Early this morning, my mom texted me about an MSNBC segment that aired last night on a group of psychiatrists and mental health experts who have banded together to warn that Donald Trump is “psychologically off the chain.” “Donald has a lot of scary monsters in his head like the short you showed me from the president show, remember that?” my mom’s text read. “It takes the viewer on a terrifying ride into the caverns of Trumps brain. I love that thing! Whoever created that piece is a prophet and a genius!”
Much like the video she was referring to, Anthony Atamnauik’s The President Show has proven to be one of the most simultaneously hilarious, terrifying, and ahead-of-the-curve comedic takes on the Trump presidency. That’s in large part due to the brilliance Atamanuik has brought to the Trump character since Trump vs. Bernie way back in 2015, but it’s also thanks to Atamanuik’s talented team of writers and producers. Shortly after joining the President Show writing staff this year, Christine Nangle – who has also written for Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer, and Playing House – was promoted to head writer, and when I recently talked with her about working on the show I learned she’s received another promotion as an executive producer and co-showrunner. Nangle was kind enough to chat with me about her old job, her new job, and how, when it comes to putting together a comedy show about Trump, “if you get inside the beast, you can see where the beast is going.”
Before we talk about The President Show, can we just talk about Pennsylvania for a minute?
Because I just want to say, as a Pennsylvanian, I really appreciate what you’ve brought to comedy in terms of Pennsylvania content.
[laughs] Thank you! Where are you from?
I’m from Harrisburg.
Oh wow, that’s not one you hear a lot.
Oh really? Hersheypark was my first job.
Oh, I love Hersheypark – and when you go on that tour like you’re going on a tour of chocolate or whatever.
Chocolate World! Yeah, but anyway, I don’t see Pennsylvania jokes very often so your contributions are appreciated.
Oh, my pleasure. I hope I don’t represent it poorly. I want people to get an understanding of how great the state is – unless it’s the shitty stuff we’re trying to highlight.
So President Show is your first head writer job, right?
Yes. Well, it was my first head writer job, because I’m not the head writer anymore, because I’ve been promoted to executive producer and co-showrunner.
Yeah! [laughs] It’s been a big month.
How did that come about?
One of our executive producers and co-showrunners, Jason Ross – who’s amazing – was out here working in New York even though his family is back in LA. He kind of finished his run of working on the show, so he left, and they promoted me.
That’s fantastic, congrats!
Thank you! I was like “Well, I don’t know if I want this job,” because I just started getting comfortable knowing how to be a head writer after 15 shows. But so far so good.
Are there any things you’ve learned from being head writer that you think will help you with the new job?
A lot of head writing is more about the big picture and long view for the show as opposed to working assignment by assignment, which has been a new challenge that I really enjoy. And executive producing is just doing that on a bigger scale than when I was the head of the writing department.
When you were head writer did you help hire writers? When did you join the show exactly?
No, I was brought on just like the rest of the writers. Adam Pally kept trying to contact me about this show that I didn’t know a whole lot about, and I wasn’t too keen on the premise until I saw Anthony do his Trump at the Writers Guild Awards in LA. I realized there was something really special about it, so I decided to take a meeting for it, and during the meeting they explained the premise to me and I was like “Goddamnit, I wanna do this job.” Less than a week later I was in New York starting. So yeah, they didn’t hire a head writer first, but a few weeks later they asked me to do it.
The president will pass whatever healthcare bill will keep his heart alive after all that fried chicken. pic.twitter.com/3eUf9Bgh9Q— The President Show (@PresidentShow) September 29, 2017
Can you run me through a typical week at the show?
Sure! We shoot on Thursdays, and we try to be as topical as we can be. So Monday is a day when we’re brainstorming ideas for the theme and for the desk piece, and normally on Monday we’re filming the digital pieces where we have Trump on Air Force One and he’s just kind of riffing off some news from the weekend or that day. But there’s never really a normal week here, because either on a Monday or a Friday or sometimes a Tuesday we’re filming a field piece, which has Anthony and/or Pete in full makeup out in the field, so we’re always adjusting our schedule to accommodate the field shoots or the digital stuff. But the one thing that doesn’t change is on Wednesdays we do our table read, Wednesday nights we do a late night rewrite with a small team, and Thursday’s the show.
