comics talk to comics

James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik on Impersonating Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

American politics are usually a circus, but the 2016 primaries have been an over-the-top sideshow. Helping us laugh at the future of the White House — so we don’t have to curl up in a pit of despair — are comedians James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik, who up the zaniness of two of the most divisive figures this political cycle with their impressions of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, respectively. Their show Trump vs. Bernie, which sets the two candidates in a general election debate, toured last winter, appeared on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and @midnight, and debuts as a special on Fusion tonight at 9 p.m. If you missed them live, check their site for tour dates coming to cities across the U.S. and abroad, including stops in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, London, and Dublin. The two caught up before the second leg of their tour begins in Toronto with a chat about improv and impersonations, the campaign trail, and rooting for Trump through the primary season, despite their political beliefs, for the sake of their tour.

James Adomian: You’re in London and I’m in L.A., but we’re about to meet up in Toronto. Have you enjoyed being on the road these past five months?
Anthony Atamanuik: I’ve had a blast. There are periods where we’ve been exhausted and at the end of our ropes, and then it refreshes itself with the performances. Right?

I’m with you, but I’m still waiting for the refresh part [both laugh].
I’m trying to be cheery about it. Honestly, what’s been so amazing is that we knew each other mostly before the tour through performances — it was an intermittent, friendly intersection. I’ve been impressed by our ability to create a deeper friendship. We’ve been good at handling the natural, summer-camp tension of being in the same cabin for so long.

We’ve handled it pretty well. We’re both grown-ups. It might have been different if we were 21 or 23.
If we were 23 we probably would have had some sort of latent hook-up with each other and then I would have tried to kill you.

It would have been a lot like Y Tu Mamá También.
That’s French?

Mexican, actually.
Whatever, I play Trump, I don’t have to care.

It’s funny, whenever I hear anything offensive now I think of your Donald Trump impression. If I think, Oh, wow, that’s offensive, I then think, Oh, Tony should do that. The tour has been fun for me because I did improv when I was young, but mostly I do stand-up now. You’re the improv guy though; you teach improv. How is our show different or similar from what you usually do at Upright Citizens Brigade?
It’s similar in the sense of joy we feel with each other.

I feel like, Oh my god, we’re doing it. We’re doing it!
Right, if I serve something up and then I watch you turn it around and serve it back, that delights me. When you take a left turn that I’m not expecting that makes me even happier, because then it keeps me feeling like this is a fresh experience. Usually improv has a refresh rate of two to four minutes — a scene goes on for that long and then you refresh with a new one. We’re doing something that is long form: It’s two hours, no breaks. We don’t get to reset. We’re building on the Roman Ruins, we don’t get a chance to knock the whole thing down and start again in the middle of the show.

We’re tied to the characters and to the format.
I’m going to turn this back to you. When we started to do this, this is an honest thing, I saw you as an established comedian, stand-up, and impressionist. I’ve listened to you on podcasts. The reason why I vibe with you is because you don’t just do an impression — you take known people and turn them into a character. What’s your process?

Doing an impression usually works in a sketch that’s under five minutes. For a longer show I really enjoy characters like Bernie Sanders or Jesse Ventura, where there’s a bunch of different angles that are built into the point of view and you can bullshit for 40 minutes. Also, at some point, inevitably, whether by chance or design, there comes a point where I have no idea what Bernie would say. Part of the fun for me is rolling out beyond the borders of logical reality, like if Bernie had to talk about chickens crossing the road, what would his opinions be?
You mostly perform solo, but what is it like to be in a situation like we’re in with Trump vs. Bernie?

It feels halfway between a show where I’m doing stand-up for an hour as myself and the other extreme, like a festival show where there’s a bunch of guests onstage and we all have microphones and we’re doing characters. The two-man show has an interesting rhythm — there’s a little bit of time to sit back and listen, but we’re also focusing the whole time. We do the thing where when the one is talking, the other is listening in character. When you watch a debate on TV, the candidates are always having some kind of ridiculous, corny reaction to what the other one is saying.
What do you think is the biggest adjustment or change you’ve made to Bernie since we started?

Well, obviously there’s a cosmetic change, literally having the hair and makeup for when we did it on TV. I also stop myself from breaking. I used to watch you and just laugh, but when I saw the tape I realized it’s a stronger choice if I stay in character. The voice has also changed. During the campaign Bernie’s voice has got worn out and so has mine doing the show. The character has gotten a lot more hoarse while we’re on the road.
Some of the character choices you don’t have to make an effort with. The actual immersive act of doing the tour forced us to be on the campaign trail and run the same ragged schedule. We got as beat up as them, so it was half choice and half by design.

They might have had a slightly more difficult traveling and speaking schedule than we did, but they definitely had a lot easier drinking schedule.
Trump doesn’t drink at all.

That’s so weird. Here’s my question: How the fuck is he so fat if he doesn’t drink?
I think he eats a lot of rich food. He probably has two gout boots. I don’t even think his feet move anymore. His feet probably look like two set models of Jabba the Hutt [both laugh]. I have an off the reservation question I’ve always wanted to ask you: What is an impression you’ve always wanted to do, but you can’t?

Wait, stop. You know that’s my least favorite question I get asked.
Is that true? I didn’t know that! Why does it bother you?

I don’t know. How about, Hey Tony, how did you get started in comedy?
Jerking off. I looked at my own penis and I said I got to get into comedy.

Pfft. That’s like a Richard Lewis Joke.
You know what, I loved Richard Lewis when I was a kid. I knew I could never be like him though. Listen, for me I wish I had the ability to be a wry, wordsmith witticist, but I know I won’t be. I wish I could be a dry, quiet comic.

You know, when we started doing this, Trump was everyone’s favorite clown and a lot of people didn’t know who Bernie was. Now Trump has the wind in his sails and Bernie is fighting through some heroic rear-guard action. We’ve gone through the whole trajectory with them.
Did you have a sense of panic when those primaries would happen, where you’d be like, Oh please don’t one of you fuckers drop out. Please, last through timeline we’ve set up.

We were always texting and calling each other when we’d read the news about the primaries. It was the best when both Trump and Bernie won.
Indiana was a good day.

I hate incorporating Donald Trump’s victories into what I think of as a good day, but it’s purely for the comedy.
It’s a horrifying prospect for me.

You’ve talked about your impression of Trump being a mirror that you hold up to the world, and I like that analogy. If that’s true though, then how bad are things? How are you managing to have fun with that bizarro mirror?
George Orwell said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” That’s the world we live in — a boot-stomping world. I don’t know if what I’m doing changes anything, but I know it makes me happier as the world is ending to laugh at it.

The key to gallows humor is to make the joke, no matter how certain the gallows is.
We are in a space where people from every stripe, from far left to far right, are ignorant, uninformed, and distracted. I’m putting the mirror up to show how we’re all contributing to this. As the world burns, we’re all great pretenders who want to say everything is fine. I like to present some kind of curiosity on how it might be different. I also like to make a lot of puns.

It seems like everyone knows that we’re going through some kind of trauma and people are hurting and they feel pain. The tragic and hilarious thing is that people disagree just enough about what’s happening, why, and because of who, that everyone’s solution is at cross purposes. It’s fun to perform Bernie Sanders and give his boring percentages and fact-based points to address some ridiculous Trumpisms, because that was always my fantasy for what the general election would look like. Sadly, it will probably just be a fantasy, in which case, I’m glad we got to leave an artifact for the record of what it would have looked like.
It was like a Voyager 2 probe of comedy.

Yeah, they put a message on our back and now they’re sending us to Toronto.
Toronto is like outer space.

Adomian & Atamanuik on Touring As Bernie & Trump