Now in their fifth year of the comedy debate show, James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik are hoping to help you laugh, and maybe even learn
With the presidential primary season officially underway, and in turn, the picture of what might become a general election matchup come November becoming clearer by the day, James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik are making their way back to Boston’s WBUR CitySpace on Sunday (March 1) to give us what they hope is a glimpse into the future.
With the sold-out Trump vs. Bernie, the longtime comedy comrades aim to not only poke fun at the ridiculousness of modern American politics, but first foremost, to show how funny a showdown between the president and the veteran senator would be with Atamanuik’s well-crafted Trump impression, which landed him his own show with Comedy Central’s The President Show back in 2017, and Adomian’s take on Sanders, which initially helped members of his crowd discover the senator before his run for President in 2016.
What started as a one-off gig at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2015 has become something of a comedically-charged cautionary tale, and the duo got on the horn with Vanyaland to discuss the importance of the show’s run, in comedy and beyond. Check out the chat below.
Jason Greenough: Jumping right in, we’ve got Trump vs. Bernie coming up at WBUR CitySpace on March 1. It’s also sold out, which adds to the excitement. On that note, how are you guys feeling about bringing this show to Massachusetts?
James Adomian: We’ve done it before!
Anthony Atamanuik: Yeah, we’ve brought it to The Wilbur before, and I know that this venue has connections to The Wilbur, and I’m from Chelsea, so I’m always excited to go home, and Boston crowds are always just great crowds. That’s my former stomping ground. I went to Emerson College, and in fact, our moderator, Dave, went to Boston University. WBUR CitySpace is probably on whatever route of drinking escapades I would do in Allston, as well.
Adomian: My connection to Boston is that I’ve only been a frequent visitor for a number of comedy shows of various varieties.
Right on! Now, with this show, it’s quite timely. You’re bringing this show back to Boston just before the Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday. Was that at all planned? Or was it just how the route came to be?
Adomian: We were aware that Super Tuesday was coming up. We saw the calendar ahead of time, and we certainly didn’t hit all of the other Super Tuesday states, but we’re doing an East Coast run, and Boston is just a great city to end the tour in.
Atamanuik: I don’t think it was a conscious thing to do it right before Super Tuesday. I think it just worked out that way, in terms of the blocks of our tour, but it’s a nice kismet that it’s happening that way.
So, even with it not purposely happening that way, does it add any sort of energy or excitement to the show, given the current political climate that we’re in?
Atamanuik: I’ll let James say it, but for I think for him, it does. We did this tour in 2016 where both of these characters were probably equally abstract, but clearly and unfortunately, the momentum was building for Trump. I think we’re sort of through the looking glass here, and now we’re on the opposite side where the momentum is building for Bernie. For my character, it sort of stays the same, because there’s really no evolution through the primary season. For James, I think every time we pass through a different primary or caucus, the manifestation of this possibly happening becomes more and more of a thing, and it’s far more thrilling than it was last time.
Adomian: It’s funny that you refer to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as ‘abstract characters,’ Tony. They are kind of larger-than-life figures, and when we did this tour four years ago, they were both the outsider longshot candidates that we thought would be the funniest possible general election face-off, so that’s why we went with it and pulled the tour together. Here we are after the last election, five years after we started doing Trump vs. Bernie shows, and it’s definitely a different vibe [this time around].
Bernie Sanders is a real contender, and he’s a real frontrunner. There’s no one ahead of him in the pack. He’s almost eerily in the same dynamic situation that Trump was going through in 2016, where he’s the frontrunner, the establishment of the party doesn’t like it, and he’s not quite the majority frontrunner, but a strong plurality frontrunner.When you look at the momentum, and the way things have gone and are likely to go in the next couple of weeks, it doesn’t look like there’s a path to stop him, and you can see kind of a bizarro mirror in the panic of the party establishment on the Democratic side.
We’ve joked about how Trump vs. Bernie is like a magic spell that we thought we casted four years and we thought it didn’t work, and now it’s this slow-motion kind of magic spell that’s actually working this time.
So, you actually touched on my next question, but where did this whole idea come from? You guys have been doing it for a few years, but what was the very start of this?
Adomian: We’ve known each other from doing shows in New York. I’ve usually lived in LA, but I would visit New York and love seeing Tony and what he was doing. When I lived in New York, we did a lot of shows together, and we stayed in touch when I moved back to Los Angeles, so when I saw on social media that Anthony Atamanuik was doing Donald Trump, and I had started doing Bernie Sanders, I knew for sure that Anthony does the best Trump because it’s going to be correctly insane for who Donald Trump is. So, I either called him or texted him and told him that we should do a Trump vs. Bernie debate when I was in New York again.
Atamanuik: It was the booker for Whiplash who told me you were going to be in New York. I knew you were going to be doing it, so we texted each other and we put it together with Mark Oppenheimer from the New York Times as our first moderator.
