Nearly 100 days into Trump’s presidency, you’d be forgiven if you’re already sick of seeing that fucker’s face plastered on every TV screen in sight. By mid-February, I’d already grown tired of SNL trotting out Alec Baldwin’s Trump in nearly every episode to rehash the Trump Administration’s blunders-of-the-week. Over the past few months, comedians have lamented the difficulty — and questioned the efficacy — of making fun of Trump.
But Comedy Central’s The President Show, a satirical talk show created by and starring Anthony Atamanuik, which premiered last night, is a step in the right direction. Atamanuik, who toured a brilliant impersonation of Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, plays the president as the host of the late-night talk show that is America: “Welcome to The President Show,” he intones at the top of the show. “I’m the president, but I’m also the show! And that’s an incredible deal.”
Atamanuik introduced the show from a podium emblazoned with the presidential seal before moving to the main set, a replica of the Oval Office — but with a couch parked next to the knockoff Resolute desk in the style of late-night talk shows. Peter Grosz plays Mike Pence as Trump’s sidekick, the Andy Richter to his Conan O’Brien. The President Show follows a familiar late-night format: After the cold open at the podium, there was a “desk piece” called “Nice/Not Nice” (Ivanka nice; Germany not nice); a remote segment in Times Square and at Trump Tower, where a doorman mistakes Atamanuik for the real thing and eagerly shakes his hand; and an interview with Keith Olbermann on a Mar-a-Lago-inspired set.
The Olbermann interview in particular points to the potential of The President Show, with Atamanuik as the Stephen Colbert replacement we sorely need now that Colbert has straightened up his act on The Late Show. A liberal comedian posing as a conservative (or whatever the fuck Trump is) is a particularly effective tool when interviewing real people; although the show has scheduled a lineup of liberal guests for its first few episodes, including Dan Savage and Linda Sarsour, as Emily Nussbaum pointed out in a recent column about Colbert, “By wearing a mask made of his own face [on The Colbert Report], he inflected every interaction with multiple ironies, keeping his guests—including politicians and authors—off balance, and forcing them to be spontaneous.”
Atamanuik’s Trump is far more effective than Baldwin’s — he nails the stick-up-the-butt posture, the flailing hands, and the loopy intonation, particularly when he lowers his voice to append a final, tossed-off statement to one of his rambling speeches (“…and I don’t care”). As with his original touring act, there are moments when Atamanuik almost lets the mask slip, speaking about the travesty of Trumpism as Atamanuik, but through the voice and mannerisms of Trump.
As he told me when I interviewed him just before the election — when he was preparing for what he thought was his last “rally” as Trump — “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…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.” In other words, Atamanuik allows sparks of genuine anger to slip through all the laughter, which is something you don’t see nearly enough on SNL, with its strained attempt to appeal to everyone and avoid alienating middle America with too harsh a judgment of the man who is ruining the country. On last night’s premiere, for example, when “Pence” declares it “an honor” to be seated next to “Trump,” Atamanuik barks, “No it’s not, I’m a pig, you hate this.” Later, he signs off the episode with a “farewell address” in which he promises to “use this office to enrich myself and my weirdo family, then tweet us into a war with Hawaii!”
Toward the end, Atamanuik subtly addresses the critique that programs such as The President Show might only be helping to “normalize” Trump by turning that argument onto the media; as Trump, he talks about the media’s “love/hate” relationship with the president, and how “horse-race politics” has turned political discourse into sport rather than a real conversation “about policy or how to elevate us as a society.” In a press event Atamanuik hosted earlier this week, he told reporters that he sees his show and other satirical treatments of Trump as filling a hole left by mainstream media outlets, which, intentionally or not, wind up colluding with his chaotic administration in a misguided attempt to boost their own ratings (basically, the “fascism as ratings spectacle” argument).
When I first saw Atamanuik as Trump back in July 2016 — alongside James Adomian as Bernie Sanders at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal — it was chilling to see the audience go wild for the spot-on impersonation. I won’t pretend that was “the moment I knew Trump would win,” but it was a moment that made me doubt what, if anything, comedy could do in the face of an attention-sucking force like Trump. I’m still on the fence about the general helpfulness of satire in the age of Trump. But my instinctive reaction to The President Show isn’t suspicion but amazement: How awesome is it that this show exists? Where else in the world would you see something like this? Satire won’t get Trump booted from the Oval Office, but it can help us stay sane until he is. No matter how dogged the president is in his pursuit to strip the country for parts and profit off the sales, this is still America, and we will exercise our right to shit on people in power until our dying breath.
The President Show airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.