Anthony Atamanuik’s Donald Trump went out in a blaze of surprisingly poignant glory at the end of his Christmas special last December. Performing an Aimee Mann cover from his Oval Office set, he warned the American people, “It’s not going to stop, until you wise up.”
That might have been it for the best Trump impersonator in comedy—Alec Baldwin included—after Comedy Central quietly declined to pick up The President Show for a second season. But given an unexpected ratings bump for the Christmas show, the network has decided to double-down on the hour-long special format, beginning with this week’s Make America Great-A-Thon: A President Show Special, airing Tuesday night at 11 p.m. while The Daily Show is on hiatus.
“I’m actually really happy about the specials,” Atamanuik tells me by phone from New York a few days before the telethon-themed hour is set to air. He’s just left the floor of the New York Stock Exchange where he was taping a TV interview and no, he says, they did not let him ring the bell. “I actually said to the guy who showed me the bell, ‘What happens if I ring it? Do they all stop?’ And he said, ‘Do not even joke about that.’”
“I’m knee-deep in it,” Atamanuik says of the 14-hour days he and The President Show’s writers and producers have been working to get the special ready to go for Tuesday night. He’s viewing it as a “transitory piece” from the episodic series to what will hopefully be a string of specials airing every few months on the network.
And he’s trying hard to embrace the “upside” of the new schedule.
“I think there is the disappointment that comes from just knowing the one way you did it,” he says. “I did this show as a weekly show, that’s how I understood it.” But at the same time, he says he’s thankful that Comedy Central is giving him the “leeway” to do exactly what he wants with the specials.
“Hopefully people watch it. That will be really, really important,” Atamanuik stresses. “This will be a true test of the amount of online support that I see and whether that really translates to people sitting down and watching the show. So I hope people who are fans of the show who read this understand that talk is cheap—you’ve got to watch it.”
As for what those fans can expect when they tune in Tuesday night, Atamanuik is hesitant to give away too much. “What I’ll say is, Trump is a grifter and the conceit of this was rooted in the idea that he’s been violating the emoluments clause and is essentially running his businesses out of the Oval Office,” he says. “So what better way, in his mind—since Trump’s mind is rooted in ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s television—to do an old-fashioned Jerry Lewis-style telethon to raise money. So I think the big thing is that you’re watching a huge con or heist unfold over the episode.
“This special is about the mounting tension and pressure that is compressing on him due to the investigation and in my view, his belief that if he just stays on the air raising money, somehow he’ll be safe from all the forces that are coming to take him apart,” he continues. “And I want people to watch that unfold. So the show is a metaphor for where we’re at at this moment.”
All of the president’s old friends will be on hand, including his trusty sidekick, Vice President Mike Pence, and Donald Trump Jr., played by executive producers Peter Grosz and Adam Pally, respectively. But the most highly anticipated cameo belongs to comedian Kathy Griffin, who is portraying Kellyanne Conway. It will be Griffin’s first real TV role since she came under fire last year for holding up a fake severed head of the president during a photoshoot.
“I think that the controversy surrounding a comedic choice that she made pales in comparison to the grotesque things that our president does on a daily basis in public. And for some reason he is still plastered across all of cable news and major newspapers,” Atamanuik says of Trump’s attempt to essentially end Griffin’s career. “I wanted Kathy Griffin to do the show because I think she makes the perfect Kellyanne Conway, and she is a comedic genius.”
One thing viewers won’t be seeing in the new special is the type of “run-and-gun” segments in which Atamanuik improvises as Trump in a virtually uncontrolled environment out in the world. Those field pieces have produced some of the hands-down funniest moments in the show’s short history, but an unnerving experience Atamanuik had in character as Trump at a public shopping mall last fall has left him shaken.
“When we shot the Christmas special someone hucked a jawbreaker from three stories up in the mall and it nailed me in the head,” Atamanuik says. “And I think at that point I realized that there’s a point at which putting me in a large crowd where people either don’t know that it’s me and think it’s him or just don’t like seeing him represented in public—I don’t need to put myself in that position.”
