The former UCB comedians channelreal estate magnate Donald Trump (Atamanuik) and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (Adomian) in a mock debate the New York Times' columnist Jason Zinoman called "thebest comedy sketch about the current political campaign that I’ve seen this year."
Their tour — aptly named “Trump vs. Bernie: The Debate!” — hits the road this month, after an initial round of performances in New York and a stop at the New York Comedy Festival.We caught up with Atamanuik and Adomian over the phone a couple of days after the tour’s first stop in Los Angeles.
So. Who won the first debate?
James Adomian: The American people.
Fair enough. Where did you guys get the idea to start doing a mock debate in the first place?
JA: It just came about that I was like, [to Tony], "I know you’re doing Trump, and I’m doing Bernie, we should do a debate." Tony was smart enough to have a friend of his film it and put it on YouTube, and after that, we did a show at The Bell House [in Brooklyn, New York] and now shows are selling out.
Nice. Why do you think the show is so popular?
JA:I think that Trump and Sanders are the two most interesting personalities running for president, and I also think they’re the two most ideologically opposed. A contest between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would be an amazing clash of ideas.
Anthony Atamanuik: Also, I think agitating elements of both parties get their wish of having people who are — well, I think Trump more so projects himself as this — but Bernie, I think, is truly outside of the status quo of the Democratic Party, and would both would make for a very interesting debate for a number of reasons. Kind of an intellectual versus an anti-intellectual.
How you prepare your impressions?
AA:I was doing an improv show and just found I could do [Trump’s] voice, so I worked it backwards. One thing I’ve noticed is that Trump has three different ways of behaving: He has Quiet Trump, which comes out in one-on-one interviews, and phone calls; there’s Rally Trump, which is much more bellicose, shrill and raspy; and Pleading Trump, with the press. He’s evolved as I’ve developed the character -- I think he became better at being extemporaneous on-stage, and he’s redefined the ways he sort of pretends to be spontaneous.
JA:I’ve known about Bernie Sanders for a long time and loved him. He’s been my favorite senator; for a long time, he was the only senator in the country who I thought was a good person. I had an impression that I would do privately, or with a friend who knew who he was, but I didn’t think enough people would know who he was to pull it off in a show. When he announced he was running for president, it was suddenly a chance for me to do this in front of people because they’d know who he was.
As far as how I do the impression: There’s two settings to Bernie. There’s one that’s just quiet [in character], "Let’s look at the numbers, that’s just the way it should be," and then there’s the barnstorming, populist rage side of Bernie. So I sort of alternate between those two sides.
We’ve touched on this a little already, but how much do your personal politics come into play in these performances?
AA:Oh, I’m definitely doing it to make a point. I think that in general, satire and comedy in the United States has lost its teeth, and I think too many major corporations own and fund the outlets of comedy that we see: most content we watch is produced by Time Warner or some other parent company. The possibility you’ll get some counter-cultural assessment of such a dangerous person running for president is crazy [unlikely].
JA:A lot of times, there’s far less censorship when you do live comedy than when you do it on television — there’s far fewer barriers to doing the biting, dangerous satire that you wanna do when it’s a live show. So, I think the series we’re going to be doing is really filthy and dark, and I think that’s good, because I think we need to see filthy and dark, and we need to be crazier and absurd than we’d be allowed to be on TV. I think that’s what makes people come out and see something live.
As you’ve developed your characters over time, have you discovered an element of either Bernie or Trump’s personality think might escape most people?
JA:That’s an interesting question. What’s amazing about Sanders is, he has such a depth of knowledge that is frankly — he’s a smarter person than me and I feel like it’s always harder to make fun of someone who is smarter than you. But Bernie Sanders running for president is having like, Jean-Paul Sartre running for president in France in the 1960s, a major philosophical intellectual.
AA:Something I observe watching from watching Trump is that he doesn’t really campaign or speak to policy as much as he tells his audience the story of what’s happened in the campaign so far. He has very interesting patterns of speech, and if it’s not purposeful, it’s just sort of a coincidental, hypnotic speech genius he has. He makes it, really, like a reality show: who’s been eliminated, who we like in the house, who we don’t like in the house. It’s truly [like the film] "Being There." He’s saying nothing, he has been saying nothing for almost six months now, and yet thanks to the press — because they elevated him and wanted to see this sideshow — it’s become the main stage.
Last question: are we all doomed?
JA:Oh! I thought you asked if “we were all Jews.” Hm. No, I think we’re precariously on the edge of a major point in American history. I think if we continue along the course we’ve set and we take a turn for the worst — like Donald Trump — I think we are definitely doomed. But, I think there is a chance to right the course, and get our house in order, with Bernie Sanders.
If you go
Feb. 10 at 8 p.m.
Brighton Music Hall
158 Brighton Ave, Allston
Feb. 12 at 8 p.m.
431 W 16th St, New York
Feb. 15 at 8 p.m.
World Cafe Live
3025 Walnut St, Philadelphia