On the ‘Trump vs. Bernie’ Campaign Trail with Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian
The countdown to November’s presidential election is ticking, and candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — unarguably the biggest outsider characters of their respective parties — have been ripe fodder for the comedy world. Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Darrell Hammond, Taran Killam, and Johnny Depp are just a few of the mainstream stars who’ve made headlines for their takes on Trump and/or Sanders, but without question, there are two comedians out there who’ve been chasing the Trump/Bernie matchup phenomenon for months longer and better than anyone: Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian. Since their first Trump vs. Bernie show back in October, Atamanuik and Adomian have been gaining ground through what Adomian calls their “grassroots outsider campaign in the comedy world,” and between Trump and Bernie’s wins in New Hampshire and the comedians’ well-deserved CNN appearance last Friday, it looks like the people of America are finally catching up to what Atamanuik and Adomian knew all along: both Trump and Bernie, for better or worse, have a real shot at becoming our next president, and James and Anthony — or as CNN’s Brooke Baldwin called them, “Jim and Tony” — are so spot-on hilarious that it’s hard not to hope we’ll actually get to see their targets in a real debate.
In case you’re not lucky enough to see the live Trump vs. Bernie debate, here are a few things I can confirm after seeing their show on Friday in New York: It will make you laugh a lot, it’s political satire that’s more biting and passionate than anything on late night or SNL right now, and Atamanuik and Adomian want their audiences to leave the debate with more than just the experience of a great comedy show — they want to help transform young audience members into young voters come November. I recently spoke with Atamanuik and Adomian to find out how the tour is going, how they approach their impressions, their face-to-face meeting with Bernie Sanders, and what their near-future plans are for the show.
Hey guys! How’s the tour been so far?
James: They’ve been very good shows! Most of them have been sold out. We just did a bunch of shows in the Midwest and then we did Vermont and New Hampshire, we just did Boston last night, and we’re headed to New York tomorrow.
Anthony: And not to sound too Trumpy, but they’ve been really tremendous crowds.
Anthony: Truly, they’ve been enthusiastic, awesome crowds. We had to turn people away because we were at capacity. And the enthusiasm and the energy and the interest crosses over from politics to looky-loos to comedy fans — sort of every stripe of person. In Manchester we got a lot of media class people who were there as well who were very interested in observing what we were doing and saying.
I saw you posted a picture from Bernie Sanders’s event right after he won New Hampshire. How’d that come together?
James: We actually got into both Bernie and Trump events.
Have you spoken to people working on either campaign? I’m sure they’re at least aware of the show, right?
James: Well, let’s put it this way: We did not get in because of some connection at the campaign. We got in the old fashioned way as the general public walking through security and everything.
Anthony: That’s right. I went through security dressed as Trump.
James: Yeah, he was making the Secret Service guys laugh. The interesting thing is — and we found this out very clearly in New Hampshire — we were there for two days, and all day out in the streets we were getting recognized by Bernie volunteers and staffers, like younger staffers who had watched our videos or heard us on Comedy Bang Bang. We actually stumbled into an afterparty for the Bernie Sanders New Hampshire campaign…
Anthony: We were going to another place just to convene and have some pub food before we went to the hotel, and they always serve pizza and we were like “Screw that.” So we walked down the block and this guy was on the corner and he goes “Oh, are you looking for the Bernie campaign party?” and I went “Oh yeah, absolutely!” [laughs] So we all went in and said “Oh man, we did it! We did it!” And then at the party we ended up taking pictures with almost everybody there!
James: Yeah, we were taking pictures with all these young people who know about us, however, the people at the top of the campaign did not know about it. It’s very weird — it’s like we’re the grassroots outsider campaign in the comedy world. The young people know about us, but the older people don’t.
Anthony: And we both shook Bernie’s hand!
James: We did both shake Bernie’s hand, yeah! And I was in costume as Bernie when it happened. It was kind of magical because my favorite David Bowie song “Starman” was playing and I got to shake Bernie’s hand, and I was like “Bernie, I’m Bernie!” and he laughed.
Tony, you endorsed Bernie on Twitter this week. What inspired you to make it official?
Anthony: Well, I’ve loved Bernie Sanders for decades. I mean, I remember watching him on C-SPAN for so long. I think for a little while I bought into the general notion that he couldn’t really win…
Anthony: …so my default position was well, Clinton’s the best we’re gonna get and it was sort of inevitable. But I think when I sort of put my political goggles back on and wasn’t as lazily paying attention to it, I knew I leaned in his direction. But I think it was when I shook his hand and I told him I was from New York and he sort of stopped for a moment, said “What part?” and in that moment…you know, I’ve met a lot of politicians. I’ve met Al Gore, I’ve met a lot of presidential candidates in my time…
James: You should know this about Tony Atamanuik: He’s met half of everyone.
