'The President Show' Host on Trying to Make Trump Funny & Alec Baldwin's 'SNL' Take
Anthony Atamanuik was the best at impersonating Donald Trump. Now it's his full-time job.
Since premiering on Comedy Central in April, Atamanuik's President Show has consistently served potent political satire. What began as a one-man show at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade roughly two years ago has evolved into a more absurdist version ofThe Colbert Report, leaning on Atamanuik's uncanny Trump to lampoon today's White House and late-night format (think monologues, desk pieces, remotes, interviews). Our commander-in-chief finally has his own TV show again -- kind of.
Below, the comedian reveals what it takes to play Trump, his mission for the polarizing series, and what he thinks about that weird Alec Baldwin-Saturday Night Live kerfuffle.
Thrillist: The show just received a seven-episode extension. Given that you're a critic of real-life Trump, is that good or depressing news?
Anthony Atamanuik: [Laughs.] It's a mix. There's part of me that's a realist. The possibility that Trump would be out by the fall -- unless he resigned or the 25th Amendment was involved or some dramatic Shonda Rhimes-level Scandal plot twist happened -- is next to nil. I've made my mental peace with the fact that the earliest he could be removed from office would be if the Democrats took the House in 2018, or if the Republicans had a full revolt. I've logically made my peace for 2020.
The thought of living and breathing Trump until 2020 doesn't scare you?
Atamanuik: My job is to not be the person panicking. I'm supposed to be the person who's representing a sense of calm, a belief in a system that's designed to not allow overt autocracy to take over. When I talk about the show and the Trump presidency, I try not to be hyperbolic, because you don't want to scare yourself or others. Yes, there are potential timelines that are scary and dangerous that could result in airport novel or B-movie plot coups and nuclear bombs and all those sorts of awful things. But I try to remind people that those are shiny objects: Russia, North Korea.
There are real things happening right now: ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] tearing families apart; mass deportations of people; the detention of people at airports because of the color of their skin; the president encouraging police violence, which we know affects mostly the black and minority communities around the country; our poisoning of the air and water through the rollback of EPA regulations. I prefer to live in the real world where we look at those real, scary things. Should we be scared? Yes. Should we have been scared for a while? Well before Trump.
Early critics of your show have said that they see Trump jokes as tiresome, or that they might be too real, trivializing what the president is doing. South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker have even said they're avoiding Trump next season. How do you ensure an all-Trump show doesn't get too repetitive or toothless?
Atamanuik: I'm an enormous fan of South Park, and in some ways I like to think that our show is a little influenced by them, in the sense that we kind of have a live cartoon quality to us. They're geniuses... I get what they're saying, but I also think they did a good job covering Trump last year with Mr. Garrison. They're also not a purely political satire show; they're more of a social satire show. So I can understand them saying they don't want to focus on that.
In terms of people viewing the show, I'll say this: I'm 43 years old, and that "too real" stuff sounds like a very young-person approach -- like somehow laughing at the show or seeing it is dangerous. To me, that's a pathway to validating Trump. He's a fool -- but he's not the first fool. I would love for someone who's 20 or 22 to talk to someone who's 45, 50, 55, and ask them how they felt when Ronald Reagan got elected. I know that people think Trump is the worst of the worst -- and he is the worst of the worst in the modern era.
But you think people are scared now? When Reagan was elected, we thought we were going to have a nuclear war. ABC even did a television special called The Day After. Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech was frightening; it sent a chill down everyone's spine. George W. Bush, who could not name a head of state, got elected in a more controversial election than this one -- in the sense that it was a clearer controversy.
Humor is the relief from deep tragedy -- that's the classic Steve Allen line: Tragedy plus time equals comedy. So for me, I would say, What do you want? More cable news? Which does what? Gin you up to be paralyzingly afraid of what's going on when the cable news networks are partly responsible for the president existing? Do you wanna just sit there solemnly and cry to yourself about how the world is garbage? That makes no sense to me.
You have to face the ugly things.
I heard some podcast asking, Is the show dangerous? If you think the path to the future is to erase our past, to ignore the things that frighten us, and to not discuss those things that disturb us, we are doomed as a society. I get very worried -- from teaching so many young people for so many years at UCB -- about the humorlessness of younger generations. And I guarantee this: For a lot of the people who are like, I don't know about that show, because it's making fun of the president, but maybe it's celebrating him; they're also like, By the way, I don't really do shit, and I just complain, and I didn't even vote. So give me a fucking break. You have to face the ugly things, you have to deal with them, you have to discuss them.
Would you say that's the goal of your show? What do you hope to accomplish?
Atamanuik: The goal of my show, and everyone who works here, is to create a more realistic version of who we think Trump is. He has a propaganda machine that sets him up as a great leader and a great businessman. Our job is to say, No, we're taking your "image," we're making it the image we know it is: this petulant man-child, almost like a weird dowager-like creature, this sort of tubby old woman.
