There was a moment well ahead of Election Day when Anthony Atamanuik, who was touring the country as a Donald Trump impersonator, knew that the outspoken businessman and reality TV star could actually win this thing.
While attending Trump's New Hampshire rally ahead of the primary, the Massachusetts comedian recognized those cheering in the crowd. "I saw faces of people who I grew up with and that I knew," he told a small group of reporters Wednesday. "Not all these people were terrible people - they were broken people. It's more complex than just saying it was one group of people who got Trump elected."
Atamanuik had begun impersonating the president shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. After doing Trump during improv shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, he took his version of The Donald on a "Trump vs. Bernie" tour where he mock-debated comedian James Adomian's Bernie Sanders. Comedy Central's @Midnight even brought the pair on for a TV face-off.
After Trump won the election, Atamanuik says that, like Trump, he hid for two weeks. When he emerged and ran into old friend Adam Pally at a UCB show, a pitch was born. The idea was to do a Trump talk show, inspired by a combination of F.D.R.'s fireside chats, The Colbert Report and Atamanuik's Trump.
A swift four months later, The President Show is premiering Thursday night on Comedy Central, with Atamanuik hosting as Trump and Pally (Making History) serving as executive producer. Though Atamanuik plans to carve out a spot for Adomian's Bernie to appear, his steady sidekick is Peter Grosz (The Colbert Report) as Vice President Mike Pence.
The half-hour late-night show will air weekly at 11:30 p.m., following Trevor Noah's The Daily Show, and tape that day from a New York City set. The concept of the immersive series is that Trump is excited to host his own show and he's hollowed out a portion of the White House for audience seating. His first guest will be (the real) Keith Olbermann, followed by Dan Savage, Women's March founder Linda Sarsour and Deepak Chopra.
Ahead of its launch, The President Show invited a gaggle of reporters to the Midtown set for a faux press conference with President Trump and a tour of his Oval Office set.
After an introduction from Grosz's Pence - "I, of course, am not the reason you came. I'm never the reason anyone ever goes anywhere," he puttered - Atamanuik arrived in full Trump regalia. Waddling up to the briefing-room lectern to the tune of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," Trump welcomed the "crooked media" with a compliment: "You're all way more bangable than I could ever expect."
After shuffling through insults of his former GOP foes, this Trump took aim as his new gang of rivals.
"There's failing Fallon - what a joke - and kill-me Kimmel, the Chris Christie of late night," he sputtered, complete with Trump's mannerisms and tics. "And of course, terrible, terrible Stephen Colbert. Late night is all about lip-syncing to Dab-ing videos in cars. Finally, my voice can be heard in the media."
After a 30-minute briefing where he chastised the media in attendance, Atamanuik stripped off his Trump wig and fat suit to speak with reporters, and sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in the Oval. Sitting behind the Resolute Desk, the host described how he crafts his Trump, what he hopes the president would learn if he tuned in and why The President Show is about more than entertaining a late-night left crowd. Read the condensed chat below.
What is the weekly format of The President Show?
We have a modular formula that we will follow each week. It rolls like a late-night show with desk bits and Pence-Trump banter, but we're also going to go out into the field and put our characters in the world. We have a press conference that will open the show and after, we go into the Oval Office where Pence is on the sofa and I'm at the desk. The first act will be a desk piece, mini-field piece, guest appearance or a video piece in the "magic window." The second act is usually our most evergreen piece, likely a field piece that we filmed. We have such a great set. In addition to the Oval, we have Mar-a-Lago, the Land of Fake Believe and a great Air Force One set. So we have the opportunity to play with live-to-tape television as well as pre-roll, and then the interview takes place on stage. We have a final thought as a closer. I think there's nothing like it. It's like a new genre of TV.
What has the process been like to book your guests - did you find hesitancy or excitement about the idea of being interviewed by faux-Trump?
Our booker had her work cut out for her, I'll tell you that! Fortunately, we built a lot of credibility in the political and press world during the tour. I've taken up enough real estate - doing The View election special, Howard Stern and @Midnight - and also the fact that we have Howard Feinman, the global editorial director of the Huffington Post, as our senior news adviser. So it was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. We're aiming for a 70-30 rule: 70 percent political pundits, thinkers, people of various and interesting stripes in the world; and then 30 percent celebrity, hopefully some people with political bent, but maybe some reality people because of Trump. Once it got going, booking guests was not very hard, and that is a real testament to the talent department and people we've surrounded ourselves with.
Who is your dream guest?
I'm so honored to have Keith [Olbermann] on Thursday. He's a stalwart of liberal thinking. It's an opportunity for me as Trump to interview him, but I pepper my own mind in there too. As for dream guests, I desperately want Arnold Schwarzenegger to come on the show. Twenty years ago when I was working on The Muppets at Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles, he drove by in his Hummer, and he didn't hit me but came closely, and he came back with a cigar and was so apologetic saying, "I'm so sorry, have this cigar." He is the nicest guy.
What is your mental and physical preparation like in order to become Trump for the show?
The makeup process takes an hour and a half and the fat suit takes 30 minutes to put on, so that process takes two hours total. Mentally, the myth would be that I sit, centered, and meditate inward. But the honest truth is that I talk with Betty and Tom, the hair and makeup stylists, and we shoot the shit about life. We talk about TV and what we're watching and I try to stay relaxed and conversational. I come from Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is a working-class city, so I'm most comfortable just talking. If you're comfortable, it's usually easier to do what you need to do.
What about when it comes to getting into character and crafting your Trump persona?
