The stunning rise of outsider candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders -- one by exploiting bigotry and resentment, the other tapping into a hunger for sweeping progressive change -- has been a boon not only for media outlets covering the primaries, but also for comedians.
Even though Larry David as Sanders and Jimmy Fallon, Darrell Hammond and Johnny Depp as Trump have won mainstream attention for their caricatures, no one has captured these candidates with as much panache and sheer intelligence as the comedians and actors James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik. After developing their spot-on impressions separately as long as ninth months ago, Adomian as Sanders and Atamanuik as Trump joined forced last October and are half way through a national tour of comedy clubs that comes to the nation's capital with an appearance at the nearby Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse for sold-out shows Fridays, Saturday and Sunday, with the next stop in Richmond, VA.
They've won rave reviews from comedy websites such as Splitsider and such mainstream outlets as The New York Times, which called their debate when it first premiered in October as "the best comedy sketch about the current political campaign." CNN gave their show an added boost when they were interviewed, mostly in character, last week.
Take a listen to their exclusive interview (full-length version here) for readers of The Huffington Post, first in character, and then as politically engaged comedians who eloquently analyze what they're doing (note: the occasional breathing you hear during their routines is my stifling laughter):
As they note later in the interview, they're both Sanders supporters, but their parodies are at once hilarious and instructional about the candidates. Anthony Atamanuik calls his impression of Donald Trump "an act of comedic activism," designed to underline a scary truth about Trump: "He's a dangerous man." Yet as he demonstrated in the exclusive interview and sampling of their impressions he and Adomian gave me, the comics' heartfelt backing of Sanders doesn't undercut their ability to deliver laughs in character. For instance, when I asked his "Donald Trump" about a shocking new Southern Poverty Law Center report on "The Year in Hate" that found a 15 percent increase in hate groups, fueled in part by Trump's incendiary rhetoric against Muslims, he took credit for the growth in a perfect recreation of Trump's demagogic boosterism, "I'm a builder....That's amazing: a 15 percent increase, and I'm not even President and we're already driving up the numbers!" Atamanuik has sharpened his skills as a comic actor, improviser and writer with UCB New York, co-hosting ASSSSCAT3000, acting in such shows as 30 Rock and advising the creators of the Broad City show.
Adomian is well known through such such shows as Comedy Bang-Bang and as a finalist on Last Comic Standing for being an innovative comic and master impressionist. He has developed offbeat versions of such unlikely people as Jesse Ventura and Paul Giamatti. Adomian, through some comedic alchemy, has been able to construct eerily precise and funny impressions of people he admires, such as Jesse Ventura and Sanders, and those he despises, like LA shock jock and sexist creep Tom Lykis. All told, Adomian has played over 20 real-life characters, including Orson Welles, Christopher Hitchens and Marc Maron, and unlike even the most accomplished impressionists, such as Kevin Pollack, they're not portrayed just in short displays that lean primarily on obvious quirks. Instead, as best shown with his long long-form improvisations on Comedy Bang Bang (most easily sampled on YouTube) and his videos for the comedy site Funny and Die, they're fully developed characters that are brought to hilarious life through lively, imaginative expansion of these celebrities' personality traits and mannerisms.
For instance, his introduction of Lykis on the Comedy Bang-Bang podcast has been hailed by critic Nathan Rabin in Splitsider as one of the greatest comedy podcasts of all time, and it's hard to disagree when you hear Adomian take flight as Lykis, while harassing Amy Poehler in character.
Adomian points out, "It's fun either way, whether you hate them or love them." Yet he indicates that playing people he despises can be at times be dispiriting: "You attract a kind of negative energy when I play people like George W. Bush and Tom Lykis, and you have to say horrible things when you play people you hate." In contrast, while admiring Sanders enormously, "It's easy to find things to make fun of about him, but they're superficial, like his voice and shambling mannerisms. There are a couple of little policy things that I rib him on, but for the most part it's a very flattering portrayal."
For example, during our interview, perfectly capturing his accent and the gargling of words no other impressionist portrays so well, his "Bernie Sanders" highlighted his longstanding activist credentials against the dangers represented by Donald Trump: "I condemn fascism. I was born three months before the Pearl Harbor attacks, and I released a statement to the press condemning those attacks." In fact, Adomian, 36, is a remarkably passionate supporter of Sanders, admiring him since he was a congressman, and says, "I've never been as enthusiastic about any politician in my lifetime." Indeed, he sees his role in some ways as "comedically amplifying Sanders' message."
To Adomian and Atamanuik, they view their show as akin to other entertainments with a good guy and a bad guy battling it out. "It's like a wrestling act: Trump is the bad guy wrestler, the heel; and Sanders is the good guy, the 'face.' And that's how we're presenting it to the audience," says Adomian. As in much great comedy, what may seem extreme and outlandish is uncomfortably close to the truth. Yet it's a battle, no matter how amusing now, that could well play out in the real national election, a foreshadowing of what to expect -- or fear in a Trump victory -- in this turbulent political year: