Thursday night, Donald Trump will host the second episode of his weekly sketch comedy series, The President Show, on Comedy Central. The first episode aired last week, when Keith Olbermann joined Trump to lament how we inhabit a world where this TV show necessarily exists.
Of course, we’re not actually watching President Trump. We’re watching the comedian Anthony Atamanuik in makeup and costume, doing a precise and lively impersonation of the president for 21 minutes at a time. To give credit where it’s due: I cannot stress how thrilling and masterful Atamanuik’s Trump impersonation is. It makes Alec Baldwin’s Trump look like Jimmy Fallon’s impersonation of Chris Rock. Baldwin offers a loose, rudimentary take on Trump’s basic mannerisms; Atamanuik stresses and zeroes in on all the president’s traits — his facial tics, rhetorical tropes, physical invasiveness, vicious frivolity, and spite. In one President Show sketch, Trump hosts a segment in Times Square that disintegrates into personal catharsis, calling on every Trump idiosyncrasy one could possibly recognize as he goes on a surreal rant about trucks and death.
In interviews, Atamanuik has talked about how his Trump impersonation is not just a bit, but instead an obsessive character study, informed by a level of immersion that could qualify the comedian as among the nation’s top Trump experts.
Baldwin’s more famous impersonation is notable not only because it personally irritates Trump, but also because Trump won the presidency despite being humiliated almost weekly on national TV in the final months of the 2016 campaign. Arguably, none of this is funny anymore, as what began as a joke candidacy in the minds of Trump’s opponents became a real, live regime that counts deportation, censorship, and global belligerence among its foremost priorities. Atamanuik’s Trump impersonation is the best, but it’s hardly the first, and Atamanuik isn’t the only comedian to reimagine this president’s terror as comedy. There’s so much Trump comedy at this point. The quality of Atamanuik’s impersonation notwithstanding, the risk with The President Show is that we’ve heard it all before.
In Comedy Central’s proud tradition of connecting comedy and politics, The President Show isn’t just a bunch of dumb jokes about the week’s events; it’s a bunch of smart jokes about the week’s events plus some wonderfully dumb riffing on Trump’s psyche. The Daily Show has an anchor; so did The Colbert Report. Both programs featured correspondents presenting news with a comedic bent. The President Show is pure sketch comedy save for the in-studio interview segment that closes each episode.
That’s where the show is most promising. In his interview with Olbermann, Atamanuik maintains character — Colbert Report–style — but he drops the goofy facade and instead adopts a more knowing, cynical stance, interrogating Olbermann about the media’s role in promoting his personal brand and exploiting his politics of grievance for its own, crude viewership gains. Olbermann concedes that Trump’s relationship with the press is symbiotic. If it weren’t, he and Atamanuik wouldn’t be here mining the angst that shrouds his presidency for ratings.
As funny and irreverent as Atamanuik gets, The President Show is not quite relief from Trump — he stars here, after all — though his approach does take the edge off, treating his presidency as a clerical error rather than a crisis. Atamanuik has stressed that The President Show is “definitely not just a 25-minute SNL sketch,” and that he’s out to upend viewers’ assumptions about comedy’s helplessness in regard to Donald Trump. The execution of that goal may be the factor on which the success of The President Show hinges, because hate-watching is a hopeless pastime, one that arguably helped get us into this mess. If nothing else, we’ve learned that Donald Trump is very good at getting us to watch Donald Trump — at our own peril.