I usually listen to a little Trump beforehand. I'll put on one of his press conferences just to get him and his cadence back in my head. I watch him every day. I have a podium in my office. I actually stand and mirror him and try to find new physical tics as he's changing. He's changed a lot over the year and a half. His voice has changed. For so much he was screaming, lately he's been doing this grandmother-y thing, talking low and quiet. He's a weird gift that keeps on giving in terms of changing it. I feel like I did so much ground work over this year, so putting him on is like any process, whatever makes you comfortable getting into the space. And then wearing it when it all comes together is amazing. That's a testimony to the hair, makeup and wardrobe. That's what makes me be able to do it.
Have you heard from the White House or gotten any indication that the show is on Trump's radar?
I think that Donald Trump Jr. has an idea that the "Trump vs. Bernie" tour existed. I am sure some people in there maybe know about it, I have no idea. But I would love for Trump to watch the show. If he sent out a tweet that would be good promotion! I'm not that far away from him in that respect, where I say it's good promotion so go for it, please.
Is that why you launched two Twitter handles, one with your Trump's voice?
We created @LateNightDonald and @PresidentShow to mirror the POTUS account and his personal Twitter accounts. From my personal account, I always try to tweet at him and say, "Hey, watch your show!" Part of me, obviously, has a huge problem with his policies and who he is, but then there's another part that knows he has some form of a sense of humor.
How do you think Trump would react if he watched the show?
It would be interesting to see what he thought. I don't think he'll like it, particularly, but maybe he will. I would want him to watch and think, "Oh my god, that's how I come off? That's who I am?" And, "Wow, Steve Bannon really is manipulating me. My advisers are not helping me out." You know that his view of being president is from whatever movie he saw. Wouldn't we all be relieved if he turned around and said, "You know what, I do need to fund social programs ... I do need to stop courting the far far right." Don't we at least need to try to get him to be sane while he's in there? Short of forcibly removing him, he's not going, so our job is to figure out how to deal with him. This show is a way for people to blow off a little steam from watching him, but also maybe to shift his perception and hopefully push him, and maybe push the Fourth Estate to reassess how they cover him.
You and Alec Baldwin had some Twitter beef over your impersonations and the White House Correspondents' Dinner. How do you compare your Trump to his on Saturday Night Live?
We're so busy doing this show, I don't have time to think about the comparison! Mine is very good and it's one of many. SNL has seven minutes to compact all that satire in and they do a hell of a job, Chris Kelly and the writers. Some of my closest friends work on that show so not only do I have no beef, I wouldn't be here if Tina Fey hadn't hired me to work on 30 Rock. I love and respect that show and it's an institution. What they do is incredible and all I want to do is add to the chorus of that.
Did you ever get approached about actually hosting the WHCD as Trump?
Look, I'm new to this. So my idea of Twitter is, you write something, it's funny, you leave it alone. I always like to troll Trump so when he said he wasn't doing the WHCD, I just thought it was funny to say, "Oh, I'll do it." Chris Hardwick and the @Midnight guys are like family, because I did Trump there first, and Mark Hamill is a friend of mine. They threw their weight behind it because everyone thought it was just a funny bit. We never in any way back-channeled, talked or thought about doing the dinner. But the whole point of doing it is Trump being there, otherwise impersonating him there is a pointless endeavor.
How do you describe your version of Trump?
I like to say I do an impression of his psyche and an impression of his soul. The thing that's missing in how people portray Trump is that he fancies himself as a Rat Packer, but he's sort of this insecure, almost Dowager, living in a mansion. He has a weird feminine quality to him that he tries to overcompensate with this swaggery masculinity. And then within that, he talks to himself. He doesn't actually talk to people. He tells himself this story and you're just witnessing him telling himself a story ... So we have a New York shut-in as the president of the United States and for me, that's the sweet spot. It's easy to do the surface impression, that's just training and body conditioning. But in watching him, I learned all these psychological refrains that were fascinating.
Is anything off limits when it comes to Trump?
His underage son, Barron. Any attacks on Trump that are specious, personal attacks that aren't backed up by something that we know. I don't want to use this impression as a Trojan horse for comedy that's misogynistic, racist and classist. There is a way to do Trump where you can make fun of the way that he can be, but it does not mean that echoing misogynist, racist or classist sentiments in any way is satirizing him, it's just simply reinforcing his message, and that's my duty as a comedian and an artist.
How long would you like the show to run and how do you plan to battle Trump fatigue?
I hope there will not be Trump fatigue from this show and that my character is enough of a synthesis of myself and him. The show is an analysis of him, but with Pence, the guests and the field pieces, we make sure to break it up. I would like it to run for a year and a half, and then end it. Put a new president in here and then I own the show and can retire. Get him out of the White House. That's the best way to battle Trump fatigue.
What is your goal with The President Show and what are you hoping the audience will take away?
I don't think any one thing can take a president out of office. My show is not necessarily - maybe? - going to get him impeached. That's a left fantasy anyway, because the process would take so long. But we can contribute to re-examining his identity and forcing more of the cable news media to stop doing this pretend game where, just because he's the president, we now pretend that he's not this weird, lecherous guy. … There's a responsibility for people to step up and stop pretending that it's normal.
There's a portion of the left that wants the problems fixed, but who don't want to know what the problems are because they're too painful. We need to get that painful is good and part of the process and how we resolve issues. The show is not about catering to the right, but it is not about catering to the left either ... I've had Trump supporters come up to me after shows. If you can get someone who supported him to watch the show and go, "Wow, he is sort of a disingenuous buffoon. He did take advantage of my vote," and turn someone, that's amazing. This nation needs severe couples' therapy, let's just put it that way. And it doesn't happen by just fighting with each other.