Donald Trump tweeted a nonsensical word. He also pulled out of the Paris Agreement on tackling global climate change. The most despicable idiot to take office in the USA, a malicious storm of ego, privilege and evil, continues to treat politics as his personal playground while his party aids him in his pseudo-fascistic destruction, more obsessed with a tacky photograph taken by a hack artist than clamping down on irrevocable pain. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah noted that the disconnect between Trump’s hilarious gaffes and his terrifying policies was hard to comprehend, like an asteroid heading to Earth that’s shaped like a penis. Yet even with blatantly and undeniably funny things happening, like Trump’s bizarre glowing orb photo-shoot, I find that I can no longer laugh at the President, nor do I want to.
All of this makes watching Comedy Central’s The President Show a strange experience. Starring Anthony Atamanuik as Donald Trump, the series takes the traditional late-night format to its most logical conclusion when there’s a reality TV judge in the White House. Imagine if The Daily Show was actually hosted by Fuckface Von Clownstick, and you’re halfway there. Late night is currently enjoying a boom in ratings post-election (unless you’re Jimmy Fallon), with everyone from Noah to Stephen Colbert seeing big increases to their audiences as viewers turn to comedy for some sense in this chaotic administration.
When something beyond parody has become top dog, it can be hard to find the funny amidst the danger. Even some of the best in the business threw in the towel, including the South Park team. Carving out an entire series where Trump is the protagonist is no mean feat, and at its most successful, it understands Trump’s comedic appeal lies not in one-liners or flailing slapstick but in the little details. Atamanuik, who honed his impression during the election campaign alongside James Adomian’s spot-on Bernie Sanders, is easily the best Trump on TV. Where Alec Baldwin’s take on SNL is a lumbering dolt of lethargy with a Stallone-esque voice, Atamanuik nails the strange tics and inflections of Trump’s speech, such as his Tower of Pisa style leaning forward as he walks and the way his hands move seemingly independently of his body as he talks.
The President Show understands that Trump is a third-rate carnival barker with an easily deflated ego and desperate hunger for attention (Atamanuik says he plays him like a shih-tzu). Some of the show’s best moments come from its melding of Trump with the traditional bearers of the talk-show format: His token sidekick is Mike Pence, depicted as the comedic equivalent of a bread-stick waiting out his time before a post-impeachment promotion; he does pre-taped segments on the streets of New York (showing off some cracking improv skills and the expected repartee with the public); the interviews with celebrity guests are just an excuse for the host to showboat. The show is a tribute to Trump’s narcissism as much as any talk-show is a mere platform for its host to hog the spotlight - those Carson and Fallon parallels are far from coincidental. Atamanuik also looks more like Trump than any impersonator of the recent glut: Clad in a suit that’s somehow both too tight around the chest and drowning his frame, he has perfected the stare, like someone looking through frosted glass, which makes the best of the jokes land with more force. Even when it’s hard to look at him, because he’s just too familiar, there’s still laughter to be found.
For a show that’s as committed to its gimmick as this, The President Show is often surprisingly timid. There’s a deliberate distance between their parody of Trump and some of his more distasteful elements, like his rampant misogyny. A brutally honest take would ramp up the objectification of women to the maximum point (which is dishearteningly easy to do), but Atamanuik and his team have shifted their focus elsewhere. In a way, this is refreshing, and I can’t help but feel grateful to not be subjected to yet more of this crushing misery, but the tentative approach also denies a crucial truth of Trump: He hates women. How do you approach a tasteless man tastefully? How do you mock the abhorrent without just spewing back his bigotry verbatim? There’s a depressing tendency for even the sharpest comics to just say sexist or racist things and hope the audience’s assumption that they’re not really sexist or racist will save them from pushback. The President Show avoids that, but reminds its audience that the gimmick can only go so far.
Keeping up with the hourly changes and ceaseless drip of scandal means that the show often feels harried and scrappy like an Upright Citizens Brigade special (the show’s origins lie in the UCB tradition). This format is tough to keep consistent when the man being parodied is the very antithesis of consistency. Some jokes stumble, some feel out-of-date mere days after they happened, and other moments just feel too raw to mock. Atamanuik and the writers are clearly talented and have planned this show to be as structured and disciplined as they can, and all that may help give the show some longevity throughout this painful period.
Yet for all intents and purposes, The President Show is a shtick, and as time passes under the insidious reign of this President, through constant scandals and daily attacks of democracy, it won’t take long for the gimmick to wear thin with audiences and the show itself. Mel Brooks once said that the best parodies came from those who loved the thing they were mocking, so how does one do that with a reviled joke who’s no longer funny? How long before the writers stop finding it funny and just let out the anger? We’ve found immense catharsis through comedy over the past few months, from the late-night ensemble to the meme machine of Twitter, but much of that comes from a place of irrepressible fury at Trump. Can that emotion be harnessed when the joke is that Trump doesn’t know how hated he is?
I do laugh at The President Show, particularly the work of the giddily talented Atamanuik, but to watch the show is to feel like part of the problem we have in dealing with Donald Trump: The President of the USA is not funny, and we shouldn’t dismiss him as a joke. Mocking politicians is a much-needed international tradition, so perhaps it’s helpful that we laugh while we can, but the longer this gag is drawn out, the less I find myself willing to go along with it.