Donald Trump swaggers up to the stage, pouting his lips and warning of America’s greatest foreign-policy threat. “The Islamic State is recruiting fighters from more than a hundred countries, including Italy. That’s right, we now have… Italian ISIS. Some of them are even shaving their beards to attract less attention, so we now have shaved Italian ISIS.”
Bernie Sanders arrives to the podium, gesturing rapidly with his hands, and warns of America’s greatest economic threat. “I’m Buh-nie San-duhs, and I know that I look like I’m running for president of The Muppet Show. But I’m running for president because the bottom two quartiles face a higher tax burden than the top quartile of the top quintile, using real inflation-adjusted dollars.”
No, this was not the real Trump and Sanders speaking. These were impersonators Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian, who are traveling the country with their “Trump vs. Bernie” comedy debate tour. Sellout crowds rave about the show and a one-hour Comedy Central special in March has notched more than 5 million YouTube views. The two comedians spoke with The Daily Beast recently before their show in Washington, D.C. about politics, comedy, and what makes this year different from all others.
“Last August at an improv show, as a joke when somebody said the phrase ‘Mr. President,’ I started doing Trump,” says Atamanuik. “James and I had known each other for years now and have been friends. We first met at an improv comedy show where we were playing random characters in a version of The Match Game set in 1976, where I was Orson Welles eating a plate of lobster and he was John McCain getting released from North Vietnam. He texted me [suggesting the Trump-Sanders debate idea] and I ignored him for a week.”
“I’d been a fan of Sanders for a long time, as long as he’s been an independent senator. I could do his voice but not enough people knew who he was,” says Adomian. “We did the debate on a whim just to see how it went, but after a New York director filmed and edited it, it got way more YouTube views than we anticipated.” (More than half a million as of this writing.)
The touring show has featured respected journalists as moderators, including Dave Wiegel of the Washington Post, Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times, and Howard Fineman of Huffington Post Politics. Two people who have not shown up are the real Trump and Sanders. While Atamanuik has not heard anything from Trump or his people, Adomian—whose early iterations of Sanders featured two wigs stitched together—briefly met the real Sanders in New Hampshire. “I know that he’s aware of us, but he’s probably too busy right now to watch our hour-long special,” Adomian said.
The most anticipated matchup this year isn’t LeBron James vs. Steph Curry for the NBA Championship this Sunday, but the 2016 election. With the decisive do-or-die Game 7 of the NBA championship series this Sunday the presidential election is attracting unprecedented levels of public interest: Gallup found recently that 40 percent of adults were following it “very closely,” a number sure to rise as Election Day approaches and already near the record 43 percent notched in fall 2008.
Even the possibility of the first woman U.S. president has generated the third-most interest of any candidate in this race at best, not drawing anywhere near the interest that Trump and Sanders have. While Clinton has at times half-filled high-school gymnasiums, Trump and Sanders rallies have often had to turn away thousands from the basketball arenas they fill to capacity. They are also two of the most easily impersonated presidential candidates in recent memory.
Contrary to popular belief, the best Bernie Sanders impressionist is not the viral one from Saturday Night Live. Larry David is funny and shares similar characteristics to his object of parody: white hair, Brooklyn accent, Jewish, 68 years old to Sanders’s 74. The problem is that, as anybody who’s seen his stand-up or watched his show Curb Your Enthusiasm knows, David’s “impression” is just him acting and speaking like he always does. He’s not really impersonating Sanders. He’s impersonating himself.
On the other hand, Adomian, though only 36, is truly impersonating Sanders. The spine hunches over like Quasimodo. The voice lowers to a deep and gravelly tone. Both hands move about in constant motion while punctuating his remarks like an emphatic symphony conductor. Sentences begin in a normal tenor and a few syllables later end in an angry bellow. “We should staht… A REVOLUTION!”
Atamanuik is quite possibly the best Trump impressionist out there. The eyes squint like he’s staring into the sun. The lips purse. His seemingly improvised statements follow his random train of thought, opening multiple parentheses within each sentence before concluding in unachievable policy promises:
“If I become president, I promise you, NASA—I will command NASA—we all know NASA, they did so many wonderful things, they blew up the shuttle—and I will tell you this, I will tell you this right now – we are going to make Chris Christie a new planetary body in our solar system. What do you think of that? We need a new moon, and we’re going to have a great new moon.”
Asked why this year in particular has been such a watershed for campaign ridiculousness, Adomian and Atamanuik offer slightly differing perspectives. “It’s a watershed moment in our generational politics, so tying that in with the new social-media power in place, the old narratives are falling apart,” Adomian says.
Atamanuik considers that a limited perception. “The tribalism we’re seeing now we also saw in 2004, 2008, 2012. Obama had as much dog-whistle blowing about his race and his background as Trump is doing now. In some ways Obama was to the right of Reagan, but we lost sight of that in all the focus of personalities. 2016 is just lifting up the rock and showing all the maggots there are, but it’s not any different. It’s a fiction that this is something new.”
Among the biggest shortcomings with the U.S. primary process is the lack of direct cross-party interactions until the presidential debates in September and October. Rand Paul publicly challenged Bernie Sanders last fall to a “libertarian vs. socialism” debate, which surely would have been both captivating and thoughtful, but it never materialized. Last month, Trump revealed on Jimmy Kimmel Live that he wanted to debate Sanders, to which Sanders agreed, saying “Game on,” until Trump’s team later claimed Trump’s offer was only a joke and that he would only do it for $10 million, Then said he’d “only debate the winner.”
So ironically, this comedy show—satirical though it may be—actually serves something of a legitimate political purpose. Underneath the jokes, the impressionists on stage reflect the actual policy positions of the candidates they’re impersonating. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who famously attended Trump’s wedding, Sanders has never met Trump. So, bizarrely, in a way this may be America’s closest chance to viewing a policy debate between those two ideological leaders.
Atamanuik’s first comedy performance experience was at a school assembly that included making fun of his teachers. Adomian’s first comedy experience was calling into his local radio station at age 14 and impersonating then-contemporary political figures like Phil Gramm and Bob Dornan live on the air. Now in 2016, they’re finally becoming comedy stars—even if few people still know their real names.
Unlike any other performing acts which perpetually tour, the unique timing of this tour means it will literally never happen again. Or, to put it in words that its two stars might say, “It was tremendous, absolutely tremendous… and fortunately tickets are affordable to the middle class.”