As Anthony Atamanuik explained when we met for an interview at New York Comic Con last week, it’s hard to make a plan when it comes to satirizing history’s most unpredictable president on The President Show. Since that interview, Donald Trump has taken on a senator efrom his own party, challenged his Secretary Of State to an IQ contest, and continued fights with the NFL and the free press. He even took on late night talk show hosts, wondering if he should get equal time, a tweet that makes you wonder if Atamanuik’s (faux) Trump hosted talk show might have to compete with the real thing one day. To put it mildly, Atamanuik has a deep well to draw from for this week’s episode. But what else is new?
We spoke with the impressionist, comic, writer, and producer about the process of planning a show following a tragedy (as they did following the Las Vegas shooting), Trump exhaustion, whether he worries about typecasting, and the differences between his impression and Alec Baldwin’s.
What’s the approach when a tragedy like Las Vegas occurs? Because, I imagine there’s a little, “Well, should we just be a little hands off with this and do something else?” Can you take me through the process?
Well that’s exactly what happens. We came in, and we had had a whole plan for the week before, and this is par for the course for this show. We try to set up a plan, or we try to say this is what we could do, but with the total understanding that that thing will be blown apart. Most of the time it’s blown apart by them, by the administration. Trump does something crazy or some new thing happens.
This was an event that… you know, [a] tragic event that happened, and so what we do in circumstances like that is I think before we say “We can’t, we won’t, we can’t, we don’t” we sort of watch the day. I said on Monday, “Let’s have 24 hours to bake on it. Let’s watch what the coverage is. Let’s see how other shows handled things. We have until Thursday. Let’s see where we’re at Thursday.” You’re always in the mode of predicting. You’re saying, “Where will we be Thursday in the news cycle? What things will come in that will interfere with the story as is, and then also how do other people handle it?”
The thing that I noticed was the solemn talk show host speech before the show, right? They were all very sincere, and I mean Jimmy Kimmel’s was devastating. So you have this honest moment, and then they do the comedy show, right? I went, “Even this is a pattern now in our society with these shootings.” That even this where we have to, as comedians, become serious people, say this thing, and then do our comedy. So then I go, well, [on The President Show] Trump hosts a talk show, so I don’t want to break the convention of the show. It would have to be pretty serious for me to break the convention of the show, and this was very serious, but like, we’re always like, “What’s the challenge is how to not.”
We said, “Well, he has a late night show. We have to do Trump’s version of trying to be solemn, and in that, we can be satirical because this guy does not have sincerity within him.” So, therefore, it became not about making fun of the shooting, which we would never do. It became making fun of and mocking the perspective and the false solemnity that he was trying to put forward.
We then said, “Well, what is the response?” The response is that this nation is a nation of gun profiteering and of violence profiteering, and so we need to figure out how to litigate that idea. What is the condition that got us here? What are the notions of “Now is not the time” and all this other stuff? That’s how you deal with it, and you have to give yourself space for it. I’m sure, and I hope this isn’t true, but I’m sure we’ll face down an event on a Thursday where we don’t have the time to bake on it, and we’ll face it then.
But yeah, I think the challenge is to always fold it back to how are they doing it, and are they doing it poorly, well, or not, and then attacking the parts where we feel they’re doing poorly.
Yes, I did.
I thought the Alec Baldwin quote was interesting, where he basically said Hammond could have the role back if he wanted it. I sense a level of exhaustion there, with Alec Baldwin having to do the thing. Do you feel any kind of exhaustion in you from having to do this role? As a performer.
I feel an exhaustion because… If I only had to show up for five minutes and do someone else’s material, I don’t think I’d be that tired. We have to write the whole show. I’m the writer and creator along and the showrunners Christine Nangle and Pete Grosz. We’re heavily involved, and I’m intensely involved in every aspect of every aspect of the show. I approve props. I am on the floor talking about camera shots. I’m involved in the post-production process. I’m involved in every aspect of our show, and that is a lot of… I’m very grateful for that work. Yeah, it’s a 10-, 12-, 13-hour work day most days, depending on the news cycle, so it’s physically exhausting, and performing him is somewhat emotionally exhausting sometimes, and other times it’s… you’re in the pocket. But I will say this just in general, no one forces anybody to do anything, so I don’t believe in martyrizing yourself because you do something. You don’t have to do it, and you don’t have to come back for a second season or a third. That’s your choice, so.
Speaking of that choice, as a comedian, as someone who creates… an artist, do you worry that this could limit the next thing?
I mean, yeah, of course.
Would you step away from it before it’s run its natural conclusion because of that?
Oh, no. I will stay in until he’s out of office. As long as the network will have us, because I believe this is a civic duty at this point. We’re doing a job, a civic responsibility. Yeah, could I get Shatner-ized or Estelle Getty-ized? Of course, because you’re doing this big, broad thing. The beauty, I think, is that fortunately, I can remove all of this [makeup and the costume] and I don’t really look much like him.
No, not really.
I’ve appeared on a lot of shows before I did this, and I hopefully will be able to create things behind the scenes, and also perform in things as I want. I think you have to set a mental self-limitation for that to be true.
Well, I’ll say this one thing, which is that Darrell Hammond set the standard, and was an incredible performer, a sensitive performer, and when I met him when I was doing Trump, he was so gracious and supportive, and when I was doing the show, he sent a note to me that was gracious and supportive, and that guy’s a class act. I think in that sense, just to say, there’s a person who set the standard for all of us, and we should have respect for him, and for what he’s gone through as a person. In terms of the differences, you know, I’m writing and creating. I’m driving it more.
How about in the characterization?
Oh, you mean the physical manifestation?
Yeah, because there’s definitely a difference, I think.
I think his is a lot more rooted in sort of his decision about how he feels about him, and therefore the impression is rooted in his perspective, as he’s often said, and I agree about this, which is that Trump’s a maniacal sort of awful person. An awful human being in a surface way, and probably in the inside, too. I choose to play him with his psyche inside out and then figure out who and how what I am attaches to that. I wanted to go for accuracy first, and then throw the abstract underneath.
I wonder if the intelligence angle comes into it. Like they said in the Post article, you kind of get the sense from Baldwin’s impression that he doesn’t really think Trump is all that intelligent.
I don’t think that he’s intellectually curious, but I think that he has a clear survival intelligence.
Yes, evil genius. And I would say this: I don’t know how in charge he is of every decision that he makes, but I think at a sort of reptilian level, I think he has very great instincts in terms of just how to manipulate, and he knows how to ride his own incoherent wave. I wouldn’t then give him the credit of being Machiavellian.
Do you feel like you channel that with him?
Yeah, I think that’s the thing that I channel with him. And you know, listen: There’s plenty of Trump for everybody. We should do as many possible permutations and impressions of him [as possible].
The President Show airs Thursday night at midnight on Comedy Central