Since the debut of his Comedy Central series The President Show and several specials that followed, Anthony Atamanuik has distinguished himself in a sea of Trump impersonators by being the most accurate. He credits that, in part, to his empathy for the man. At the same time, Atamanuik was one of the first comedians to call out Trump’s white-supremacist leanings. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston (Chelsea, to be exact), he saw how teens got swept up in the skinhead movement. Trump’s campaign hit all the same beats. How can one be empathetic of a such a person? “Empathy is not an endorsement. It is an understanding of a person,” he told me over the phone. Ataminiuk’s take on Trump is that he truly doesn’t understand what it is to love and be loved, so he lets his most base thoughts rule him. “Where it makes us angry,” he says, “is that he is in the position where how he is affects our lives. I think that’s the thing that makes us angry — the lack of control we feel.”
Atamanuik’s new special, A President Show Documentary: The Fall of Donald Trump, forecasts what will happen to the key players in this administration when they lose control. Regulars from The President Show are joined by such faces Law & Order: SVU’s Stephanie March (Ivanka) and Kathy Griffin (Kellyanne Conway) looking back on Trump after he’s completely disappeared from the face of the Earth.
Why did you decide to do a special about the end of Trump?
I had this idea in my back pocket in 2016, since before the election. I had pitched it to Comedy Central before I ever had the show with them. I was doing @midnight at the time. I thought it would be an interesting mini-series before the election. But there wasn’t enough time for the sort of epic-ness that I wanted. After the first season, and the next season that was specials, I realized that something we had done really well was predict events. We had predicted so many things. From “I’m the president, can you believe it?” to toilet paper on his shoe to separating kids from families. Ad infinitum, I could name them. And I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to just steer into that and really make something that predicts the future? I wanted to, in a sort of velvet-glove/iron-fist way, paint the abject period that I think we’re going to go through but also show, as George Harrison said so well, all things must pass. This era that we’re in will eventually transmute into something else, and I wanted to show that.
I think one reason you’re so good at predicting things is that you’ve never been surprised by the ugliness of this country, especially the racism.
Yes. And hatred of women, let’s not forget that.
I have a hard time forgetting that.
No, of course.
Is it a Chelsea thing, being able to see that ugliness?
Ha! Yeah, I mean Chelsea, Massachusetts, in terms of a city, is so diverse — especially now — and also impoverished. I grew up there from age 6 on. Prior to that, I was in this pastoral, sort of rural town of Topsfield, Massachusetts. I really got to see the heights of white privilege, then see where the world really is. It definitely informed me about the disparities in the world, the ugliness of the world, and the unfairness of the world. Massachusetts is so racist they really break it down by white people, too. If you’re a Jewish kid from Chelsea, you’re trash 20 miles north. And I think that informed a lot for me. And I think it made me not sympathize, but empathize at least with the notion of Trump being from Queens. His root desire, which he never really connected with, is always feeling on the outside. Even as a builder, he was on the outside of the Wasp-y builders of Manhattan. As a candidate, he was on the outside of all the people running for office. I don’t say that in a reinforcing way, I just say that as an observation. Maybe in that sense, I was able to connect with him in a way.
You’ve said before that your Trump impression is more examination than exaggeration, and there’s some empathy in there. But what are you feeling when you are writing or doing the character?
When I’m doing the character, I would say that I am just doing. I’m not really thinking anything. But in observing him and learning how to do him, I’ll stand by it till the day I die: You have to have empathy for him. He’s a person. He might be the worst person in the world to a lot of people, but he’s a person. And if you want to understand how he works and what he does, empathetically you must get there. I’m not religious, but there but for the grace of God go I. I could be him, you could be him, any of us could be him.
Your version of Trump enjoys being a pot-stirrer. He gets off on the provocation, whereas other people might play him more oblivious of the effect he’s having.
A lot of comedians like to think of themselves as agents provocateurs. Does that calling-out of pot-stirring affect how you do comedy?
I think what I try to do is play the private him. I’ve read a lot of things about how he enjoys watching his employees, or his sons, argue with each other. He’ll set the ball rolling and watch it play out. That’s such a classic abuser’s behavior. I like to try to play [him as] the pot-stirrer, and I don’t think he’s dumb. Like a classic abuser, he lashes out or upsets people or sets people against each other, and then he walks away from it.
How has the performance or character changed over the past two years?
I think I’ve really settled into it more. I’m able to sit in his voice more and his behaviors more. I think I’ve integrated the way I interpret him as a character into the way I portray him. The road has diverged a little bit. My portrayal of Trump can be frighteningly accurate, if I want to be. But I like the way that he’s sort of jumped into a little bit of a Homer Simpson. I like that my version of him has evolved into sometimes strangely observant, other times completely ignorant. I think that happens after you play a character for a long time. He is a painting that now I have made. In the beginning, I was very concerned in making sure that it feels accurate, that it feels on-point. And then we did that truck monologue, which was the very first thing we did on remote shoot, and that changed everything for me.
How did it change everything for you?
Because, in that moment, when that truck monologue happened, I was actually sitting and taking a break. They were filming me, but I was just sitting there as myself. When the honk happened, I was doing that for the crew. I never thought that would be on air. I realized in that moment what I loved so much about my live performances I did with James [Adomian], and my Trump Dump shows, and what I’ve always loved at UCB. I’ll joke about my contempt for the audience, but I like intimacy of doing it just for a few people. And I like when it feels like a private joke between us. And when I realized that I could do that on a larger scale and that I could speak my interpretation of what I think is going on inside of him as a character monologue, I discovered that it could translate in TV. And I hadn’t known that it could.
