“Of Course I Have Empathy For Him. He is a Person in Pain”: Comedian Anthony Atamanuik on Playing Trump

"My therapist has his job cut out for him."

New York-based comic Anthony Atamanuik has been playing Donald Trump in live shows and on television since August 2015. The character grew out of an improvised bit one night during UCB’s longform improv show “ASSSSCAT 3000” and has taken him all across the country in the year-plus since. Atamanuik also teamed up with comedian James Adomian for “Trump vs. Bernie,” a debate-format live show (also available as an album) that the pair have toured across the States and Europe, on top of appearances on @midnight with Chris Hardwick and an hourlong special on Fusion in the spring. Atamanuik has also appeared as Trump on The Chris Gethard Show

On Thursday, Atamanuik will perform the final of his “Trump Dump” shows — in which he holds mock rallies in the character of Trump — as part of this year’s New York Comedy Festival. We spoke to Atamanuik about the audience reaction to his stinging impression, getting in the Trump mindset, and the importance of being offensive.

Flavorwire: Will Thursday’s “Trump Dump” be a solo show?

Anthony Atamanuik: Yes. “Trump Dump: The Last Rally” is sort of the final point on a show that I started before we were doing “Trump vs. Bernie.” [James Adomian] had been doing Bernie in L.A. and I was doing a solo Trump show in New York, and so this is really in the vein of the Trump rallies. We’re gonna have some standups, some folks who’ve worked with me in my variety show for years, like Michelle Wolf and Judah Friedlander. I’m sort of folding it into the logic of the rally — Trump tends to call people up to speak without sort of giving them a warning, so that’s how we’re justifying the comics. I’ll probably do a couple of old jokes but mostly new stuff, from the last month.

Is this the last time you’re going to play Trump?

It’ll be the last time that I perform that show. The last Trump, hopefully, is on November 9th, on Howard Stern. We’re gonna be on Stern in the morning, James and I. But I want to put a fine point on it.

Don’t we all. You’ve been pretty outspoken (as Trump) about the media’s role in helping him gain support and attract attention. I think what you do is different from, say, Trump hosting SNL, or his interview with Fallon, both of which could be interpreted as support — whereas you’re very clearly pointing to what makes him so dangerous. How do you manoeuver that line? Have you turned certain things down for that reason?

Basically, if I’m not allowed to do my version of him, then I won’t do it. If they want a Trump impression for the sake of having this Trump impression, I won’t do it because I don’t have any desire to promote him in any way. A perfect example would be The View. For Joy Behar’s birthday, they wanted me to come out. I said, “I want to be able to write [the segment.]” So in two minutes, through the metaphor of chocolate cake and vanilla cake, I was able to get out a metaphor for Trump and his father evicting people of color from Brooklyn apartments in the ’60s and ’70s.

I’ve made some money off doing this, obviously, and I’ve got a couple TV appearances out of it. I don’t think this is a rule in comedy but in this particular instance, it is always important that if I’m gonna get something from it, I’ve got to make sure to take something away from him in the process. I think that’s the only way to do him. I don’t think there’s anything beneficial about making him lovable or hapless or just sort of a joke.

I would imagine the majority of the audience members going to see your show would not be Trump supporters. Has anyone in the audience ever gotten truly upset at some of the things you’ve said as Trump?

Pretty much every show! I mean, James always says I thrive on that, I kind of enjoy that. On tour, depending on where we went, we definitely had a percentage of Trump supporters there. I’ve actually been quite surprised by the people who support Trump who’ve come to see the shows. They’re usually gracious and they have a sense of humor about it, so I’ve got to give them credit for that. It’s not like I’m dealing soft blows. I had one couple that were Trump supporters that told me that I changed their minds, in Washington D.C.

Really? What did it?

It was my final poem that I read at the end of the show. Trump read a poem called “The Snake” once, at one of his rallies, so I decided to write a poem and read it at the end of the show. But the last thing I want to say on it is, I don’t believe every comedian has some moral duty or that all things must be political. There’s plenty of funny for being funny. It can get kind of gross when you’re doing a show for a bunch of like-minded people and we’re all just agreeing, you know? I think that’s kind of boring, and in a way, it’s a microcosm of how we put ourselves in this position, where there’s 40 percent of the country that hates the other 60 percent, or the other 40 and then there’s 20 who don’t care.

