The media have been talking about whether the success of the Roseanne revival is due to Roseanne Barr’s pro-Trump politics or to the high quality of the sitcom itself. Beating his chest, Donald Trump thinks it’s all about him and is only too glad to take credit for its sky-high ratings. Funny thing is, there are not one but two weekly comedy series that really are all about him. Our Cartoon President and The President Show have created two very different fictional President Trumps, and this week will be the last time to catch them for a while.
Stephen Colbert’s animated family sitcom Our Cartoon President is bright and rollicking; on Sunday, April 8, the finale of its 10-episode run will air on Showtime before returning in the summer for seven more episodes. Comedy Central’s The President Show, a half-hour sketch comedy starring Anthony Atamanuik as Trump, is a dark and urgent tour of Trump’s five-alarm psyche. Its first season ended in November, but it returned on Tuesday April 3, a couple hours after Roseanne, with an hour-long special: In the “Make America Great-A-Thon,” Trump pleads for cash to fund his wall, confesses a lifetime of sins to Robert Mueller, and in unison with Kellyanne Conway (played by Kathy Griffin) repeats the Sinclair News script, “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” A second special will air this summer.
These two shows owe much to the tradition of the modern political comedy. The first hit presidential impersonation was Vaughn Meader’s Kennedy; in 1962, his First Family album became the fastest-selling pre-Beatles record in history, and ever since there’s been money in presidential send-ups. Saturday Night Live has given us every POTUS starting with Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford. (Dan Akroyd’s impression of Richard Nixon didn’t appear until later, after he resigned from office.) The genius of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush (which turned into the hit Broadway play You’re Welcome America, in 2009) was to find the clueless, defensive frat boy in Bush, which somehow shifted the blame for his military and economic blunders onto the Americans who voted for him. Alec Baldwin’s mugging Trump on SNL won him an Emmy last year, although Baldwin himself has wondered if his impression was “too cuddly.”
But presidential parodies have become far more sophisticated over the years, rooting their humor in character more than in gags. This is partly due to the influence of Colbert’s running portrayal of a right-wing talking head on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report from 2005–14. His more than two years out of character as host of The Late Show have produced, I think, a more astringent, sometimes even mean, humor that can fall flat. (Ivanka’s like a Barbie doll, he said recently, because “the space where her heart should be is a hollow plastic shell.” Oof.) But with Our Cartoon President, Colbert seems to be satisfying any character-inhabiting urges again, albeit indirectly, as the executive producer and a voice-actor. (No one on the show will divulge which characters he plays.)
Following a father-knows-least sitcom format, the version of Trump on Our Cartoon President (voiced by Jeff Bergman) is narcissistic, morally oblivious, but also so bumbling and Clouseau-like that he can seem innocent, almost lovable. The real Trump’s cruelty and casual sadism seem to have been exaggerated and transferred to the Steven Miller character, who takes his S&M seriously and likes to hang from hooks attached to his torso.
With the odd exception of Trump himself—his lantern-shaped jaw makes him look more like Jay Leno, and thus even more harmless—the caricatures can be wonderful. Betsy DeVos, John Kelly, and especially Sarah Huckabee Sanders are dead-on likenesses, and their characterizations are pointed. Don Jr. and Eric are Beavis and Butthead with Wharton vocabularies; Nancy Pelosi wears a perma-smile (the DC “dead face” that hides human emotion); and the always-frightened Jared Kushner is the only character who seems to know it’s going to end badly for everyone. The show goes after media heads, too: Maddow, Hannity, and Trump’s morning-consult team, which it parodied with a song that goes, “Three white people on a couch, it’s Fox & Friends.”
The difficulty with Trump’s character is the role he has to play—a parody of a parody, Peter Griffin from Family Guy with a billion dollars and the nuclear codes. “Looking at a transcript of our show, no one would think it wasn’t dark,” Our Cartoon President’s showrunner, R.J. Fried, told me. “But things don’t feel as awful when portrayed in bright colors and funny voices.”