We are working very hard to litigate the president. We have a five-person research team that is dedicated to information news and making sure everything we say is backed up. We're a very necessary part of what's going on, because we're predicting and showing that we have an understanding of his inner workings. I want to get the attention of the people who voted him into office and hopefully flip some of them to make them understand that they don't need to agree with me, that they don't need to become liberals. I'm not telling them they're wrong or stupid for how they think. But I want us to all agree that this man is not representing anything but his own interests, and our job is to get him out of office.
You've been doing this impression for a couple years now. How has your understanding of Trump as a person changed since you started doing the show?
Atamanuik: I really don't think he's changed much. He's sort of like Chauncey Gardiner from Being There -- a fat, rich Chauncey Gardiner. I think he's very insulated and doesn't believe anything can affect him. He doesn't think the Russia thing is a big deal. My guess is some part of him really believes in what he says and in his own narcissistic narrative. I think he believes he's going to make America great, to the degree that it sounds good for him to say.
Even the whole Russia thing, I don't think it's some grand conspiracy. I think it's ham-fisted, D-list political thinking, because, let's face it, politics is a profession and a skill set like anything else. You can't walk into it and be excellent. You can be excellent at the populism part, but what about all the machinations and maneuvering that happen within it? He's not good at being a businessman. So here's a guy who's not even good at that thing he says he's good at.
What about your impression?
Atamanuik: I would say that as I've gotten more comfortable in playing him, I've tried to indulge my distracted side more, the part that doesn't want to stay on message. I find that in the impression there's something very improvisational about Trump. He self-brainstorms, repeats stuff, and talks about it from every angle. I stay consistent to that. I think he's revealed a lot of his inner toddler things, so I maybe play him more as a child-man. I used to play him as more of a menace, and now I think I've discovered how to play him as a menace, but also as a petulant child-man.
Like when you go, "Oh, boy! Oh, boy!"?
Atamanuik: Yeah, [laughs], "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!"
Where did that "Oh boy, oh boy!" line come from? We first saw it in the truck scene, and it's since become a recurring joke.
Atamanuik: It was made up on the spot. When I was sitting on that stoop, I was actually resting as myself -- half in me, half in him -- getting B-roll. The cameras were on because we were gonna do a closing statement, where I sat on the stoop and said how bummed out I was that I couldn't get into my apartment. But when the truck honked, in my head, I went, Oh, this is great! I'm already someone that goes, Oh, boy, this is great! But I knew I had to speak in his voice because I didn't want us to retake it -- we only had one shot, because the truck naturally was just honking as it came down the street. So I warmed into it, and I knew that Trump would repeat the phrase a bunch. There's something very Jack Benny, George Burns about him, like a foolish character from the end of the vaudeville era. There's something almost tramp-esque, Lou Costello about him too. He's a tubby joke. That's the era he's sort of from, so I try to play him like that, very 20th century.
Has he contacted you or come after you for any of this yet?
Atamanuik: No, but I met Roger Stone at Politicon, who was one of his advisers early on. Stone basically intimated that maybe Trump had seen [my impression], but he said -- and I don't know if this is a good thing or not -- something along the lines of, "Your presence is his presence when you do the impression." And I was like, Oh, God, that is frightening. That's the closest I've gotten to Trump's orbit, but nobody's reached out. And I'm fine with that. I'm not looking for attention from the President. It's not as if when Trump acknowledges it, I'll be like, Oh, wow! We really did something! I don't want Trump to pat my head -- and, by the way, Jimmy Fallon already did the reverse of that; look how that worked. I'm just looking to do my job.
You do have some competition on that front. Back in March, Alec Baldwin, who was playing Trump on SNL, called you a "guy on the internet" and started some minor Twitter beef. What ended up happening with SNL and Alec Baldwin?
Atamanuik: My comment on it all is simply the things that are true: I auditioned, and I did a tape, which anyone does for SNL if they do a stage test. I have no idea what the process is after that. I went and did this path, and Alec was asked to do Trump on the show. I think he does a fine job in the way he chooses to depict him. My job is not to think about myself in comparison with SNL, especially since there are so many other things that influenced me as I was growing up, like Kids in the Hall, Monty Python, Mr. Show, SCTV -- right?
SNL is a different animal than we are. We have a specific motivation and conceit: Trump does fireside chats as a late-night host; we're taking aim at the late-night format and the president. My belief is that the more satire of the president there is, the louder the chorus is of people who are trying to point out his kookiness.
I wish Alec all the best. All the best.
Our writing is some of the most top-notch in political satire today, and I say that because I might write my character, but Christine Nangle, Emmy Blotnick, Noah Garfinkel, Evan Waite, Rae Sanni, John Reynolds, Emily Altman, Alison Leiby, Peter Grosz, and Jason Ross are all doing incredible work. My hope is that our writing will challenge other shows, like SNL, to raise their bar, and that we'll all do a better job of taking out the president.
I wish Alec all the best. All the best.
How long do you see yourself doing this?
Atamanuik: I'm well aware that I'm reinforcing a deal with the devil by playing Trump. I did not want to play him. If anybody watched my show right before the election, I was ready to burn the wig. As soon as this guy is out of office, I will never do him again. I am doing him purposely, to the best of my ability, to undermine him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.