How J-L Cauvin Became the Most Spot-On Trump Impersonator Alive
On this bonus episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, comedian J-L Cauvin reveals how his Trump impression blew up online and what he thinks of his rival Sarah Cooper.
About six months before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus, J-L Cauvin made the difficult decision to move out of New York City, where he had spent years trying to make it as a stand-up comic.
“I was super depressed about getting a full-time job again and moving to New Jersey,” he tells me on today’s bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “A job fell into my lap and I just said, you know what, I’ve been doing part-time legal work and road comedy for 16 years, I have to seize this opportunity at stability. I said, OK, comedy is no longer the priority.”
It couldn’t have worked out any better.
Cauvin had been closing his stand-up act with a Donald Trump impression since 2015—before that he ended his sets with an equally impressive Obama. So in mid-March, stuck working from home with a lot of extra free time on his hands and no comedy clubs available to work out material, he posted a simple selfie video on Twitter making fun of the president’s Oval Office address.
“I did this video on my couch and it got like 18,000 views on Twitter,” he recalls. “And I picked up like 50 new followers. So I did a few more. And none of them hit as big as that.”
A couple of weeks later, he was headed out the door to walk his dog when a friend texted, “Can you believe this? He just said he wants to reopen the economy by Easter.”
“I said to my girlfriend, hold the dog for a second, I think this would make a funny video,” Cauvin says. He went back inside and spent two minutes riffing off-the-cuff as Trump about a pay-per-view event in which he and God would fight it out to see who can “bring back more people” on Easter Sunday. “And over the next 48 hours, it just exploded.” It has since racked up seven million views on Twitter and a couple million more on YouTube.
The impression doesn’t just sound like Trump, but deftly captures the nonsensical, unfocused speaking style that has become his default mode in interviews and briefings.
“He doesn’t like to be scripted. It’s like somebody is punishing him when they make him read,” Cauvin says of “Teleprompter Trump.” That’s why the comedian never writes out what he’s going to say in his videos. “Because once you get scripted, you’re already setting yourself back from being him,” he explains. “What you have to do is be willing to go on a ridiculous journey and take nine tangents. But the place to come back to is always, ‘I’m great. How does this help me or hurt the people I don’t like?’”
“I think my voice has legitimately gotten roughed up from doing the impression so much,” Cauvin admits. “It’s almost like a guitarist getting calluses on their fingers.” He worries that his own voice is starting to sound more like Trump’s. “How ironic that to even let this man’s voice into me would be a corrupting, damaging process,” he jokes. “It’s like a Black Mirror episode or something.”
When I ask him what it’s been like to finally achieve some level of fame when he can’t capitalize on it by performing live, Cauvin says, “Honestly, it sort of sucks. There have been so many near hits in my career. That’s why I sort of expected Trump to quit or have a stroke or something like three days after I went viral. I was like, well, this can’t last.”
Cauvin’s only previous, much smaller brush with viral fame came back in 2013 when he produced an elaborate infomercial parody video to showcase his spot-on Louis C.K. impression. This was pre-#MeToo downfall, when the comedian whom comics and fans just called “Louis” was still on top of the comedy world. “It was Madonna, Beyoncé, and Louis,” Cauvin jokes.
Unlike his peers, Cauvin says he wasn’t taken with Louis C.K.’s skills. “I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but he clearly wasn’t resonating with me,” he says. “I just didn’t like the way he did stand-up. But every time I said that, every comic would label me a hater. I was like, I’m not hating. He’s just not my favorite.”
In the video Cauvin put out, he sports a bald cap and goatee and tells knock-knock jokes and other classic bits in what he describes as Louis C.K.’s “meandering, I hate my kids, throwing F-bombs” approach to stand-up. “That one blew up, especially within comedy,” he says. “I’d been on the road and five years later people were still saying, you were the guy who did the Louis bit.”
But that video didn’t have anywhere near the cultural impact of his Trump. “This was the moment I was waiting for,” he says. “I thought all I need is one of the things I do to blow up and then I can bring all this body of work with me. Instead of it happening over the course of six to eight years, it happened in a week or five days. And now there’s nowhere to perform. So I just have to hope that some sense of normalcy comes back.”
When he is able to get back on stage, he’s worried that audience members will shout “Trump!” at him like it’s his “Freebird.” If he gets the chance to headline comedy clubs, he imagines doing a 35-minute stand-up set, followed by an extended, improvised Q&A with the audience as the president.
While Cauvin says he would happily trade whatever success he’s had for “global health and economic security,” he acknowledges that none of this would have happened without COVID-19. If he had been in his law office all day, he never would have had time to make and post so many videos. Cauvin jokes that when his workplace decides to re-open, he’s going to ask, “Can I be one of the last people to come back to the office? For safety, not for any side career, just for safety.”
Cobbling together revenue from YouTube, Cameo and advertising on his podcast, Cauvin says he’s managed to pull in more money through comedy for each of the past three months than he has from his law job. “So that’s great. And if I could guarantee that then I’d be at a different crossroads, but this is momentary fame,” he says.
Among the advertisers on his YouTube videos is the Trump campaign. “That’s great,” he says. “If my videos can help waste some of his campaign spending, I think that’s as good as anything I can do.” When I tell him the ad I saw featured Eric Trump’s wife Lara, he jokes, “I wish it was at least Donald Trump. I feel like that’s insulting that they’re giving me third-tier Trumps.”
