Three days before November 8th, Saturday Night Live‘s cold open was about abandoning the heinous mess that was the 2016 presidential race. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton roam through Times Square like they’re in a Lost in Translation-themed .fun music video. Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon break character. Vote! They say to the camera. But the underlying message seemed more like: run.
Anthony Atamanuik, a comedian who has satirized Donald Trump for over a year, also realized escape was going to be a throughline in the race. But instead of avoidance, Atamanuik employed fear: “It doesn’t matter if I win the election,” he says in the defensive tone of the GOP presidential candidate. “Because I will have left a wake of anger, destruction and division greater than this country has seen in centuries … So I’ve already done my job. And I’ve done it very effectively.”
The 42-year-old comedian best known for work on 30 Rock, Broad City, Comedy Bang! Bang! and as a veteran improviser at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, has been on his own campaign trail since 2015. “I’m not an impersonator,” Atamanuik says bluntly, sitting at a quaint tapas restaurant in Chelsea. “I did Trump as an act of comedic activism – what Charlie Chaplin did for Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator – I want to do that for [Trump].”
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015, Atamanuik started doing an impression of him in private, just for fun. (“His cadence is lyrical,” he says. “He speaks the way my brain is with my iPhone. It gets restless every about 30 to 60 seconds.”) The immediate hysteria at Trump rallies – from the racist remarks to the public bootings – was instant comedy fodder and UCB hosted a one-night production called Trump Dump with Atamanuik at the helm. Nobody expected the show would last any more than they expected Trump would get a presidential nomination.
“Atamanuik’s Trump imitation is not only perfect and riotously funny; it should be essential viewing for everyone in our country.” – Judd Apatow
As the Donald kept campaigning, so did Atamanuik. Trump Dump became a regularly sold-out show. Director Connor Ratliff jokes that he’s Kellyanne Conway, working behind-the-scenes to brief Atamanuik before he hits the stage on Trump’s latest exploits so the jokes always reflect current headlines. After Melania Trump’s allegedly plagiarized Republican National Convention speech, actress/model Mila Filatova (playing Mrs. Trump) started appearing alongside Atamanuik, mostly quiet, doling ample side eye.
Atamanuik also created a sketch debate series co-starring James Adomian who plays a disheveled, professorial Bernie Sanders. Their comedy album, Trump vs. Bernie: Live From Brooklyn, debuted at Number One on the iTunes Comedy chart in July and garnered legions of famous fans like Howard Stern, Joy Behar and Judd Apatow.
“Atamanuik’s Trump imitation is not only perfect and riotously funny; it should be essential viewing for everyone in our country,” Judd Apatow tells Rolling Stone. His favorite part of Trump vs. Bernie is the poem Atamanuik reads at the end called “The Snake.” It’s a spoof of the poem Trump read to Syrian refugees last January. “[The poem] reading is one of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in comedy,” says Apatow. “It’s remarkable.”
Everyone from Lip Sync Battle contestants to Meryl Streep to Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine have scrunched their lips in the name of comedic activism this year. They work in the requisite “yuge,” the mussed combover, mandarin hue with beady chalk-eyes and the double O.K. signs flailing like a T. rex that’s more Toy Story than Jurassic Park. Atamanuik says that his Trump is a precise blend of “30 percent William Shatner, 30 percent Don Rickles, 25 percent Alec Baldwin, 10 percent Elvis Presley; and the rest is me.” That remaining five percent it turns out, is the crucial ingredient.
Sipping rosé in a blue button-down, Atamanuik is hardly the bottle rocket of political rage he’ll become in less than an hour at one of his final Trump Dump shows. He insists, though, that even while we’re sitting, he’s getting into character. “It’s easier if I don’t have to cold-start the engine,” he says. “I try to keep the mannerism and voice, and maybe the self-aggrandizing part,” he says, interrupting his own thought to chew into a white asparagus spear.
Atamanuik starts talking in Trump’s peaks, valleys and repetitions (“Believe me, believe me,” he says, bang-on) like a linguistic maze. “[Playing Trump] is also fun because he’s such a good liar,” Atamanuik says with a titillating pause that’s notably Trump-like.
Part of why Atamanuik’s impression is chillingly good is because he identifies with the man. Atamanuik has experienced desperation snowballing into a cocktail of womanizing, lies and self-hatred. And his access to that self-obsessed mindspace is the difference between a gimmick and a Frankenstein. The anger, the rage, the indifference is real with Atamanuik.
“When I was doing a lot of cocaine and speed and sleeping with prostitutes left and right – I was also lying to everybody about everything,” he says quickly adding, “Trump can’t be a bad guy to me. To play him, I have to have empathy. I have to have a part of me that is him.”
