All of a sudden, comedian Anthony Atamanuik is a very busy man. So busy, in fact, that during our phone conversation Tuesday morning, he asks to call me back so he can duck into the writer’s room meeting for The Daily Show, where he will be making an appearance as President Donald Trump later in the evening.
Atamanuik, hardly a household name, is getting a lot more attention these days before his new late-night program, The President Show, premieres on Comedy Central this Thursday night. Two days shy of President Trump’s 100th day in office, this expert Trump impersonator already has his own talk show.
Less than two months ago, Atamanuik was little more than a punchline for another, more famous Trump impersonator, Saturday Night Live’s Alec Baldwin, who complained to Jimmy Kimmel about some “guy who’s on the internet” lobbying to play Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. After Baldwin mouthed “fuck him” to Kimmel’s delight, Atamanuik, who appeared alongside the actor on 30 Rock, decided to take a page out of Trump’s playbook and tweet his response. He thought the whole thing was in good fun—until Baldwin blocked him.
Speaking about the strained relationship now, Atamanuik attempts to play peacemaker with Baldwin, while at the same time throwing in some subtle criticisms that highlight the differences between what he is trying to do with Trump and what Baldwin has been doing on SNL. “I think that repeating what somebody else does or says verbatim is not satire, it is in fact, parroting,” he notes at one point.
But while Baldwin is trying to move away from the Trump-dominated era of his career, Atamanuik is just getting started. “I mean, when I was younger I wasn’t like, I can’t wait to be a presidential impersonator—I stumbled into that,” he says of the strange path he has taken to hosting his own late-night show. Now he just has to hope President Trump continues to act in a way that is worthy of weekly satire.
Below is our edited and condensed conversation.
How have preparations for the first show been going?
Very good. We did a couple of test shows last week and got a lot of our ducks in a row then. So, I feel quite cautiously optimistic about the show.
You tape on the same day that the show will air so you’re kind of at the whim of what Trump does or says that day, huh?
Yes, we’ll be able to be contemporary. But the show is sort of a mix. It’s a late-night show with news elements and an immersive quality in the fact that Trump is hosting it. So there’s a lot of layers of the show. Our advantage is, because we’re taping during the day we’re airing, we can update our material day-of. But what we try to do is also to write evergreen pieces that are more an analysis of Trump’s personality, the meta ideas of what’s going on in the White House. I think that’s something that no one’s really been able to do.
I think a lot of people have experienced some challenges satirizing a figure who is already so over the top. How do you push past that and avoid the trap of just repeating his words?
Well, I think I have a pretty good track record of doing that. I’ve been doing this for over a year and a half now and we had quite a successful tour, the Trump vs. Bernie tour with James Adomian and myself. I think that’s what actually set us apart from a lot of other satirists and probably got me to where I am now. I think it’s a false statement, this whole “how do you satirize Trump” thing is one of the most annoying that I think I encounter—not your question but that idea. Ronald Reagan was a daffy, wrinkled, senile buffoon and people were able to satirize him for eight years, very effectively. Not as effective that he’s now lionized as some Kennedy of the right, which is insane. I would argue that a lot of it is about taking what [Trump] does and taking it to its ultimate end or taking an element of his perspective and playing out that perspective. I think satire is most effective when it’s done both in the spirit of sending the person up and also creating a new character around him. For instance, I think Charlie Chaplin did that really successfully in The Great Dictator—and I’m not making a comparison between Trump and Hitler, I’m just using it as an example—that was able to really effectively satirize him by taking his identity and robbing him of his archetype and repurposing it for his own uses. And I think that repeating what somebody else does or says verbatim is not satire, it is in fact, parroting.
As you said, you’ve been doing this for a while. So how did you feel when Trump won? Were there any mixed emotions there based on what it might do for your career?
No. None. No mixed emotions. It was abject disappointment and I don’t think I did anything for two weeks after the election. Not because I was depressed or surprised, I was actually not surprised, I was disappointed in what exactly I thought was going to happen. And then mostly I was calibrating my career to figure out whether I needed to do this or how I would do it. And because of an idea I had about this show during the summer and the fall and synthesizing that with Adam Pally, who’s one of our executive producers and Pete Grosz [who plays Mike Pence on the show] and Jason Ross, who are our other executive producers, we were able to come up with an idea that was worthy of doing almost as an act of comedic activism.
At some point you auditioned to play Trump on SNL, right? When did that happen?
I auditioned last April and I got to screen test on the stage, which was a lot of fun and a huge honor and I think I did a pretty good job from reports from other friends of mine there, so I was very happy about that. You know, I have a lot of friends who work on that show. Chris Kelly, the head writer, is a good friend of mine, Bobby Moynihan is a good friend of mine, Vanessa Bayer, so there’s a lot of wonderful people who work over there and they make an obviously funny, iconic show. But I think I landed all right.
It seemed appropriate enough that two Trumps got into a bit of a Twitter feud not too long ago, with Alec Baldwin. What did you think when you saw his Kimmel appearance when he was kind of alluding to you?
