It’s a right and a necessity to mock our political leaders, but Donald Trump’s reign (and his pushback against that norm) has certainly inspired a more full-throated and widespread embrace of the ideal, especially on television. From SNL‘s occasionally biting political comedy to the spectrum on late night that moves from abundant “hey didja hear?” monologue jokes to pound-the-desk outrage pieces, comedians (and audiences) are finding laughs and a sense of release in these acts of artistic rebellion. But are they making a real difference? That’s a subjective question that primarily rests on the answer to another: how do you define making a difference when it comes to political satire, especially when everyone is so dug in?
On Monday night, Comedy Central will release The Fall Of Donald Trump, a mockumentary from The President Show that looks to find laughs while forecasting the fictional (for now) end of the Trump presidency. The President Show has, in the past, found a way to be impactful and hilarious at the same time. So when we went to visit the set of this latest special, we went in with those big questions about making a difference in mind. While there, we also asked series star and creator Anthony Atamanuik, Peter Grosz, Kathy Griffin, and Adam Pally (we spoke with writer Alison Leiby later on in a follow-up call) about Atamanuik’s Trump transformation, the motives behind the show’s activist comedy, and what the future holds for The President Show.
In addition to being the creator and star of The President Show, Atamanuik has written a book (American Tantrum: The Donald J. Trump Presidential Archives) and also played Trump on I Love You America and Tracey Ullman’s Show. He’s the comedy world’s preferred Trump (sorry, Alec) and also one of the clearest, most clever, and effective voices in this overstuffed moment of political humor. But it’s never just his voice or his driving outrage that we’re hearing. That wouldn’t stand out nearly as much in a field where so many late night hosts frequently look into the camera and tell their audience how angry they are.
Atamanuik is, essentially, a character actor playing a role that he and a team of writers and producers (including Pally, Grosz, Leiby, Neil Casey, John Gemberling, and Jason Ross) have constructed with an eye on maximum impact. The portrayal magnifies Trump’s obliviousness, ego, and obvious insecurities, building on his outrageous remarks and actions before forecasting a silly (but sometimes accurate) evolution. The end result is a mix of comedic absurdism and terror that lingers more than most bits of political humor that expire with each day’s fresh scandal or shocking tweet.
The President Show isn’t just Trump as he is, it’s also Trump as he could be. Sorta. As Leiby, who co-wrote the special, told Uproxx, “We attempt to go into the psychological more. We know that Trump did this. Why did he do this and if that’s why he did this, what else would he do?”
Pally, who serves as executive producer and who plays Donald Trump Jr. as a hybrid of a douche and a dope, called it a “mind meld” when we spoke, joking that Atamanuik will someday pay a psychological cost for how fully he’s been able to absorb and interpret Trump.
In person, Atamanuik looks nothing like Donald Trump. He also doesn’t echo his mannerisms or his jarring “kid caught in a lie” speech pattern. He’s a nice, hardworking guy who puts on makeup and a costume to scare people for a living, same as Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. did.
To get the appearance down for the special, Atamanuik had to endure a daily two-hour session where he was made up and hit with Cheeto-colored spray tan. It’s called natural #2, but as he quips from the makeup chair with goggles over his eyes and a skull cap on his head, “There’s nothing natural about it.”
The mood was light in the room. Atamanuik, Grosz (who plays Mike Pence in addition to his duties as a producer), and members of the crew were rocking out to Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” as it blasted from someone’s cell phone. I couldn’t help but notice the Trump wig in the corner. Atamanuik couldn’t help but notice me staring somewhat slack-jawed as the wig was placed on his head a couple of moments later. “I know, it’s like Vader getting his helmet put on,” he said. I did not ask if I could tousle it.
Out of the makeup room and in front of the camera, Atamanuik’s immersion became even more clear. I witnessed him delivering a speech as Trump before going off script to pull Trumpesque lines about his opponents out of the air across multiple takes while all in attendance did their best to stifle laughter.
While the script was, to use Pally’s words, “finely written,” and while the writers were present on set to toss out their own well-crafted suggestions, there wasn’t a hard rule about sticking to every single line in the script. Specifically during scenes when Atamanuik was in Trump speech mode.
“We gave plenty of lines and ideas and kind of direction for him to go, but because he [Atamanuik] gets the psychology of the character, that’s kind of a time when there was a lot of improvising,” said Leiby. “It’s just always going to be better than anything that we write.”
“I always watch him. I mean, you have to if you wanna do a good job,” said Atamanuik when I asked about capturing subtle changes in Trump over the years. “We seek to understand him so that the comedy can cut even deeper,” said Grosz.
Pally and Atamanuik go back more than a dozen years and came up through the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Several others on the crew and in the cast, including Leiby, have UCB experience or similar improv backgrounds, which led to the kind of ego-free set that makes on-the-fly adjustments tolerable.
“I think that’s also maturity,” said Pally. “There’s hardly any of that stuff [ego] here. Everyone’s old. Also, I think one of the other reasons that this show runs pretty well is because you’re getting to speak truth to power.”