He says he wants to continue interacting with real people as Trump, as long as it is in a “contained” space. The mall experience made him rethink the time he spoke in front of tens of thousands of anti-Trump protesters at the Tax March in Washington, D.C. “You stand up there and go, my god, any one of these people could be a lunatic and do something,” he says. “And look, my security is incredible. Could they predict a jawbreaker was going to hit me in the head? No. They got me out of there, but they weren’t able to see it coming. You just replace that with something lethal and you go, OK, even with security, there’s only so much anyone can do.”
That experience has also given him even more insight into what it must be like to actually live life as Donald Trump. “The thing that’s so funny to me is, a lot of times when people will see me across the street or something, they really think it’s him, especially if I’m in profile or sort of have my back to them,” he says. “The first thing people do is they laugh and they point. So in that sense, I’m like, my god, what a hard life that is that the first instinct of people is to point at you like a circus freak and then laugh at you. So I would say it makes me have empathy for anyone in public life.”
Atamanuik’s portrayal of the president is hardly empathetic. But as “erratic and irrational” as he believes Trump to be, he does worry that the hysteria that surrounds his every move has the potential to backfire.
He points to a video clip that briefly went viral last month in which President Trump mistakenly told a steelworker that his father was “looking down” and “very proud of you right now.” The man had to inform the president that his father was still alive.
“It’s moments like that when I’m so fucking disappointed in media in general,” Atamanuik says. “Because it’s like, ‘Trump insults man’s dead dad.’ If you watch the video, nobody cared, the guy didn’t care, Trump actually made it funny. And I think when you start just blanket making it a hate festival, aren’t you just doing the same thing as them?”
This potential for “Trump fatigue” was always going to be an obstacle for The President Show and could, to some degree, help explain why Comedy Central felt it didn’t work as a weekly show. Especially when there are up to six different late-night hosts making fun of Trump on a nightly basis.
“I understand it. There’s this frustration,” Atamanuik says. “You hate him because you’re scared and you don’t understand what’s happening and he is so irrational and a lot of it is rooted in this very subconscious or unconscious fear of nuclear hellfire. And so I think there’s a natural inclination to dive into, ‘I just hate him and he’s such a dummy’ and this and that. I do think that starts to wear thin, because how many times can you say you hate somebody? I think you need to come up with new ways of approaching his silliness. I think you need to pick and choose the things that you make fun of.”
For instance, he understands why the stories about Trump’s alleged affairs with porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal have been given so much oxygen by both cable news and the late-night shows. But he worries people are focusing on the wrong part of those stories.
“If the bad rumor about you is that you’ve had intimate relations with a number of attractive, professional sex workers, I don’t know if that’s the worst story in his mind,” he says of Trump. “And I think also it has transitioned from the more gross accusations of sexual assault and in a way damaged or reframed the conversation into just a puritanical notion of did he have an affair? And you know, the real nut of this is whether his campaign used campaign funds to pay people off. But that’s not sexy, right? So we live in the space of, did he do this? Should Melania leave?
“How quickly liberals and Democrats forget how we were all sitting there in the ’90s saying, ‘Leave Bill Clinton alone, that’s his business with his wife,’” he continues. “And I think if you’re on the left, you’ve got to walk the walk. You cannot just change the game because now you don’t like the person. Skip to the thing that is the dangerous thing, which is the grift, the graft, and the corruption.”
Atamanuik is clearly passionate about these issues and sees his satirical take on Trump as an important part of the national discourse. With that in mind, he says he will be “very, very happy” when Trump ultimately leaves the White House, one way or another.
“There’s a certain point at which I will have done my duty with it,” he says. “There will be a point where I will have done everything I can do and will want to move on and do other things. Then he can go home and I can go home and we can both put our wigs away.”