Atamanuik grew up an only child in Chelsea, Massachusetts to creative-type parents. His mother, Marlena Yanetti, is a former stage actress who has taught dance for 45 years at Emerson College in Boston. His father, Larry Atamanuik, is a Grammy Award-winning musician and played in a rock band called Seatrain – the first group George Martin produced after the Beatles. He took young Anthony on tour with him across the country and to gigs and late-night talk show appearances (where he met a Rosie O’Donnell at The Arsenio Hall Show and Bill Nye at David Letterman).
“I was a little guinea with slicked hair who said every terrible word about every minority you could think of,” Atamanuik says. He wasn’t a “crazy racist,” but a product of his working-class environment. Ironically, hanging out with townie skinheads in high school started to clue him into the dangers of inherent racism. “I grew up when the skinhead movement became something cool for suburban kids,” Atamanuik says. Early on, Atamanuik saw in the skinheads how easy it was for young people to identify with a pattern of twisted thinking.
“They’d start saying things like: ‘Don’t you understand that they like to be with each other,’ or ‘there are different intelligences,’ ‘we’re from different regions of the earth,'” Atamanuik mocks in a harmless tone. “This shit isn’t new – it’s as old as the U.S.”
In his twenties, Atamanuik left the East Coast to work for the Jim Henson company in Los Angeles. It was a troubled period for the burgeoning writer. “I had a very unhealthy view of women,” he says. “As a child, I was sexualized and out of control and prostitution became a way to have control – not over women – but over the circumstance.” Some of Atamanuik’s early bits drew on that desperation. “People would come to shows thinking I was into some sick shit,” Atamanuik says. “And I was like, ‘You want to know the dark, seedy world of prostitution? I hate to break it to you, but most of it was quick missionary sex with someone who made small talk with me for 20 minutes after.’ Sad, lonely white men trying to get with somebody because they don’t have any respect for themselves.”
Improv became a more productive therapy when Atamanuik moved back to New York at age 28, leaving womanizing and drugs out west. But learning and then teaching at UCB turned out to be an equally intense education. “When people start improvising, it gets very primal,” Atamanuik says. “There’s lot of people labeling the Latino kid as the lawn worker, the black kid as the mugger. It goes even deeper than that.” In Trump Dump, Atamanuik has a term of that kind of innocent stereotyping: “death by a 1,000 paper cuts.”
“I’ll tell young white men in class, ‘you’re the most dangerous thing in the world, because you’re the most likely to believe you’re not doing anything wrong.’ They don’t like to hear that,” he smiles. But as Trump, Atamanuik can say whatever he wants.
“I don’t see color,” says Atamanuik later that evening as Trump mocking urban white millennials, which is largely the makeup of the audience. “The only time I see color is when I’m walking my sassy white-upper-middle-class ass up the street at 3 a.m. and see some black kid who happens to live there and call the police and hide in a corner, then write on Facebook the next day, because I’m very upset about Trayvon Martin. Because I am a completely disconnected fucking hypocrite!”
The first time Atamanuik watched a Trump rally on television in August of 2015, the slippery skinhead logic he remembered from his youth rang like a fire alarm inside him. In particular, he saw the candidate’s courting of white supremacy groups was a red flag before any news outlets reported it. So he made it part of the joke. Six months later, he appeared in a CNN segment and Atamanuik said it was still taboo to talk about Trump’s ignorance of the alt-right. “Brooke Baldwin wanted to shut me up,” he says. “It took another five months to put the alt-right out there. Meanwhile, James [Adomian] and I were doing it throughout the whole tour,” he says, exasperated. “What is the disconnect in the elite media class that doesn’t understand the difference between making a short buck and the end of Western civilization?”
“What makes me that fearsome teacher that people like to take is what makes me a good Trump,” Atamanuik says. “My characteristics are a lot like his characteristics; I speak extemporaneously in class without knowing what I’m talking about half the time. He clearly has a severe mother complex – I get that. He desperately wants approval, he desperately wants love, he is not psychoanalytically correct, not intellectual. His ego is like a safe, a vault. He’s not lying to himself because he believes his ego too much. That’s his big failing and what’s sad about him.”
Atamanuik is fifteen minutes out from his last Trump Dump at UCB and the house is packed. It’s the one-year anniversary of when he first took the basement stage as the candidate. In a dim dressing room, he loops his cartoonish red tie and combs out the same $40 wig he said was clipped from a Comedy Central hair stylist for his first show. At this point, the election – and his bit – aren’t even about Trump anymore, he says.
“What the Republican party has done is embolden a group of people to be aggressive, rude and feel freer to say racist things. It’s not going to end with Trump. Even if Hillary Clinton wins by a landslide, this isn’t going away,” Atamanuik says plainly, just before ducking into the theater to quickly change into his junky Trump drag.
“We’re cruising towards a nightmare. A total nightmare.”