AUSTIN, Texas—James Adomian is perhaps the greatest political impressionist working in comedy today. Just this week at South by Southwest, he performed as Bernie Sanders, Sebastian Gorka, Elon Musk, Alex Jones, Chris Matthews, and Ted Cruz (who he voices to hilarious effect on Our Cartoon President) at various shows around Austin.
During his own solo stand-up set Monday night, he did all of those characters along with Paul Giamatti, shock jock Tom Leykis and, for good measure, Donald Trump.
But Adomian, a regular presence on podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! and Chapo Trap House, has never been on Saturday Night Live. He doesn’t have his own late-night show. And there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of him.
The 38-year-old comedian has some ideas about why that might be. And it has a lot to do with being a still all-too-rare out gay male comedian.
Think about it. It’s easy to rattle off a list of very successful lesbian stand-up comics. Ellen DeGeneres. Tig Notaro. Wanda Sykes. Margaret Cho. Rosie O’Donnell. But has there ever been a hugely successful out gay male comic?
Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that there hasn’t been an out gay male full-fledged cast member on SNL since Terry Sweeney became the first and only one more than 30 years ago. He only lasted one season, from 1985-1986, and has since been more or less lost to history. It was another 26 years before the show brought on its next out cast member, current star Kate McKinnon. In 2016, Chris Kelly became the first openly gay co-head writer (along with Sara Schneider) in SNL’s history, but they left to create a new show for Comedy Central the following year.
“It would be nice if they put a gay man on camera on that show,” Adomian tells me over lattes in the lobby of his hotel in Austin. “I’ve been out of the closet the whole time since I auditioned 13 years ago. You would think that they would have tried to put someone else on that was a gay man. It’s about time.”
SNL declined to comment for this piece on the record. However, a source with knowledge of the situation says Adomian auditioned several times but the show decided his comedy wasn’t the right fit.
Jake Weisman, a young comedian who co-created and co-stars in the Comedy Central series Corporate, recently told me he knows exactly why someone as talented as Adomian never got hired by SNL.
“Because he’s gay,” Weisman said matter-of-factly. “Because they’re bigoted.” When I suggest that might not be the case in 2018, he replied, “I mean, the guy at the top’s the same, people are just calling it out more.”
“It certainly didn’t help that I was openly gay,” Adomian says of his audition experience. “I think that Lorne Michaels is afraid of America’s dads.” He imitates a middle-American straight guy saying, “I’m not gonna let my kid watch a show with a gay man.” He predicts the trend will change “sooner or later” but says it’s up to Michaels “whether he’ll be a part of” that change or not.
On the first night of SXSW this year, Adomian performed as Bernie Sanders at a town hall-style event at Esther’s Follies. With the help of the festival organizers, he had tried to get the senator to make a surprise appearance, but they couldn’t make it happen.
“Bernie has bad taste in comedy,” Adomian tells me. “Ironically, Bernie only pays attention to the billionaire level of comedy. So working-class Bernie Sanders supporters in comedy, it’s impossible for him to be aware of,” he adds, referring to himself. “I’m the Bernie Sanders of Bernie Sanders impersonators.”
Adomian, who maxed out as an individual contributor to Sanders’ campaign during the 2016 primary, couldn’t even get in to see the senator speak at SXSW that same day and instead had to watch it from an overflow room. “His ideas are great and his posture is bad,” he jokes. “That’s why I’ve always loved him.”
He also counts himself among the “Bernie would’ve won” crowd, arguing that there’s “no possible way he would have lost Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania.” And Adomian swears he doesn’t just support Sanders to help his own career. “It was all because I believe in him,” he says. “I don’t vote based on my career. If that were the case, I’d be voting for Seb Gorka.”
It’s something he experienced back in 2004 when he had been performing a particularly “nasty and antagonistic” George W. Bush impression in his act and then later on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. “It was painful, because when he got re-elected people called me and were like, ‘Congratulations’ and I was like, ‘No! I’ve been trying to destroy him.’
“What separates a great comedian who does impressions from an impressionist that people kind of groan at is the idea of what’s absolutely hilarious about the person you’re doing an impression of,” he says. “It should be funny first. Accurate second. Otherwise you’re basically doing a magic trick.”
When he was younger and really trying to “prove” himself he would travel to festivals with a huge suitcase filled with five or six different costumes for the characters he would play on stage. For his own “sanity,” he says he has cut way back on that, but did still break out the white wig for Sanders and a fake goatee and black leather gloves for Gorka in Austin.
“James is an incredible impersonator because he's a great actor and more importantly, he does an 'impression' which, to me, is different that an impersonation,” Anthony Atamanuik, the star of Comedy Central’s The President Show, told me of his friend this week. “He is giving you an artful interpretation of the person he's portraying. The accuracy is a skillful bonus, but the soul of James' work is in his interpretation of the ineffable qualities of a person.”
Adomian tells me that he has a lot of larger ideas for television and film, but he’s “not able to make them” because he’s never been given the opportunity. In character as Bernie Sanders at his show last Friday night, he momentarily “broke the fourth wall” to reveal that he had recently pitched a show to Netflix, but was ultimately rejected because they are “only interested in doing deals with famous people.”
He tells me he’s had meetings with “every single network” that a comedy fan might be familiar with and they have said no to his TV show ideas every time (so far).
For much of the year leading up to the 2016 election, Adomian toured the country as Bernie Sanders, going city to city debating Donald Trump, as played Atamanuik.
The following spring, after Trump had unexpectedly won the election, Alec Baldwin went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and mouthed the words “fuck you” to some “guys on the internet” lobbying to fill-in for the president at what would have been his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He was talking about Atamanuik, whose fans had started a Twitter campaign on his behalf.