I would say the majority of people who get upset at shows are liberals, and it comes from two or three places. I think the most shocking one is when as Trump I’m talking about the black community, but as me I sort of throw in the basic equation of the United States, which is that the U.S. is the powerful nation that it is because its infrastructure was built on slavery. You say that to an audience, and they are shocked and they get upset by being reminded of it — a liberal audience. In Portland, I had a woman who stood up and actually started protesting my show, because I was saying stuff as Trump. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, but I think there’s a generation, sort of like, 23 to 31, that seems to not really get satire and I think there’s a sort of belief like, we shouldn’t even say the ugly things because it makes us think about the ugly things.

I know what you’re saying, but I have to tell you that I’m 28.

Well, I didn’t say everybody!

I usually feel like if something makes you laugh, it sort of cuts through everything else.

Offense and agitation, being offended by something, is a motivator. I think fewer and fewer people see live performance, and I don’t think we have a real handle on the psychological effect of the new ways in which we digest digital media. I use all the same modern effects that I rail against, but I think people’s brains are now sort of like, “No, things are supposed to be tailored, I’m supposed to be able to un-select the thing that’s bothering me.” And the problem is, the world itself can’t do that. So I think it creates quite a psychic problem for people. They see the world as more and more unfair because they don’t understand why it’s not tailored to them.

I would imagine in order to play a character for as long as you have, and to do it as well as you have, you’d have to have at least some level of empathy for that person. Or there must be something within yourself that you have to conjure up to play that character. Is that true for you?

Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s an acting job. I don’t like when people call it an impersonation. I don’t look that much like him and although I sound like him, and I do his body movements, an impersonation is sort of like — you hire an impersonator to just look like them or sound like them. To be pretentious, it’s an acting job, and your number one thing is to find the piece of yourself that is this person.

Of course I have empathy for him. He is a person in pain. He’s a person in great pain who, his whole life, has clearly never reckoned with himself. He’s stunted at a pre-pubescent level mentally, or maybe adolescent at best. He probably grew up with some form of emotional abuse by his mother, because he never brings his mother up, and they have the same hair. Did you ever see a picture of his mother? Go look up Trump’s mother and you’ll be like, what the fuck.

It’s not a surprise to me that Trump might have issues with his mother.

I thought it was so interesting at the Al Smith Dinner — he can’t stand Hillary, but then he was overheard saying, “You’re a real smart, strong woman” or something. He really wanted to relate to her — you see him lean forward, constantly trying to catch her eye. He’s such a classic abuser, because he wants this approval from her but he hates her.

There’s a thing I like to say, which is that empathy is not endorsement. You can have empathy for someone and it doesn’t mean you endorse who they are. It simply means you understand where they come from. I see similarities with him in my private life. I can be very quick to dismiss something. I make very quick, bold statements without any information to back it up. I love conspiracy theories. Also, the sort of not really taking any of it seriously — “Fuck it, I’ll say this, who cares.” I watched The Great Dictator in film school but I re-watched it when I started doing Trump. The idea that I can lapse in and out of both doing Trump but also doing my voice, through him, and saying things that he would never say, that are totally out of character for him or when he self-assesses what a nightmare, horrible person he is, but doing it in his cadence. I think that’s the fun part. You can lapse in and out, and you can sort of use his personality, his delivery, as a template for that.

Do you ever find yourself lapsing in and out of Trump?

I’ve noticed that I say “and” more. I say “tremendously” more. I roll my lower jaw, because I trained myself to do that. I gesticulate like him. But I’ll be very happy when he leaves. I also will say this: Doing him did weirdly help me as a person to care less when I said no, to be a little bit more decisive. I don’t think it’s his personality, but accessing those parts of myself in order to do him, there was a residual benefit to it, which is that I feel a little bit more in my skin. It’s made me a little bit more of a bullish person, which I like.

It sounds like you’re gonna need therapy after doing this character for so long.

My therapist has his job cut out for him.

 

Anthony Atamanuik will appear as Trump in Trump Dump: The Last Rally on Thurs. Nov. 3 at NYU’s Skirball Center at 7:30 p.m. as part of the New York Comedy Festival. For tickets and more information, click here