That element of the show has resulted in some unevenness. Most glaringly, OCP has yet to deal with Trump’s relationships with women. Melania, perforce, is portrayed as the lovingly tolerant wife: Oh, Donald! She rings neither true nor funny. The show knows this is a problem. “That was the very thing we felt we needed to address” in the episodes that will air this summer, Fried said.
At other times, the knives do poke through those goofy bonds. Last week, for instance, when the Pences tried to make Trump into a good Christian, the show did a South Park–worthy number on religion, Jesus, and piety itself. “We always aspired for this show to be a mental Trojan horse for people,” Fried said. “It’s entertaining, but it’s going to sneak into the brain.”
In Comedy Central’s The President Show, it’s more like the horses are already inside and kicking down the stalls. Atamanuik’s weekly dive into Trump’s psyche, from April to November of last year, surely alienated any hardcore Trump supporters who bothered to watch it. And Tuesday’s special produced so many deadly thuds (like Trump as Hitler, screaming in German, in that much-memed scene from the movie Downfall) that you can see how his base despises the liberal media. But I still like to think that Atamanuik’s usually far more complex Trump impression is so uncanny and so funny that it might persuade an Obama-turned-Trump voter to see the clear and present danger.
“I’m over Trump humor—I don’t want to hear any more about his orange face and tiny hands. But what I do want to do is make him a fully rounded figure that I can mess with,” says Atamanuik, who co-stars with co-executive producer Peter Grosz, who plays Mike Pence. “Our shows always aim to be empathetic to his supporters. We would always try to make the case that he sold you a bill of goods. At the end of the day, people will start to turn if they go, ‘He’s just like everyone else.’”
For a Christmas special skit “It’s a Tremendous Life,” Atamanuik did a parody of the Capra movie that imagines what Trump’s life would be like if his father had never given him a million dollars to kick-start his career. Trump, Atamanuik thinks, would still be living in Queens, a low-life grifter spouting crap like, “I heard 75 per cent of white Americans can’t get jobs right now.” Trump and Grosz, here playing Trump’s mullet-wearing sidekick, decide “to mess things up” by throwing plastic straws in the air at a pizza joint and then stealing change from Salvation Army buckets. When Trump tries to pick up an underage girl, the cops arrest him and shove him into a squad car, bumping his head hard on the car roof. He breaks down and cries.
“That’s the whole thesis of our show right there,” Atamanuik tells me. “He’s nothing but a Queens guy who’d be talking shit on the corner…. He’s a small-time crook. We try to use him as a Homer Simpson or an Everyman, put him in different genres. We want to keep hammering that point.”
One of The President Show’s best bits has Trump visit an elementary school, at first reluctantly. But then he has so much fun instructing kids to pay kickbacks to the foreman of their toy-block constructions that he throws a tantrum when Pence says it’s time to leave, and has to be dragged out of the classroom screaming.
The mainstream media (including TV news and comedy) has been saying that Trump’s an unqualified, misogynistic, self-absorbed, plutocratic, barbarian spy for Vladimir Putin for more than a year now, and his approval numbers recently reached their highest point since his 100-day mark. So, aside from relieving liberal stress, what can anti-Trump satire accomplish?
Like the fool in a Shakespeare play, Trump the Conman can show us, inadvertently, truths about ourselves, often truths we can’t acknowledge except with a laugh. “We’re watching this flawed person reveal what we don’t want to see, reveal how broken everything else is—the GOP, the Democrats, but more important, the media class,” Atamanuik said. He’s especially irked at television for first “propelling him to power”—giving him $5 billion worth of free advertising, letting him host SNL during the primaries—and now “trying to profit off” the resistance to him by spending their entire schedules talking, eye-rolling, and huffing about Trump.
The Cartoon President, The President Show, Roseanne: It’s as if we need multiple mirror images of reality before we can really accept what we’ve done. One of Cartoon President’s chief contributions is its theme song, which repeats and repeats: “Donald Trump is president! We elected Donald Trump president! Donald Trump is president!”