The Comedy Resistance
Kathy Griffin, who is reprising her role as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in the special, has an intense understanding of what happens when power speaks back after she posed for a picture featuring a mock beheading and a Trump mask in 2017. More than a year later, the trolling and insults, doubtlessly sparked by Trump’s own response, haven’t stopped or, according to Griffin, gotten more clever. She’s also still feeling the professional impact.
“I am extremely grateful to Tony [Atamanuik]. He is, to this day, since the Trump photo, the only person to give me a job in television,” said Griffin.
Despite the blowback, Griffin has continued doing stand-up (she’s in the middle of the Laugh Your Head Off tour) and proudly states that she isn’t going away. “My joke is that I’ve gotten worse, which means that if they thought they were going to shut me up, the opposite happened.”
That’s evident in her portrayal of Conway. “I am obsessed with her physicality, her appearance,” said Griffin, adding, “The reason I am doing this is because this administration is so vicious on women’s appearances. Mine has certainly been well recorded — how they feel about that.”
While Griffin’s experience demonstrates how destructive Trump’s attention can be when it’s focused on a comedian and a critic, there was a time when Adam Pally thought it might be cool to get Trump’s attention (and, I assume, the accompanying media coverage). But that time has passed.
“Now, it’s just sad,” said Pally. “Everything is so dire. I don’t really care if Trump sees it or not.”
Does the comedy on The President Show have a role to play in the pushback against the Trump administration and the dire state of things? Pally is a realist. And also polite.
“No one watches this show,” said Pally before apologizing to the Comedy Central publicist in the room and explaining that no one is watching anything because everyone is tied to their phone with “their anxiety revved up to a million.” To him, The President Show is a small bit of relief. “We just want to have a little bit of a catharsis from that, because you are able to watch the show and still feel like you’re part of that. If you get this show, you’re sane.”
It has been almost a year since the last regular episode of The President Show aired. In that time, there have been two specials (The Fall Of Donald Trump is the third) with the last airing in April of this year. That’s a lot of time spent in the wilderness and a lot of moments from the Trump Presidency that Atamanuik and company could have run the show’s unique filter. And while the special allows them to speed round through a few of those things, it’s not exactly the same.
“Taking the kids from their parents is probably the one that… there’s just so much moral outrage over that, and the fact that we couldn’t really embody that […] missing that opportunity was tough,” said Peter Grosz.
“You’re seeing all this stuff that you know you could nail so well,” said Atamanuik before adding, “It blows my mind how anyone could not have us on every week. And you can print that.”
Atamanuik and the other members of the creative team are talented people who don’t have to scar their eyes staring into the sun that is Trump’s Twitter feed every day to get a paycheck. They have other options, but something keeps pulling them back. Atamanuik and Grosz believe there is space that needs to be filled in the media landscape by this specific show that can find the funny and mix with the real without pulling punches.
“We are a little bit more under the radar. We don’t have to play the network game that SNL has to play where they can’t talk about Trump and the Republicans and the entire nation’s culpability in a mass shooting,” said Grosz. “We can touch on that. We can go right at it. SNL wasn’t on when Charlottesville happened, but we were, and we were able to dress him up like a Confederate general and have him look like a statue.”
Atamanuik cites the time they had on trans veterans who questioned Trump (through him) as one of his favorite field pieces. “I think it’s one of the only times on television where you gave not only full voice but also showed in action the bravery and service of these folks who are being disrespected and dishonored and dehumanized by the government.”
The Fall Of Donald Trump is a change of pace in that there won’t be a place for real voices or the chance to be super, “this happened two weeks ago” topical. It’s a wholly narrative story that loses the faux late night show setup (which was actually close to the first thing Atamanuik pitched Comedy Central prior to The President Show‘s initial pickup) and a projection out into a freaky future that feels, at once, impossible, silly, and logical.
The approach allowed Atamanuik and the writers the chance to try and work around that magnetic news cycle and yet still reflect it. Or, as he put it: “You wanna be contemporary but you’re gonna have to be evergreen.”
According to Leiby, there was also an effort to “get as far from reality as we could” to avoid running into real life. Will Trump catch up? The possibility always looms as he is, according to Leiby, “a character living in reality,” but that’s probably why Atamanuik and the cast and crew seem eager to come back for more in whatever form they’re able in 2019.
In the end, if you’re not on the air, you can’t be a part of the conversation. And if you’re in the conversation, you’ve got a chance to make a difference, even if that difference is defined as making tough times a little more tolerable through a kind of catharsis, giving people a forum, and, if not changing minds, at least bolstering some. But beyond that, comedy and satire that makes you laugh and makes a point has the capacity to send a reminder out into the world that while other checks on power may shrug or shirk, that right and necessity to mock those in power still stands out as a light in the haze.
‘The Fall Of Donald Trump’ premieres Monday at 11 pm EST on Comedy Central