), No You Shut Up has a not-so-secret weapon: Puppets. As the fourth season kicks into high gear, Co.Create spoke to Paul F. Tompkins about what's changed this year—and what NYSU can get away with that other shows can't.
"Knowing that we're going to dedicate a certain chunk of time every episode to election coverage just makes things more simplified," Tompkins says. "We know we have a Shut Up The Vote section every week now, and it's helped us out a lot. At the same time, we have a small staff so we’re always a little behind. We don't shoot live-to-tape so we can't air the day that we shoot. We're a couple days behind the news cycle and trying to stay on top of everything is tricky. So we’ve made jokes about 'If you're last, you're never wrong' to try and turn lemons into lemonade. We’ve made a joke out of the fact that we are always trying to catch up. We're always trying to catch up to everything."
"Puppets can get away with saying things that human beings can't. Because they are cartoonish just to look at, they're not real, you can assign them insane things to feel and vocalize. Like we have a squirrel on our show who is a horrible racist homophobe and says really outrageous things and I think if you had a person saying that, it would make you cringe more than it would make you laugh, because you're watching a human being do it. And even though it's comedy, it's sorta not so fun to watch people say things like that knowing that it's how some people actually think. But for some reason, seeing a squirrel do it simultaneously takes the chill off of it and makes it a lot funnier."
"There's so much being said about Donald Trump already, all the time, and the more you joke about him, the more you risk making the same jokes other people are making about him," Tompkins says. "We’ve gotta figure out what our angle is on it and go from there. We talk about it a lot. And something like the idea that he is the only presidential candidate who is regularly doing phoners to the press, the idea that he doesn't show up in person is crazy. I mean, he's running for President, but it's not so important that he be there in person? Just stuff like that is what ends up being our way in to make a joke about this guy."
"Obviously, we can't pick sides. We can't be even passively endorsing someone for the presidency because that's not funny," Tompkins says. "It's difficult with Bernie and Hillary because the stuff that they are calling each other on is not really that hilarious. As opposed to on the right, like the battle that those guys are having—it's crazy what they're saying to each other. So that just makes it a lot simpler to lampoon."
"The triangle of Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio has been great," Tompkins adds. "The really sad, sadness of Jeb Bush's campaign has been a lot of fun. The GOP candidates, because there were so, so many of them—that has been hard not to focus on. And it's tough when you're doing satire because you do want to be covering everybody and making fun of everybody but a few of those guys have really been hogging all the craziness.
"Please clap" was the craziest and saddest and funniest thing I've seen in a political campaign I think since I have been alive and voting. That is absolutely unheard of, somebody saying 'please clap' when what was supposed to be an amazing applause line didn't happen. The idea that you wouldn’t let it go, that's demented to me."
"The way we get our news is very important, and the idea that the media doesn't always do right by us, and that they focus on things they shouldn't for ratings, is very important, and it's absolutely worthy of ridicule," Tompkins says. "We like to remind people, hey, it's very easy to get caught up in the media hype and especially now that you can have your choice of which style of news you like, it's very important to remember that it's still television and they are doing things the way they do them because they are a television network and they want to get ratings. So that doesn't always translate into the most impartial or thorough news that we can get. This season, we’ve been parodying the way news is delivered a bit and the hunger for digital hits and viral videos and the hearts of millennials. When you're getting your facts from people, consider the way that they are being given to you."