So Monday is a lot of pitching and a lot of brainstorming, and normally by the beginning of Tuesday we’ll have an idea of what our theme is and what the desk piece is that we’re doing, and so from there we assign things to writers. By the end of Tuesday we have a rough script for what the show is gonna look like – of course, minus the interview, although we will have writers prep some questions for the guest along with our research department. By the end of Tuesday we have the script in some sort of rough shape. Normally by then we don’t always have our fourth act written – that’ll get done sometime on Wednesday. We do some rewrites in the morning on Wednesday, and then sometimes Wednesday afternoon we’ll do our read-through with Anthony and the writers and people from different departments. Wednesday night myself, Pete Grosz, Anthony, our co-producer Suzanne Fagel, and our head writer Emmy Blotnick – she’s our new head writer now, she’s awesome – and normally one other writer will stick around until midnight or so, go through the script line-by-line, and punch stuff up. Sometimes the script looks a whole lot different than it did going in, but it’s always really, really fun.
On Thursdays we make last-minute changes, and every day we’re trying to keep ourselves abreast and our research department is keeping us abreast of what the news is or if there are any big stories that are breaking through, and we’re kind of just looking ahead to the rest of the week thinking about what we can anticipate. For example, the Comey hearing happened on a Thursday, so we had done all of the stuff for the show I’ve already mentioned, and then this is happening the morning of our show. So we had people watching it and we had to be prepared to cut things at the last minute because of that. And then Fridays are pretty mellow compared to the rest of the week, and that’s when we write more stuff for the digital pieces.
How does the show approach the news cycle? Is there a sense that you always need to cover the latest breaking story? That’s got to be stressful.
We don’t want to be super reactive to everything, or only react to the last thing that happens, or only be taking the bait in terms of the palace intrigue of what’s going on interpersonally or whatever, because we do try to have larger thematic ideas or shine a light on some of the themes or issues that don’t get as much attention because of the constantly changing news cycle. And that’s something that we’ve been able to do with our field pieces and the farewell address. So it’s a mix, but especially on Thursday it’s pretty stressful, yeah.
The show posted a video about some of the things Anthony has said as Trump that turned out to be weirdly prophetic, which is funny but also really scary! And for the show, almost a weird responsibility in a way.
It is scary, I know! We keep joking that we should just do an impeachment show immediately – maybe that will put something into the air. It’s so weird. I think it comes down to Anthony’s takes on Trump and his administration and his followers. It speaks to the thoughtfulness and the brilliance of his take on all that, because the show is born of his take on Trump. He improvises and he creates the character from the inside-out. He starts with the psyche and the mindset, and that’s where everything comes from. And when you think of it like that, it makes sense that we’re “predicting” things, because if you get inside the beast, you can see where the beast is going, in a way – although that is not a place I’d like to live.
Here’s more proof that the greatest minds think alike. pic.twitter.com/BaWgVAT83N — The President Show (@PresidentShow) August 24, 2017
You mentioned you were initially turned off by the idea of the show before you learned more about the premise. Knowing there are people who might judge the show before they see it like that – or knowing there are people concerned about the “normalization” of Trump – how do you balance that all to make a funny show?
First of all, if somebody doesn’t want to watch the show because they don’t want to look at his fucking face for five more seconds than they have to, I never blame anyone for that. I totally get it. But I will say, I don’t know anyone who has seen the show who has said it’s normalizing him. Like, I know people who have said that before they’ve seen the show, but the people I know who have seen it, it’s always like “Wow, that is so not what I expected” and “It’s so much more subversive than I was expecting going into it.” But in terms of writing it that way, that’s intentional, obviously – the last thing we would want is to normalize him or make him look like a good sport. So it’s something that we always try to keep in mind, and we’re always keeping each other in check making sure that the finger is always pointing back at him and the people who support him despite everything he has shown himself to be and everything he has done and everything he has said. So while it’s tempting to want to kind of mimic what he does because it’s easy and funny to say things that he would say, what we’re trying to do is not amplify the type of shit he would say, because then you’re just putting that on TV again in a different way. We’re trying to break it down and point it back at him and point it back at people who think like him in a way that’s pointing out hypocrisy and pointing out…deep-seated mental illness, probably.