The experience of watching the view counts and retweets on his videos steadily tick up has actually given Cauvin a strange sort of insight into the mind of the president.
“Putting out a new video always makes me feel better,” he says. “And I feel like that’s almost a dangerous thing. It almost feels like I’ve done a controlled experiment on myself on the effects of social media.” Now he understands, to a degree, the dopamine hit that Trump gets every time he puts out a tweet. “Not that I have great sympathy for him, but I think this is somebody who shouldn’t be on social media. If I’m receptive to it, he’s OD’ing on it.”
Of course, it’s hard to talk about J-L Cauvin without recognizing his main rival in the online Trump impression game. Sarah Cooper started putting out her own videos, lip-syncing to the president’s actual voice, about a month after Cauvin started posting his. Since then, she has eclipsed him both in terms of social media stats and cultural capital. She made her Tonight Show debut last month.
“The numbers don’t lie. She has no competition right now,” Cauvin tells me. But while he stresses that he has no problem with Cooper herself, he feels specifically persecuted by her fans. “I jokingly call them the Coop and I call my group the Coven,” he says. “The complaints are always the same: ‘You’re stealing from her.’ No, I’m not. I started it first. I’m doing something that I consider more difficult and more time-honored as a comedic art form.”
When he makes those points in response to tweets, he says, “Half of the time I get an apology, a quarter of the time I get blocked and a quarter of the time I get people going, ‘I don’t care, Sarah’s better.’ And I go, OK, I don’t understand what you wanted out of this.”
“I laughed at a few of her videos,” Cauvin continues. “I have to be very careful not to sound condescending, but I guess by prefacing it like that, I already sound condescending. I think it’s cute. And I’ve seen a lot of stuff like that on TikTok and it hit and that’s great for her. And it’s bringing a lot of people enjoyment.”
But as a “competitive person,” he adds, “I do feel somewhat disrespected to have emerged with sort of the undisputed best impression of this guy, that’s operating on a very detailed, specific level. And then to have to share the spotlight as if we’re doing the same thing. When people go, you’re both equally great at impersonating him, I have to sit there and go, ‘Yeah, well, thanks.’ And in my head, I’m going, ‘No, we’re not.’ And that’s OK. That’s not an insult to say, but, it’s taken that way.”
But nothing stings more for Cauvin than the charges that he’s a “white man stealing from a Black woman.”
“That one infuriated me because I’m half-Black,” he reveals. “I know what I look like. You see me, I look beige.” Explaining that a “racist guy” recently used a bunch of Mexican slurs against him on Twitter, he adds, “So I thought, well, at least this guy sees that I’m something other than white. So in a weird way, thank you, bigot, for seeing me more fully than some of the Cooper fans.”
“It becomes a thing of people saying, ‘You have to admit though, her as a woman and a person of color, it’s going to hit Trump harder.’ And I go, well, I’m half Haitian and he went after Haiti, specifically during his presidency, as a ‘shithole,’” Cauvin says. “I’m a left-of-center guy politically, but that irritates me. Sometimes people will throw labels and demographics at you because it makes them feel good about their support. And when somebody looks at me, they’re not going to feel like they’re helping some struggling half-Haitian comedian. They’re just like, that giant white guy, he’s doing all right for himself, I guess. I’m not looking for any bonus appreciation, but it’s weird to be so dismissed by the people who claim to be loving the righteous, progressive commentary coming out of both of us.”
“The truth is I have nothing bad to say about her,” Cauvin says eventually of Cooper. “She’s had an amazing run and she’s making tons of people laugh and during a very rough time, so that’s an absolute good. I would love to be known for my stand-up, but to then be known as the second best of something that I think I’m clearly the best at is a little annoying.”
As for how Cauvin hopes his “momentary fame” might transfer to actual show business success, he says, “In my perfect world, I’d be on Saturday Night Live or on a reboot of In Living Color or something.” But at 41 years old, he’s pretty much “given up” on that dream. “I’ve never even had so much as an audition or anything. I’ve never been on their radar.”
During the Obama years, he was closing his stand-up set every night impersonating the president with the vague hope that someone at SNL might be watching. “Of course I sat there as the son of a Black immigrant and a white American mother with my great Obama impression going, ‘God, I wish somebody could see this. I feel like that literally would be perfect for me,’” he says. “Fred Armisen is a very talented dude, but I did not think his Obama impression was anywhere near his top contribution to the show.”
“I genuinely think they have an extremely talented cast that they are underserving by constantly going to stunt casting,” Cauvin adds, alluding to Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression among the many other celebrity ringers that have been brought into the show over the past few years. “Somebody on the cast may very well have been able to pull that off. Irrespective of my future, I think they have a lot of good people on that show that they should rely on and maybe bring in a few more people instead of going with seven celebrities per episode.”
For now, with no signs of the pandemic slowing or any new opportunities coming his way, Cauvin is going to keep pumping out his Trump videos and hoping they make some small impact on the election in the fall.
“If I can make him look like more of an idiot or turn him into more of a laughingstock, I’m all for it,” he says. “Whenever somebody says ‘respect the office,’ I go, the guy in the office has to respect the office for me to respect it. I think he’s a wretched human being. If I make him look worse somehow or make him seem more absurd to a few more people then that’s all good because he’s the worst.”