‘Tooning Out the News’ struggles to be more bizarre than reality

Early segments of the CBS All Access parody series lack bite.

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Correspondents do some corresponding on the “Big News” segment of “Tooning Out the News.”

CBS

“Tooning Out the News” really needs to be great.

It’s not, alas. At least not yet. And it needs to be meaner.

The animated television news program, of which Stephen Colbert is an executive producer (and on whose show clips have sometimes aired), is a parody. But it runs into what has become an increasingly thorny problem for parodies — namely, when real life is this bizarre, what’s the point of making fun of it?

The schedule works like this: New 5-7 minute episodes air Tuesday through Friday on CBS All Access, the network’s subscription streaming service; then they’re complied into a full-length episode at the end of the week. Since it’s the premiere, this week’s full episode will stream for free Friday on CBS.com.

Parts of what have been seen are indeed pretty funny, though that’s dependent upon the real-life guests, who include Rep. Adam Schiff and conservative writer William Kristol.

The cartoon characters ask them questions, most of them inane, kind of like a cable-news network version of “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.”

If they’re game to play along — Schiff is particularly good at going far enough without having the jokes taken out of context and immortalized as a reelection killing meme — you’ll laugh.

If not? Not so much. Take poor ol’ Walter Isaacson, the biographer and former head of CNN. He’s a guest, and when he’s asked to talk about his next book, he goes on at some length as the panelists nap. When he’s done, one says, “I feel like I just read a Walter Isaacson book, geez.”

So, it’s like that — amusing, sure, but not side-splitting. And not as biting as it could be, or needs to be.

But hope springs eternal, or at least as long as you’re willing to give “Tooning Out the News” a chance. The creative team is smart — it includes Chris Licht of “Late Show,” along with R.J. Fried and Tim Luecke from “Our Cartoon President” — and events of the day pour out like water from a busted fire hydrant.

The tricky part is that those events, and sometimes the way they’re covered, are already bizarrely funny. Of course we know that Sean Hannity’s bombastic Trump-love act is part of his shtick; it would be funny if it weren’t sometimes dangerous. But did you catch Wolf Blitzer melting down during the Iowa caucuses way back when? If you did, you probably laughed.

“Tooning Out the News”really does have a great premise, with several familiar segments:

  • “Big News.” James Smartwood hosts this satire of ego-centric cable news anchors who only offer the most conventional takes.
  • “Inside the Hill.” Co-hosts Richard Ballard and Sarah Sabo discuss the latest political headlines with Washington’s elite.
  • “Hot Take.” A politically diverse and wildly ill-informed panel weighs in on the news of the day.
  • “Virtue Signal.” Kylie Weaver hosts this satire of liberal cable news anchors who pat themselves on the back for taking up every social and political cause.
  • “Smart Talk Tonight.” Come on in, the water’s smart. Kenneth Parsons and Chloe Kline conduct in-depth, in studio, one-on-one interviews with real-life newsmakers.

The key will be what comes of them, and how the show grows, even as our world becomes more and more bizarre.

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