I don’t know if this is the best way to put it, but for me, as far as the prophetic aspect of the show, it feels like it’s always trying to take Trump one step further from where we are now – and then reality catches up with it, somehow.
That’s a good way to look at it. I think the way Anthony has been playing Trump all along ties in here. Right now we all look at where we are and all the insane things that he’s said and done that, before, would be unthinkable. But he’s been showing us who he is every single step of the way, and it’s so absurd that we all think “This has gotta be the limit – this can’t possibly be who he is.” That’s a testament to Anthony, because the whole time he’s been like “This is who he is! He’s not going to change, he’s only going to get crazier.” So much of Anthony’s portrayal is “How are you people still surprised? I’ve been telling you! Trump has been showing us over and over again.” So to me, it’s that comedy approach of “If this is true, what else is true?” It’s that kind of thing writ large – it’s a comedy rule that suddenly, it’s in our faces in a real way in real life, and we don’t want to believe it because it’s too absurd, and Anthony has just been pushing us to believe it. And that’s, I think, how we’ve kind of been ahead of the behaviors and the psychological stuff.
What are your plans going forward with your new job as executive producer and co-showrunner? Now that it’s moved to midnight, are there plans to play with the format or experiment in other ways?
Oh yeah! We have plans to play with the whole format of the show that we were going to do no matter what time we were on TV. I don’t know if you caught the Best Of clip show – it’s so good. When we were editing it together I was crying laughing, and these were the same clips I’d seen over and over again. We’d done 15 episodes and looking back at those clips and putting them together into different packages really showed the breadth of the stuff we’ve done just in 15 episodes and all the different imagery, all the different scenic things we’ve done, the guests that we’ve had on, and the places we’ve gone in our field pieces, and it was just really exciting and spoke to just how amazing our team is. It’s been such an amazing gift that Comedy Central has given us such free range to do what we want and figure out different situations to put these guys in and find different ways to highlight different issues and point out some of the things that we want to point out. We just shot a field piece that I could not be more excited about that will air on the 5th – you’re gonna love it, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.
So yeah, we keep getting encouraged by Anthony to think as big as we want to, and the “fun” part of my job now is figuring out how we can physically do that. That’s been the big difference between being a head writer and being an executive producer – you used to be able to think as big as you want and throw out all these ideas, and now you have to be the person who’s like “Well wait a minute, how can we actually do that?” But on this show, more than any show I’ve worked on, the craziest thing will get pitched, and the leadership of the show just takes a moment like “Wait, how can we do that?” So it’s been a gift to work with so many people who think so differently.
It’s cool to know that the show’s first head writer was a woman and now the new head writer is a woman and one of the showrunners is a woman. That’s not common for a late night show, but it makes me feel good to know a show making fun of Trump has women in charge.
Yeah, me too. I’ll tell you, it’s cathartic in a way. Part of Anthony’s take on Trump is that he just acts like an old Jewish woman. And so much of our writing staff – it might even be more than half, I’m not sure – are women. I should know that, right?
Well, you’re busy with your new promotion.
But you know what? Can I just say, now that I’m saying this out loud, that’s so awesome that I don’t even know. Some shows I worked on I could tell you exactly what the ratio is, but with this show, I don’t. It’s just like, “There’s a bunch!”
But I don’t fault people for paying attention, because I realize that back when I wasn’t doing comedy, I remember looking at the credits of shows that I liked and looking at the title pages of the Onion books and things like that, and I remember looking for female names – mostly subconsciously, I guess as a way to see if it was something that I could do. But it’s not something that I realized I did until recently, so I totally get paying attention to that. It’s not really by design that there ended up being so many women writing the show, but it’s pretty exciting to be able to write this character and look around and know that we got some plans for this guy.