When Atamanuik tried to respond diplomatically to Baldwin, with whom he’d worked on 30 Rock, the actor blocked him. “I’m sad that there’s a distance or problem there, or whatever, but I don’t really know,” Atamanuik told me last year. “You never really know. But it wasn’t like we were the best of friends, so what can I tell you?”
Adomian was less forgiving. Not only did he tweet that Baldwin’s Trump impression “sucks” but he also called the actor “scared low class trash” and “fatface.” Then he dropped an even more damning indictment. According to Adomian, SNL used Atamanuik’s audition tape to help Baldwin “rip” it off. He tweeted, “SNL is the most notorious thief of sketches, characters and jokes in the entire industry.”
“Oh, James. I’d sue you for this, but the only thing you have is bitterness and obscurity,” Baldwin tweeted back at Adomian.
“Alec Baldwin started a fight because he’s a fat idiot,” Adomian tells me when I bring up the incident. It’s been more than a year, but he’s clearly still heated about it and shocked that no one has asked him about it on the record since it happened.
“Alec Baldwin is a bully and is insensitive to people who are not as famous as him being better than him at comedy,” he continues, learning forward in his seat. “So he started a fight by shitting on Anthony Atamanuik because of a grassroots movement of people—not Anthony—campaigning for him to host the correspondents’ dinner as Trump.
“There was a groundswell of people and fat, jealous, bully fuck Alec Baldwin went on television, which Tony didn’t have access to, and called us ‘internet guys,’” he says. “And I’m sorry, I don’t like having big fights with people, but it is not allowed to call me an ‘internet guy.’ I am superior to you, Alec. So I beat him up, I taught him a lesson. He got a week of bad press and from time to time I kick him again.”
From there, Adomian accuses Baldwin of making a “homophobic” comment about him during their Twitter fight by comparing him to Tennessee Williams.
“But here’s the thing,” he adds. “I get to experience the real joy of audiences laughing without a warm-up artist holding an applause sign, which is the only way Alec Baldwin hears applause. So my life is far more joyful because I’m not surrounded by yes men to make me happy, like fat boy Baldwin.”
As for Larry David, who was cast as Bernie Sanders on the show because of their uncanny resemblance, Adomian says, “He does a very funny Larry David impression that they call a very funny Bernie Sanders impression.” (He later texts me to say that he has “no beef” with David, unlike Baldwin.)
When I ask Adomian specifically about the charge he made regarding SNL stealing jokes, he says, “That’s a scandal that’s going to break open sooner or later, I guess. SNL is notorious for passing around audition tapes. It happened to me. It happened to Anthony. It’s happened to other people I know.”
Adomian calls it an “industry-wide problem” of creators using people’s auditions to create shows without hiring those people. “SNL is probably the worst offender,” he says, “but it’s an industry-wide problem and SAG-AFTRA should get involved.”
Instead of criticizing SNL, Adomian says he would prefer to compete with them on a sketch-comedy series of his own where he and his comedian friends can do their impersonations for a larger TV audience. “There’s a golden age on the internet that is not being represented on television at all,” he says, “of people who do these amazing impressions that you only know about if you listen to podcasts or watch the right web series.”
SNL may be coming off of its Emmy-winning, highest-rated season in decades, but Adomian thinks the current state of sketch comedy on television is “abysmal,” especially now that Key & Peele is no longer on the air.
“I feel that same way about representation,” he says. “We are in a golden age of gay male comics, at live shows, around the country and at festivals like this. We are very well-presented at live shows and on the internet. Television? Not so much.” He jokes that gay men hosting TV shows is “almost illegal” in the U.S. (Andy Cohen notwithstanding).
Adomian chalks some of this up to “overt homophobia,” but says most of it is due to the “cowardice” of executives who will say, “I’m not homophobic, but I’m afraid that my audience is.”
Whereas the success of a film like Black Panther is making Hollywood reconsider its racist preconceptions about what audiences want to see, Adomian says it is “impossible to even imagine anything like Black Panther for gay people.”
“We are so far away from that, and I wish that we were closer,” he says. “We still need to be cast members on TV shows. There are still so many steps that need to happen for gay representation. So I’m playing this game for future generations. I probably cannot reap the benefits of what needs to happen. I’m 38 now.”
Some of those younger out comedians have been gaining in popularity in recent years. John Early has had some mainstream success on TV with Search Party and Wet Hot American Summer. Stand-up comics like Matteo Lane, Joel Kim Booster and Julio Torres (who writes for SNL) are killing in clubs.
Billy Eichner—about the same age as Adomian—might be the most successful gay male comedian on television right now and his show currently doesn’t have a network. Adomian cites Daniel Webb, Anthony Desamito, and Drew Droege as gay comics who “should be household names” but aren’t.
“It’s sad for me to see these guys and go, ‘Oh my god, this is great!’” Adomian says. “And then you realize, oh fuck, there’s a brick wall in front of them.”
As pessimistic as he is, Adomian says he has seen progress over the course of his career, from performing to “hostile” audiences around the country to the more accepting embrace he receives today. Even in those early days he would always talk about being gay at the top of his set in order to “force them to laugh and change their minds that way.”
“The public opinion about gay marriage, gay sex, other gay rights issues has noticeably shifted like ice melting and then suddenly it falls. It’s been fast,” he says. “But TV executives are the slowest cowards.” He laughs, realizing that might be the worst thing for someone who wants a TV show to say out loud.
“But I can’t complain,” Adomian says finally, with at least a hint of irony. “I’m happy with where I am. I get to do what I want to do for the people who show up. And that’s the pirate’s life that I signed up for.”
UPDATE: Comedian John Milhiser, who was a featured player on Saturday Night Live for the 2013-2014 season, tweeted on Friday evening that he was an “out and proud gay man” when he was on the show. “There should be more though,” he added.