The Colbert Report broke new ground in late night as a half-satirical, half-dead serious talk show hosted by the character of far-right blowhard "Stephen Colbert." The host left that personality behind to replace David Letterman on The Late Show as his genuine self. Three years later, the network is changing the late night game again with The President Show, taking the same tongue-in-cheek approach and applying it to another familiar format. Just like The Colbert Report was timely in its send-up of the stratospheric rise of Bill O'Reilly and other Fox News commentators, this new Daily Show follow-up is very of-the-moment. The President Show is hosted by comedian Anthony Atamanuik as Donald Trump. And though the host has reporters in stitches at a recent in-character press conference, he insists later as himself that he isn't planning on defanging the politician. "I don’t buy the idea that my work normalizes him," Atamanuik says. "I think everybody is trying to contribute to showing him for what he his, in the best way we can."
Back to that press conference for a moment, because as a West Wing fan, I used to have a rose-colored daydream of what it might be like to be a part of the White House press corps. And as a TV writer, this President Show event is probably as close as I'll ever get.
I'm surrounded by a dozen other journalists and sitting in front of a podium marked with the Presidential seal when the man behind it asks me a question in the perfect tone and cadence of the nation's 45th president:
"Bustle, what is that? Is it a bra catalog?"
When I tell Atamanuik that I write for a site geared toward millennial women, his President Show co-host Mike Pence (Peter Grosz) jumps in: "That’s one of the sites you’re not allowed to go on." Trump turns to his Vice President and asks, "Oh, that’s on the ad blocker?" Everyone laughs.
It's a funny bit, and perfectly improvised like the rest of the Q&A. (Esquire should replace its magazine with "a big bowl of face cream"; AM New York is "fake news," because sometimes the comedian's Trump reads it in the afternoon.) But the truthful core of the Bustle joke is that the president Atamanuik is playing has publicly made a laundry list of misogynistic comments, most famously his advocation of grabbing women "by the pussy" in the leaked Access Hollywood outtakes. (The president has since apologized for the leaked Access Hollywood comments.)
The comedian tells reporters gathered at the show's new studio that he hopes The President Show will help viewers to "blow off some steam" regarding their political frustration, but also puncture the manufactured facade that any of what's happening right now is "normal."
"My show is not going to necessarily get him impeached," Atamanuik says. "But the point being is that I think we can contribute to reexamining his identity."
Atamanuik has been examining Donald Trump's identity in live, improvised comedy shows since 2015. ( It was his friend and co-creator Adam Pally who had the idea to pitch it as a talk show.) The impersonation took shape at New York City's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and then Atamanuik took it on the road, splitting his time between performances of "Trump Vs. Bernie" (co-starring James Adomian as Bernie Sanders) and working on the Clinton campaign. As he traveled the country, the comedian gradually resigned himself the election's eventual outcome.
"I knew Trump was going to win, which was the most disappointing part," says Atamanuik.
"I saw there the faces of people I grew up with," he says of Trump's New Hampshire rally, near his hometown. "And not all those people were terrible people, they were broken people."
Atamanuik believes that low-income populations are being blamed for Trump's victory, when the middle-class were also a large base of support, according to publications like Time. And he sees his election as a logical point on the line that Americans have been graphing for decades.
“Trump is a result of every other thing we’ve done. He’s just a representation — a godhead — of everything we’ve done for the past 40 years, 60 years," the comedian says.
A talk show can't right all the criticisms of the Trump administration, but to Atamanuik, it's a golden opportunity to remind audiences that the man he's parodying is to him a "disingenuous buffoon." To that end, his impression goes deeper than mannerisms and accent.
“I like to say that I do an impression of his psyche. I do an impression of his soul," the host says. "He’s like if you took Frank Sinatra and threw him in a bog for 4,000 years and then fished that body out. That would be Trump, with all the rotted charm. He fancies himself a Rat Packer, right? But he’s sort of this insecure dowager living in a mansion ... In watching him, I saw all these psychological refrains that I found more fascinating."
Those refrains extend to the set, which is a combination Oval Office and Ed Sullivan Theater. In the universe of The President Show, according to the host, Trump actually knocked out some walls in the White House to accommodate a studio audience. One shelf is lined with Russian nesting dolls; a table is strewn with photos of Trump himself — no family.
The program taking place on that set is a mixed-format show, featuring interviews (Keith Olbermann is up first in the premiere), banter between Trump and Pence, and man-on-the-street segments that put the fake politicians out among their constituents. Atamanuik calls the experience "immersive."
The host admits that late night does have an "echo chamber" problem, and he'll largely be performing for people who share his views. But that doesn't mean that it's useless to keep calling Trump's behavior and policies out, even if the chances of actually changing minds is slim. As he puts it, "There are rules to the road in our society and our president is breaking those rules."
Atamanuik appears to consider putting together and performing The President Show his duty as an American, in addition to a good career move. "Comedy and satire are the life blood of the most tragic periods in human history," Atamanuik explains. And The President Show could be a nightly respite for fatigued members of the resistance.