Adomian: We did it as a one-off show as a fun little lark in the fall of 2015. We had been doing Trump and Bernie separately, and we did this mock debate just as a fun little 20-minute piece in a bigger comedy show that other people were on. We filmed it, put it on YouTube, and it became an ultra hit sensation, so then we sort of had to go on the road with it.
It’s weird to see how these two really started out as the outsider candidates, and now, for better or worse, they’re these pop culture icons in a very big way.
Adomian: Well, Trump has always been a very famous person. When I was growing up, Donald Trump was, like, a fictional character or famous celebrity. He was as famous to me as Optimus Prime. Then, with Bernie, he wasn’t really well-known until he ran for President. I knew who he was because I loved him as a Senator and a Congressman, but I would try to do Bernie at shows, and the audience wouldn’t know who he was until he ran for President. So, when I started doing Bernie in 2015, a lot of people found out about who he was from my impression.
Atamanuik: It’s sort of the opposite for me, in the sense that I grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so I watched Trump become what he is. But I think when I started doing him, which really just happened because I had improvised him during a show, it was the opposite, because it was such a run-over impression at that point. Daryl Hammond had done him for years on SNL, and it was sort of a pat impression. A lot of people did Donald Trump, like when he did The Apprentice, everyone had a ‘you’re fired’ joke, and I remember approaching it like “Oh, God. this is going to be well-worn territory I’m heading into,” but fortunately, I was able to put my own spin on it and somehow, I wound up becoming the best Donald Trump impressionist in the world, or perhaps even the universe. [laughs]
Adomian: There’s no denying it.
In a way, with what you guys are doing, you’re allowing people to come to these shows to release frustration or tension they have about the political climate by watching you bring it to this exaggerated level, and not make the politics of it so dour.
Adomian: Exactly. It’s a comedy show first and last. In some ways, there’s real issues and a lot that we actually have to say in the show, but also, it’s a lot of fun to do a real ridiculous comedic debate with someone as talented as Anthony Atamanuik. We make each other laugh a lot before, during, and after those shows.
Atamanuik: If we’re not enjoying ourselves and making each other laugh — with James being such an amazing talent and a true impressionist, that’s the real fun of it, and the rest of it is the unfortunate truth of the times we live in.
What are you guys hoping people take away from this show?
Atamanuik: In some ways, I think James and I come at it differently. I think I feel like the burned out, disheartened one, because I feel like in 2016, we did a show which was a warning and a sort of chastising for not picking the right candidate for the Democratic side and a warning of how likely it was that Trump really would become President with the complacency that I feel exists on the left. I think this time around, there’s a lot of hope and possibility, but I’m a little more grizzled, so I take the position in the show of saying that I think it’s dire and we may already be on the roller coaster ride where there is no exit, and I think I may be more annoyed [laughs] with our audience for their lack of realistic understanding of how gross of a state our country is in.
Even though I, as me and not a performer, hope there is change, as a performer, I take the very extreme position that we’re in a hopeless tailspin. I mean, I do a lot of funny stuff with the hopeless tailspin stuff coming at the end. I think James comes from a different position, which is good, because that’s where it sort of becomes a real debate, in the sense of “which one of us is the right future?” and I hope it’s James.
Adomian: Bernie Sanders is a comical figure to me, and he’s also a figure of imperfect, but pretty goddamn good political justice, and social justice, and economic justice. I’m just going to start doing the Bernie Sanders thing where I rattle off the different types of justices for half an hour. But I do think Bernie Sanders is a tremendous force for good in our world and in our country. He’s not perfect. There are things wrong with him and there are things to laugh about with Bernie Sanders, but I think ultimately, here we are with Donald Trump, and the polls are very clear that the strongest candidate to go against Trump and beat him in an election is Sanders.
Comedically, I think it’s a hilarious clash of the titans, with someone tremendously evil and bombastic like Donald Trump against some tremendously good and bombastic like Bernie Sanders, and I have fun doing comedy that is sort of in the middle of the circus. There’s this cataclysmic circus of American politics going on right now in the year 2020, and I absolutely love that we are doing something that is so relevant to this great debate, which we deserve as a country. I love the idea of Trump vs. Bernie as a real general election so much, that I love doing this show in case we don’t get that, because we showed you what it would’ve looked like and how funny and awesome it would have been. Not to mention, in case it does work out and it is a Bernie Sanders nomination going against Trump, then congratulations to us, because we predicted the future and now we get to do a longer tour.
It’s looking more real by the day, so —
Adomian: There’s also another possibility where Trump loses to Bernie, making Trump a one-term president, and then he can run again in 2024 like Grover Cleveland.
Atamanuik: We could keep doing this for another round! That’s when I would really lose my mind.
TRUMP VS. BERNIE :: Sunday, March 1 at WBUR CitySpace, 890 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: sold out :: Event Info