In 'President Show,' Comedy Central's fake Trump tackles real late-night rivals

Variety

When President Donald Trump speaks, people hear many different sounds: A rallying cry for blue-collar America. A dog-whistle signal for extremists. A new philosophy that might shape the nation for the next several years.

Anthony Atamanuik picks up the faint strains of poetry.

"Trump speaks almost lyrically, like a refrain. He talks to himself. When he's talking, he's always telling himself what he is saying, and then he repeats it to confirm it to himself," says the comedian. "He's running and revising a concept over and over again. He will give it, and repeat, and return to it."

People may debate whether the president should be lumped in with Alfred Tennyson, Carl Sandburg, and Ogden Nash, or even some guy who scrawls dirty limericks on a public bathroom wall. Yet they are likely to give Atamanuik, 42 years old, some leeway when he begins to interpret the nation's 45th president as if he were the host of a late-night talk show later this week. Starting Thursday, just after 11:30 p.m., Atamanuik will hold forth as Trump on Comedy Central's "The President Show," which will appear to viewers as if POTUS has discovered a means of challenging Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel on their own wee-hours turf.

"There's going to be a lot of curveballs in this show. I don't think people will be expecting it," says Atamanuik in an interview. "It's definitely not just a 25-minute 'SNL' sketch, that's for sure."

In late-night TV, some shows have turned down the emphasis on viral antics and guest bookings and focused instead on the headlines of this nation's frenzied news cycle. Commentary about politics has helped CBS' Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's Trevor Noah and TBS' Samantha Bee gain new traction over the last year. If that's the hypothesis, Atamanuik's new show will put it to a more rigorous test. Colbert often talks to an animated version of the president, but Atamanuik will, for all intents and purposes, be the Commander-in-Chief. There's no distance between the jokes being made and the person who is the object of them.

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"One sensibility of late night has to do with topicality and urgency," says Kent Alterman, president of Comedy Central. "It's definitely the kind of content that our fans are responding to."

The new program is expected to include desk segments, field pieces and interviews. Peter Grosz will play Vice President Mike Pence, and Atamanuik says other staffers will likely portray other Trump associates, while celebrities and other notables pay the host the occasional visit.

The strategy might be a risky one. "With Trump, the idea that he is driven only by self interest, by narcissism -- one popular conclusion -- is troubling for the republic, so we're always looking to see if there's some other answer. And people look for that answer wherever they think they might find it, even in satirical works," said Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication who has studied late-night shows for more than 15 years. "Anthony Atamanuik is going to feel a lot of pressure to provide insights into this president that we feel we do not understand."

Other pressures will be at hand as well: Comedy Central will likely be analyzing audience reaction to "President Show" to determine if it can be more experimental in late night, where it has built an empire of sorts over the decades. "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" were durable franchises and the network's decision to launch the frenzied "@midnight" in 2013 only added to its reputation for after-dark programming. When Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart moved on in 2014 and 2015, respectively, they left shoes that were hard to fill. The network had to juggle a new "Daily Show" host as well as "The Nightly Show," a concept executives eventually canceled. In addition to launching a new strip show featuring Jordan Klepper this fall, says Alterman, Comedy Central is testing new ideas, such as weekly showcases including Atamanuik's as well as one soon to launch from Jim Jeffries.

Comedy Central found Atamanuik's pitch so easy to understand that executives gave him a green light quickly, said Alterman. "You can imagine how many pitches we've heard since the election that are all Trump-related - all different forms, all different genres. What I loved about the pitch was how clear and simple the premise is," he said. "I think that just affords a lot of different ideas to explore."

There's no doubt a show lampooning Trump has the potential to grab publicity. In 2001, Comedy Central won some attention for eight episodes of "That's My Bush!," a satirical series from "South Park" co-creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone that featured actor Timothy Bottom as President George W. Bush, Carrie Quinn Dolan as First Lady Laura Bush, and Kurt Fuller as advisor Karl Rove. In 2007, the network aired an animated series called "Lil' Bush," depicting the president and his Cabinet as little kids at a private school.

To get the word out, Comedy Central has used some not-so-subtle techniques, including a new "Late Night Donald" Twitter feed that vows to "make late night great again." Followers are told the nation's 45th president is "issuing an executive order to fix late night television, by installing a new host: me." Meanwhile, the network purchased a billboard ad approximately three miles away from Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate that is visible to drivers as they exit southbound I-95 en route to the resort. "Another golf trip? Sad!" reads the pitch, which was slated to debut today.

Atamanuik says he is willing to court controversy, but also has boundaries. He won't do jokes about Barron Trump, the president's youngest son. "Listen, the kid is young. It's not his fault Trump is his dad. I think that's way off limits," he says. "I think it's a comic's choice to decide what they what to do, but you pay a price for what you do," he adds. Bits about the president's oldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, are allowed, he says - as well as comments on Trump's odd way of sometimes talking about her in a lecherous manner. "I think that's fair game, because he does it," Atamanuik says, though he will take pains not "to go a bridge too far."

He readily acknowledges his Trump impression is not the first of its kind, citing examples of Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond portraying the New York real-estate mogul on "Saturday Night Live" in earlier decades. But Atamanuik has been at it for months before Alec Baldwin grabbed headlines for his current caricature on the NBC show.

Channeling the president happened purely by chance. While working an improv show at New York's Upright Citizens' Brigade in 2015, Atamanuik was called upon to work the then Republican-candidate into the show. "I'll just play this and see what it's like," Atamanuik says he thought. "I'll do him, and it will probably be pretty piss poor." On the contrary, the attempt resulted in a request for him to build a show around the impression. He later worked with comedian James Adomian to develop a "Trump vs. Bernie" mock debate that caught attention, and TV appearances followed.

The comic says his Trump efforts represent "more of an internal thing," which lends him an edge. "The external stuff is like an Elvis impression. Anyone can do it."

Atamanuik grew up in working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, and says he recognizes Trump in people he knew there. He recalls visiting a painting operation his grandfather owned, hearing workers speak as he played in turpentine vats. Trump, a real-estate developer, sounds like he is talking to guys at a construction site or on the factory floor. "All those guys, Lou and Joe, that was how they talked -- in circular speaking. It is a specific vein of communication that is sort of arcane. It has been replaced by the American Valley girl accent."

Basically, says Atamanuik, "I'm just playing my uncle at Thanksgiving dinner."

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