Anthony: [laughs] I really have, and I have to say, he was the first politician I’ve ever met who was a real person. He was a real person who was engaged, even in this most heightened moment where he had trounced Clinton and broken the record in New Hampshire and had just given a very long speech after I’m sure an exhausting time campaigning in New Hampshire. So to see that really confirmed in my mind that this person not only should be the president, but could be the president, and deserves to be the President of the United States.
James: Yeah. And I endorsed Bernie as soon as he announced he was running for president.
James: I have been a huge fan of his since he was a congressman, and I was very happy when he was elected to the Senate in 2006, which was a surprise.
Anthony: Yeah, that was a shock.
James: He’s been my favorite senator since he’s been in the Senate, and he’s gonna be my favorite president when he’s elected. For Trump vs. Bernie, you obviously want it to be funny first, but you both are personally engaged and invested in the election at the same time. As a performer, how do you balance the comedy with your personal politics?
James: Well, I am primarily a comedian — I’m doing comedy whether I’m doing Bernie Sanders or something else, and the most important thing is to be funny and make people laugh. And also, I am a huge Bernie Sanders supporter — I’ve donated money to the campaign, I agree with him on almost everything, and I think he would be the best possible person you could have as president, and it would be historic and it would really change our political process for our generation. I think it’s actually a breath of fresh air to make fun of someone like Bernie Sanders, who’s not only a great person but also a light side Jedi, and also way smarter than me. I’ve made fun of all kinds of people who I hate, and I’ve made fun of people who I agree with too — I like Jesse Ventura a lot and I make fun of him — so I do impressions of people whether I like them or not. It’s whether they make a big impression on me, positive or negative, that causes me to want to do an impression of them.
In Bernie Sanders’s case, it’s a majorly positive impression he makes on me, which then makes me motivated to want to take that impression he makes on me and share it with the public. And the ways that I’m making fun of Bernie Sanders are the ways he looks and sounds and his reliance on hard facts and statistics, and I think if that’s what you’re being made fun of for, you’re a very good person. [laughs] I used to do a George W. Bush impression and I would have him say all the war crimes he was gleefully committing and stuff, so that was more exhausting because you’re playing a bad guy. I think it’s actually refreshing and nice to play a good guy that I like.
What about you and Trump, Tony?
Anthony: Well, I don’t know…as I started learning Trump’s behaviors and his speeches, I obviously disagreed rightly with him on a number of things. And how can you even disagree with someone who hasn’t expressed an actual opinion? I mean, beyond restating and sexually harassing the women in the audience, he doesn’t really do anything rather than give a review of what’s going on. So I approach it a little differently in the sense that, first off, I have to separate two ideas. First, I have empathy for Trump. You have to have empathy even for the person you don’t like or don’t care for or makes you enraged. He was a child like anybody else and at some point in his life things happened that made him into who he is, but that child is still a person who, at their core, was a good human being at some point. So I have to approach him that way, because that’s the only way I can arrive at seeing things through his filter — by seeing the part of him that believes he is good and wonderful, right?
The other half of it is that my politics I would say are pretty radical, and it’s an opportunity as Trump to both acknowledge what he’s doing and saying but also figure out how to, through his cadence and through what he does, express my points of view and match them with a passion and a humor that hopefully sort of does a trifecta, a triple threat of activity, which is immersed performance with something that’s funny but also piquing the audience and agitating the audience. And so I would say my greatest message, for me and the show, is to really get young people — especially young progressive people and young comedy people who announce that they’re progressive but don’t vote, or announce that they’re liberal but don’t take to activism — to understand that it’s not enough to push your thumb on Twitter, it’s not enough to go see a comedy show and boo the fake Trump. When are you going to actually take action in the world? When are you going to realize that your job is to take action in the world, not in a hashtag fashion, not just voting up or down on an idea on a social media website? So I have a mix of agenda when I do it.
There’s that argument that Will Ferrell’s Bush impression on SNL actually helped Bush seem more likable or relatable with voters. Do you worry about that at all?