This special is very much an ensemble piece. Everybody is bringing a lot. How do you make sure that almost a dozen performers doing impressions of famous people is tonally consistent?
We definitely have conversations. Stephanie March was new to the show but is such a professional and so talented. She immediately got in with us. I know Kathy [Griffin] now, I know Mario [Cantone], I’ve known John Gemberling forever. I’ve known Pete [Grosz] for years. Austin Pendleton is just a great actor. You know he’s going to do his thing, and he did it incredibly. I like to think that we bring some great New York theater vibes to this show. As a troupe, you all convey with each other what the tonality is. And of course I’m present throughout everything. Ryan McFaul is an amazing director. So you just have the best of the best making it.
There are two ways to work. Well, there are many ways to work. But there’s the “waiter” way, where I get all these people who do wardrobe and cinematography and acting, and I go, “I’m the customer, you’re the waiter, and I want you to bring me what I order.” Or I could say, “You’re the craftsperson, and this is kind of what I want, but I want you to give me your version of the bookshelf.” I would prefer to work in the second way. I prefer to hire people, whether it’s actors or the people who work around me in that supporting system that makes the show, and say, “Here’s the vision.” We share the vision, we’ve all worked together for a while. I have a high retention of the people I work with because I respect them, and they respect me. And I want them to show me their wares, and that becomes part of the work. That’s a great way to work — you make better work that way.
Have you been paying attention to the global rise of these authoritarian “populist” characters? Are there other Trumps popping up on the horizon you’re taking notice of?
I know in Brazil there’s a new Trump coming along any moment, right? The election is in a couple of weeks or a month away?
It’s pretty imminent.
And there’s Duterte, Putin. You have Xi in China, you got all the old standards. Also, in Europe I know there’s been a lot of challenge in Germany from the far right there. And Italy has recently gone into the land of the junta. They’re not just popping up, they’ve been there for a long time. And the United States has been working with them for a long time.
This is a rare moment for me to say this, but the Saudi Arabia thing with Trump, I find to be quite unfair. Because, yes, of course he has business partnerships with the Saudis and of course he’s corrupt. But did we forget that George Bush held the hand of the Saudi leader months after 9/11? And 9/11 was a Saudi operation against the United States? It’s insane to me that we’re laying this at Trump’s doorstep when this has been a relationship that has extended for decades. Part of the reason that Wahhabi schools even existed in Saudi Arabia — and allowed for the rise of fundamentalist thinking that ended up poisoning the well of Islam, that has hurt billions of people who are freethinking peaceful Muslims around the world — is because of the United States’ involvement in the oil trade in Saudi Arabia. It’s a prime example of how we’re pouring all our ills into Donald Trump, when both parties have been looking the other way in Saudi Arabia for decades. Give me a break!
It’s almost like his branding as being completely separate from the “deep state” was too effective, and now nobody is willing to look at the machinery behind him.
Absolutely. And I don’t think that, conspiratorially, that’s by design. But I think everybody loves that it’s happening. I think that the worst thing that could happen is Trump gets out of office and then you suddenly have both of the parties that led us to Trump going, “See, we’re back! It’s all sane again. And we can continue to slowly choke out the poor and have legislation that doesn’t really help women or people of color in this country. We can ignore the crisis and wounds of slavery that led us to this place that we are in now. And you know what? Let’s elect Scott Walker president, because at least he’s a thinking Republican.” That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we are not going to take this moment to see that Trump is the result of this, he is not the cause.
I’m from Indiana, so in some ways I fear a Trump impeachment almost as much as a Trump presidency.
Oh my God, absolutely. Mike Pence is a dark soul. That is a dark human being right there.
Why do you think that Pence gets so much of a pass in a lot of humor? People are always talking about how he’s bland or chill without looking at his actions before coming to a national stage.
I see that even in our show. We do a lot of “he’s mayonnaise on bread.” But part of it is that we’re portraying him in the show as the sycophant orbiting Trump. That’s how we always see Pence — he’s this sycophant who’s always sucking up to Trump and sort of standing behind him and chuckling whenever he’s saying something crazy.
What do you think is going to happen in the midterms?
If people show up the way that they’ve been tweeting, and if people show up the way they’ve been protesting, then I think you’ll have a substantial turn. Twenty-three seat majority, twenty-four seat majority in the House. And I think in the Senate, you’ll probably lose some seats and the Republicans will have a 53/54 seat majority. If they don’t show up, then I think you could see a slight move where there is a split House and the Republicans barely retain it. And if that happens, then I think every person who didn’t vote should be arrested if they complain about anything that happens after that day. They should be arrested and silenced. I’m joking, but I just think that if you don’t vote, then you’re trash right now.
Now I want to acknowledge that within all of that, they purge people of color from the voter polls. That you have the race in Georgia where one of the candidates is actually purposefully pulling 53,000 black voters off of the rolls. That you also have the possibility of voting hacking, because we keep moving to a voting system that’s predicated on electronic voting machines that run on Windows 95. So I’m well aware of all those things that could lead us to an outcome that we don’t deserve. But overwhelming force would make sure that it wasn’t a possibility. Hacking can only occur on the margins of slim votes. So I think that everyone has no excuse. And we should make voting a national holiday. But, quite frankly, go and lose your goddamn job and go vote! Because you’ll get another one after. Just go vote. That’s all I have to say.
Atamanuik’s A President Show Documentary: The Fall of Donald Trump airs on Comedy Central tonight at 11 p.m.