You know, I worked with Alec on 30 Rock and I always really liked him. And he actually saw me perform some improv while we were working on the show and was very complimentary. When I saw him on Kimmel, I thought that he was messing around. I thought he was doing some harsh ribbing and so I figured since he’s on Twitter and I’m on Twitter, I wrote him. And that’s why I put the hashtag #workfriends, it alluded to the idea that we worked together. I was thanking him for the mouthed “f you” that he directed my way because I thought we were all sort of playing around. And I don’t really know what’s in his head, you’d have to ask him that, but he blocked me, so I don’t know.
Twitter’s such a strange place and there were people who would write things that were nasty to Alec from October on when he got cast [on SNL]. And if I caught it, I would write, lay off Alec, leave him alone; would always try to make sure, when I saw them, to say something. But also on Twitter, as you know, you get so many things in a day and often I’ll be part of a tweet and I’ll “like” it, so I don’t know if maybe he perceived that I was goading it or encouraging it. It’s not the case at all, because I have a lot of respect for him. I mean, he was in Beetlejuice, Hunt for Red October, Running with Scissors, he’s an incredible actor. And he was an incredible actor on 30 Rock; I learned a lot from him when I worked there. So I’m sad that there’s a distance or problem there, or whatever, but I don’t really know. You never really know. But it wasn’t like we were the best of friends, so what can I tell you?
I want to talk a little bit about your Trump impression and how it developed. Do you feel like it has evolved over time?
Yeah, I feel like when I first did it, I improvised it in 2015 at an improv show at UCB. And, it’s funny, I feel like there’s always these Horatio Alger stories where people tell these tales of the sky opening up and just in one moment they knew what they were doing and it was miraculous. But that’s sort of a fictitious telling of how somebody develops something. I did it, it was probably good enough that it was funny, and they wanted me to do a show. And then as I did it I think I learned on the job. I started to observe him more and watch his rallies more and started to try to perfect the body and try to perfect the face. I would stand in front of the mirror and try to roll my jaw like he does. It’s not an impression; it’s an acting job. [You have to] take him on as a character, figure out who he is, and I think the blend where it’s comedic is that you have to make him your own. It’s my version of Trump. Dana Carvey does that really well. He made [George H.W.] Bush, but he says things Bush doesn’t say. I don’t think Bush ever said “not gonna do it.” You develop them, you learn them and once you learn them you break the mold with them and figure out how to interpret them through the character. So it’s vastly evolved.
So this weekend is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but as we know, Trump is skipping it. Any chance you’re going to show up there as Trump?
No, there’s no chance. It’s so funny, I’m getting used to this level of attention. I’m so used to making snarky tweets at Trump that when he said he wasn’t going to do it, I just thought it was funny to say, I’ll fill in for you. I didn’t really consider it at that moment as a “lobbying” move. And then when @midnight was like, let’s run with this, I thought it was funny. I thought it was a funny thing in my life that this was actually happening. People don’t always perceive that. When something’s happening to you, it’s very surreal, when you’re doing this type of work and it propels you to this place. And I think that, for me, I’m in my own little world, living my life the way I’ve lived it for 17 years in New York. I’m writing stuff on Twitter, not really considering the ramifications. And when it sort of blew up into this, “Let’s make Anthony Trump again,” I thought it was funny. I thought, well, hell, if they asked me to do it I would consider it. Of course, if someone asked me, I would go, “Yeah, sure.” But the impact is really to do it with the president in the room, right? It would diminish the impact to do it and he’s not there. It’s like that rule of: don’t talk shit about the person without them being in the room. It’s one thing when I’m performing, because that’s part of my job as a performer. But if we’re going to do a thing where I talk smack about the guy at a place where he should be, I feel like he should be there to hear the smack.
Well I think the most surreal thing would be if you can get Trump to tweet about you. So what would the ideal Trump response to The President Show be?
[Laughs] I mean, the ideal one would be for him to just tweet, “Watch The President Show on Comedy Central, Thursday nights at 11:30 after The Daily Show.” That would be the best tweet he could do, would be just a straight-up promotion.
Too bad he only does that for Fox News.
Yeah, he does that for Fox, maybe he’ll do that for me. My guess is that if he does tweet about it, it will be something along the lines of, “Failing Comedy Central does poor job.” It’s an interesting thing—and this is not in any way a dig on Alec [Baldwin]—[Trump] has been bagging on him, right? So I always wonder, will he bag on me too? Or would he actually, to upset Alec more, would he be like, this is actually a pretty good impression? You never know how he works. Or would he then start saying Alec is better than this guy because this guy stinks? So I don’t know. I feel like he’s moved away, somewhat, from tweeting about comedy and stuff on TV. He doesn’t really do any SNL tweets lately, so it will be interesting what he says. But I’m presuming it will be somewhere along the lines of “sad!” or “unfunny,” something to that degree.
Well that would be a badge of honor if it happens.
Oh, absolutely. If I get a tweet from Trump, it will be quite a fun thing.