Anthony: No. I think that Will Ferrell was likable, not George Bush. I don’t think that he made George Bush any more likable. And I also feel that it’s a false argument to say that portraying someone somehow endorses them. Charlie Chaplin did an incredible performance as Adolf Hitler, and he exposed a lot of the tragedy that was to come prior to it arriving. I think that a comic is a standup philosopher, as Mel Brooks once said. We have an opportunity to take these divisive figures in time and history and color them in and show who they are to the world in a way that they can’t announce themselves.
There haven’t been any new videos of you two since the first one went up in October. Why did you decide to do a live tour first instead of make more web videos?
James: [sighs] Well, it’s not a decision we made — that’s kind of the best choice we have in a world where we don’t have a TV show.
James: I think that we both should’ve had a TV show many years ago. I do have a relationship with @midnight on Comedy Central and I went on @midnight back in September and I did Bernie Sanders on there, but it’s largely been forgotten by now.
Anthony: And I did Trump for Comedy Central Digital for a little piece that they did, but in terms of anything that’s filmed, this is all I think we can say at this point: There will be a lot of wonderful things coming on a variety of mediums, but there’s nothing we can discuss.
James: I’ll say a little more than that if you don’t mind: We have been filming stuff everywhere we’ve been, and we’ve been recording the shows, and we’re in negotiations with people to see if we can release it in the way we want to. We’ll see what happens. But we did not go into this with an existing TV deal or a way to release stuff, and at a certain point you have to get out there in front of people somehow, so we decided the best way to do that was a live show. Both Tony and I are steeped in live comedy, and that’s how we know each other.
Anthony: And live comedy — much like a live rally or political speech or seeing candidates — when you see someone it’s unique, you can do things onstage that you’re not gonna be able to necessarily do on film, and you get liberty to express yourself in ways that are protected and guaranteed under the First Amendment. You don’t have censors or corporations or anyone else telling you what you can do and say. And I also believe that we are mirroring the campaign by doing this tour and having the opportunity to mirror the idea of a campaign.
James: Yeah. We were on the ground in Manchester and it was so exciting. It was an absolute circus. We were at the Trump rally and we got to feel it. It does not come across on television — the negative energy in that room.
Anthony: Awful. Awful.
James: They were like Ralph Steadman caricatures from a Hunter S. Thompson novel: bitter, angry, cheering, booing without any joy in their faces.
Anthony: And it was true that Oprah’s Stedman was there as well.
So you’re keeping the tour open-ended as far as being able to respond to what’s happening in the news?
James: We’re adjusting to the news. Every time something happens in the news, it gets addressed in one of our live shows. Chris Christie dropped out yesterday and we talked about that last night at the show. We talked about the results from the Iowa caucuses on the road, we talked about the results from New Hampshire in the most recent shows…
Anthony: I would also say that obviously news does dictate events, but if you’re asking what are the contingencies if Trump got knocked out or something like that, we believe that we’ve created a world where these characters exist in an abstract enough sense that they do have the ability to exist in alternate narratives that are not tied to the news cycle. So I think we have a multiplicity of options to approach the tour based on the events as they unfold.
James: Yeah. I think it’s almost like a good clown and a bad clown, the act we’re doing. It’s like professional wrestling — Tony’s playing the bad guy wrestler, The Iron Sheik, and I’m playing the good guy wrestler, Hulk Hogan. [laughs] But I think it’s important to know we are doing the debate we want to see, and it’s not just us! They polled millennials, who all said in massive numbers that the race they want to see for the presidency is Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders. And we knew that going in, when neither one of them looked like they were gonna be the nominee — Donald Trump was up in the polls but he was at 30, 28% or something, and Bernie Sanders was not the frontrunner when we started doing this back in October — and we placed ourselves at the crossroads where now news and history have come to us where we are.
Anthony: That’s right.
James: And frankly…there should be a TV crew following us around.
James: Maybe there is and we just don’t know about it.
Anthony: We don’t know if there is or isn’t.
James: But yeah, we wanted to do this and we thought this would be the ideological clash that would be the funniest and the best, as far as satire, for the country. And it turns out, we had a finger on the pulse. These two guys are the frontrunners, and we’ve been doing this since October.
Anthony: When Trump lost Iowa and we were doing the show in Madison and James and I were like “Oh, we gotta do some Iowa material,” all I had to do was go back to my Trump Dump show at UCB from October 24th and look up all the material I did about finishing second in Iowa that I did in October. James and I have been ahead of this idea for months now.
You really have. And for what it’s worth, my parents have always been polar opposites politically, and right now my mom likes Bernie and my dad likes Trump. So…
James: So they should love this article.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
For more info on Atamanuik and Adomian’s tour, head over to the Trump vs. Bernie website.