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Can Satire Undermine Donald Trump?

Alessio Franko
September 15, 2017


by Alessio Franko

WATCHING Donald J. Trump descend a hotel escalator in June 2015 to announce his presidential run, an ecstatic Jon Stewart called it “comedy hospice.” Stewart would glide through the final weeks of his legendary seventeen-year stint at The Daily Show, slinging jokes that practically wrote themselves about Trump’s tackiness, ignorance, and noxious aristocratic egotism. We can forgive Stewart for not predicting what was to become of Trump’s bid (more than we can forgive him for ceding his platform to the increasingly mediocre Trevor Noah), but even had he glimpsed the future, it’s hard to imagine what Stewart could have done differently.

The American and European Jews who recognized in Trump all the hallmarks of a fascist still laughed at his outrageous antics, which were precisely what reminded them of Hitler and Mussolini to begin with. Terrorizing immigrant communities, flirting promiscuously with military disasters, and all but patting neo-Nazis on the back does not dull the tickle of “covfefe” (Trump’s Tweet blunder-word, which baffled the nation). Realizing how Trump has spliced cruelty together with comedy may turn the stomach, but such are the absurdities of politics. Laughing and crying are, apparently, physiologically identical.

Trump humor in public life is here to stay, probably for far longer than the man himself, and Anthony Atamanuik’s The President Show is positioning itself to become our name-brand source for it. Spun off from last year’s “Trump vs. Bernie” comedy tour, in which Atamanuik, portraying Trump, debated James Adomian’s perfectly bombastic Sanders, The President Show now airs every Thursday night on Comedy Central. A conventionally structured talk show hosted from the Oval Office by Atamanuik’s Trump, with Mike Pence (Peter Grosz) as his sidekick, The President Show invites you to see news and current events through Trump’s eyes, occasionally all the way through the ghastly depths of his inner psyche. Whereas other prominent comedies such as Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show regularly take Trump on as a theme, The President Show is all Trump, all the time -- just how he likes it.

BARELY HALF a year old, The President Show is still finding its voice. A handful of jokes on every episode are the kind of obligatory riffs on the headlines that have felt stale since Jon Stewart’s retirement. But while some comedic bits fall completely flat, others can be fiendishly clever. At the height of this summer’s Comey-mania, an open box of imported cravats incited Atamanuik and Grosz to bicker over who should be the one to “cover up the Russian ties.” As the writing fluctuates, Atamanuik’s impression itself remains the show’s bedrock, and it has matured since his touring with Adomian. Atamanuik now incorporates Trump’s oddly limited vocabulary of arm jerks, face squeezes, and anti-conversational ticks. When he takes us, in one sentence, from Trump’s wistful husky whisper to his gleeful screech, the words don’t really matter -- it’s funny.

Jerking us from one to another of Trump’s many modes is Atamanuik’s signature move. Depending on the segment, his Trump can be a steely tycoon, a frenzied heckler, a giddy saboteur, a bawling man-baby, or dart violently among all of the above. Caught up in exploiting Atamanuik’s ability to play such a range of volatile moments, however, The President Show has so far neglected to articulate a functioning theory of who Trump really is. “Erratic” is a shallow core character trait and promises little room to mine for deeper revelations about Trump as the show progresses. As it stands, he is presented as a mythical creature or a force of nature with no desire or objective other than to sow chaos, as evidenced by his nightly sign-on: “I’m the President! Can you believe it?!” It’s a line that feels like it was written last November.

That line is your first clue that the pleasures of The President Show are predominantly masochistic. The studio audience shows up to have a laugh at Trump’s expense, but spends the better part of twenty-two minutes applauding his repartee. Guests like Rolling Stone commentator Matt Taibbi rail against the media’s obsession with Trump, utterly surrendering to the irony that they are on a cable TV show obsessing over Trump themselves.

Atamanuik has developed a habit of breaking character to attack himself, signaling that his act may be better thought of as a garish Halloween mask than a simulation. He is an effigy of Trump, a piñata for his guests to let loose onto while we look on in vicarious catharsis. For my own part, I find the gladiatorial vitriol of The President Show’s guest segments deeply demoralizing. The rage they dredge up is not the sort that pushes us forward, but the sort that digs us into the past.

THE THREAD tying The President Show’s flaws together is a confusion over how to portray power and powerlessness. Atamanuik has thrown several extended conniptions on the show, intended to portray Trump’s immaturity and lack of self-control in the face of failure. Yet these sequences undercut themselves, thanks again to how committed a performer Atamanuik is: Watching him run around swinging a baseball bat or rolling around the floor like a child is more scary than funny. Contrast this with one of the recent sketches in which Trump and Pence watch a political focus group through a one-sided mirror: Away from the safety of his desk, facing the real disapproval of the American people rather than that of the media, Trump has nowhere to direct his meltdown. He tosses snack wrappers at the wall and sinks to whatever tiny, bizarre power trips he can pull over Pence and the pollster, in a scene that captures Trump’s impotence as only comedy can.

Regular viewers will be rewarded with more glimmers of acumen like that one. Atamanuik has broken character in several guest segments to deliver devastating diatribes on why our political and media apparatuses are structurally insufficient to counter Trump. These bursts of clarity tend to leave the guests -- mostly prominent activists and pundits -- at a total loss. What appears on the surface to be just another one of Atamanuik’s many Trump masks -- the secret genius playing us all for fools -- applies real pressure to his guests and to the limits of their respective critical approaches to Trump. Perhaps The President Show is not just another toothless political satire, but on its way to staging a much-needed satirization of satire. I sense, however, that Viacom and its commercial interests are not as excited by this trajectory as Atamanuik and his writers may be.

The President Show steps into the void left by Comedy Central’s abrupt and untimely cancellation of Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. Airing four nights a week (to The President Show’s once a week), Nightly offered comedy based on race and other social topics, and swapped the typical guest-interview segment for panel discussions. Among the reasons Comedy Central cited for pulling Wilmore was that his online clips were not generating enough buzz, but whereas Nightly did pop up on my social media feeds from time to time, The President Show never does. This is a telling fact, demonstrative of the difference between a show that takes risks and one that doesn’t. The President Show is struggling to make a rousing intervention about our conservative leadership because it is itself, at even the formal level, a conservative project. Trumpism will not be defeated, on the ground or in the imaginary, until we start taking risks.

Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master’s in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor’s in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.