The President Show just may be the next Colbert Report – the two certainly share some comedic DNA. And if last Thursday’s confident debut is any indication, Anthony Atamanuik’s talk-prov blend may show that Comedy Central has finally stumbled on a satirical successor to the genre-breaking juggernaut that helped defined them for almost nine years.
The President Show’s launch made good on so much of the impossible-to-satisfy premise of a Donald Trump talk show. It’s hosted by the deeply in-character Atamanuik, the UCB-trained improviser who, after over a year harnessing the fledgling impression on his Trump vs Bernie tour, has evolved drastically. Unlike the objectively timid standard-bearing Trump impressions – Jimmy Fallon’s apolitical squinty-eyed Mick Jagger in bronzer; The Late Show’s cartoonish nasally-voiced uncanny valley; and of course, the headline-stealing work of Alec Baldwin’s doltish man-boy on SNL – Atamanuik’s vision of the 45th has the potential of some longer-lasting comedic returns. As his Trump has morphed from 2015’s MAGA hatted WASP-y used car salesmen into this full-on guttural filth-beast of recent, the improviser’s openly abhorrent character has deepened, as has his satiric perspective.
Unlike many political jokesters churning out President bits weekly / nightly / hourly, Atamanuik’s Trump relies less on the headlines and more on the imagination of Trump. This improvisationally grounded “if-this-then-what?” approach to character work pushes beyond simply ripping Tweets off the internet or re-staging the President’s already absurd press conferences, advancing the sketch potential of The President Show into the realm of some very dark absurdity. It’s the energy of an underground improv stage, brought into your living room.
Layered atop that already skewed view is another, perhaps even MORE desirable comedic decision: the choice to make this Trump self-aware. By giving Trump credit for deplorable actions – Atamaniuk plays the businessman as more of a cocksure bastard than a bumbling goof – Trump’s revolting qualities are weaponized to give the character’s words more satiric power. This isn’t just tossing all the Trump jokes of different values (orange, weird hair, hates Muslims, rich) against the audience to see what sticks – this actually adds to the Trump media narrative, and could even alter people’s perception of the President, opposed to just enforcing it. Every landmark impression has a hook – Antamanuik’s with Trump seems to be that he’s even more sadistic than the real deal… and he knows it!
Atamanuik’s Trump is almost omnipresent in his bile – oscillating between the smog-thick smarm of an asshole hitting on his daughter to prescient “everything’s going to plan” Bond villain cheering the covertly selfish fallacy of “America First.” The complexity developed so far is not just the set-up for a sharp-tongued comic character; these choices are the ground plans for an entire worldview.
Stephen Colbert’s right-wing creation of the same name was such a force of nature when he popped up in 2005, the population couldn’t grasp him. Despite eight years toiling in the Appalachian turd mines of the liberal oasis that is The Daily Show, Colbert still managed to dupe a plurality into buying he was the genuine article. Look no further than the fact that Bush Jr’s White House opened their doors to him at the 2006 WHCD, somehow believing Colbert truly was the conservative brow-raising parody he played at 11:30 every night. The powers-that-be let a comedian with fangs into their blood bank, and they got sucked dry. That gloriously tense half-hour on CSPAN still remains the satiric high-water mark of this century.
Now, The President Show isn’t there yet. The opening desk piece “Nice! Not Nice!” was nothing revelatory, and Trump’s on-air sidekick, Mike Pence (played by Peter Grosz, ironically himself a former Colbert writer) is still searching for his own hook into the Wonder Bread boring Veep. Hopefully, the show isn’t ruling out adding other Trump-satellites to Atamaniuk’s sidekick orbit – can you imagine impression powerhouse James Adomian back in the mix, this time as Steve Bannon? Or maybe Paul F. Tomkins as Jeff Sessions? And in a bit of “make-it-happen universe” perfect casting, how about power couple Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher as powerful couple Ivanka and Jared Kushner. The possibilities are limitless, and will hopefully be pushed.
Still, even as the writing finds its proper octave and the show rounds out the supports, Comedy Central already has star player behind their Oval Office-meets-Tonight Show desk. And by the first act break – this rippled hulk of hunched ego is fully unchained. In the show’s Trump-on-the-street segment, Atamanuik’s brilliant life-to-character rending skills are a speeding blur. The gleeful button from the “Times Square” segment (spoiler: Trump sees a big truck) is a film studies-ready example of why you always keep the camera running. The interview segment with news demi-god Keith Olbermann has multiple light bulb moments, as the audience gets to watch in real-time as the host realizes that he’s flying without a net… and maybe works best without one.
There’s an intoxicating danger to Atamanuik’s choices and that’s what’ll keep this whole experiment alive, long after Trump may or may not be impeached. Because like the very talented ghosts of Vaughn Meader and David Frye are quick to warn: the topical comedy machine loves to eat, but has ever-changing tastes. By rooting itself on the dark side of the psyche – we’re getting equal glimpses of the great Trump tragedy alongside the endless Trump sideshow. And since the real-life Trump’s world-view of existence seems to be some cocktail of agony and ecstasy, this shades-of-gray factor somehow lends an exaggerated distortion like The President Show a unique aura of bitter reality.
That’s what Atamaniuk’s Trump can be when firing on all cylinders. A sublimely grotesque fun house mirror, so beyond the pale he’s zoomin’ right past the oblivious truth to discover a deeper one. He’s almost the Platonic ideal of the commander-in-chief: a Trump Prime, if you will. The one from your nightmares, who’s somehow more efficient and cruel that one we’re stuck with. He’s the Trump that’s fueled up only to play the game, then toss the game board away, light the house on fire, napalm the neighborhood and eat some chocolate cake! That’s Trump Prime! That’s Atamaniuk’s Trump!
And the best part about a character like that? Stephen Colbert already proved it could work four nights a week for nine years.
The President Show airs Thursdays at 11:30pm on Comedy Central, right after The Daily Show.