Good impressions are hard to come by. Especially in modern comedy, impressions have largely fallen to the wayside as a skill. When a stand-up comedian announces that they are about to perform a set of impressions, it’s usually meta or tongue-in-cheek, something like: “Here’s an impression of Sarah Palin sitting in silence” (followed by a few seconds of silence).
But one comedic duo is elevating impressions to an art form with a political message. In September, UCB performer Anthony Atamanuik began doing a Donald Trump impression. He had seen fellow comic James Adomian’s famous Bernie Sanders impression and reached out to see if he wanted to collaborate to bring the polar opposite politicians to life in a faux debate. The two decided to try out their idea at Whiplash in New York. “It was a twenty minute set and it was great,” Adomian recalls as I speak to him at L.A.’s Riot Festival. “It killed.” Shortly thereafter, the two put their Trump vs. Bernie Debate show up again and completely sold out New York’s Bellhouse. They knew they had something special on their hands.
“Not to sound like Trump, but when you build a small business you don’t really think further ahead than ‘well let’s just try this,’” Atamanuik jokes, dressed in his full Donald Trump costume, complete with orange face make-up. “Now we’re seeing capitalism at work.” They started to think of ways to promote the Debate and decided to do a road show across the country, using the hashtag #TrumpvsBernie to spread the word. Adomian had performed at Riot previously and loved the festival. Before they knew it, the two had a premium slot on Fusion’s F*Comedy stage immediately following a Paul F. Tompkins set.
Watching them in costume was a surreal experience. Atamanuik nails Trump’s every mannerism so well, at times it’s easy to forget he’s just acting. When he first walks out onstage, the crowd boos loudly, but it doesn’t throw him off. He wants the crowd to boo. “I especially like to agitate people who agree with me because we’ve grown into a culture of just pure outrage without any knowledge,” Atamanuik says. “We get mad at the thing in the mirror, not the object it’s reflecting, which I think is absolutely disturbing. I want people to be upset by him. I want people to boo me. I want people to not like the shit I say.” As the crowd jeers, he gets more and more into character. He still feels empathy for Trump, and it’s not the person he’s satirizing, but his politics.
Both Adomian and Atamanuik have different approaches to their characters. While Atamanuik’s costume makes him look like an uncanny Trump, Adomian’s is less of a replica. The audience still recognizes the comedian beneath the wig, and his comedy focuses on the physical quirks of a typical Bernie speech: arms raised and waving madly, repetitive allusions to percentages. While the audience laughs at those characteristics, we never laugh at the policies themselves. “The way that he plays Trump and the way I play Bernie is kind of like professional wrestling,” Adomian observes. “He’s playing a wrestling heel, and I’m playing a wrestling face. So I want the audience to like me, and he wants the audience to hate him.” When I watch their show, I see their strategies come to life. They anticipate the audience’s reactions perfectly.
My biggest concern with the Debate show was that it would start to feel one-note. Political impressions can backfire if a performer doesn’t know how to heighten, and with a figure like Trump, how do you heighten when everything he says feels caricaturized by the media? But the two understand how to maintain that balance. In his performance, Atamanuik humanizes Trump one second and then outs his policies the next. Adomian acts as a perfect foil to the character. There’s suspense in the tension between them onstage.
Going into our interview, I had a feeling the two were Bernie fans, as much of the comedy community supports him. But their passion goes beyond fandom and pop culture. Atamanuik cites watching C-SPAN as a child as a big inspiration. He mentions that his fiancé is half Pakistani and that much of Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric strikes a personal chord with him for that reason. Adomian, similarly, loves politics and has watched Bernie Sanders grow more and more prominent over the years. He speaks seriously about the role he’s taken on. “In my impression, I’m taking his message and putting it through a prism of comedy,” says Adomian. “I’m definitely doing a complimentary impression of him.” Even though at the end of the day it’s just a comedy show, Adomian feels compelled to deliver a truthful caricature that still promotes Sanders’s positions on a range of issues.
“His passion and his intelligence is consistent,” Atamaniuk says when I ask him why he supports Sanders, and I try not to laugh because he still looks exactly like Donald Trump as he waxes poetic about Bernie. “This is the most intelligent, consistent person running for office in decades,” he continues. Adomian lights up listening to his counterpart. “It’s like having one of the major philosophical intellectuals of our time as an incredible candidate for president,” he says. “It’s like Plato but without the boy-fucking,” Atamaniuk retorts.
“He has a proportionally significant amount of support from comedians,” Adomian agrees when I point out how much the comedy community loves to Feel The Bern. “I wonder if it’s because he’s speaking a dangerous truth to power in front of enthusiastic large crowds of people,” he laughs. “He’s everything comedians want to be,” Adomian says, at a time when comedians seem like politicians and politicians often seem like comedians.
Olga Lexell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Daily Dot, Splitsider and Reductress. You can find her jokes on Twitter.