While the candidates continue to campaign with just hours left on the clock, two of Donald Trump’s biggest critics, Bill Maher and Anthony Atamanuik, made their final appeals to NYC voters during separate appearances at the New York Comedy Festival. Maher did his “whiny little bitch” routine to a packed house at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday and Atamanuik brought his scary-good/good-and-scary Trump impression to NYU on Thursday.
Maher’s 90-minute act felt familiar to anyone who watches Real Time every week (never mind that a version of the whole thing had been streamed on Facebook a couple of days prior). He spent a solid 45 minutes hammering Trump and his supporters, recycling riffs about “red flags” and the like. He did offer a moment of candor about his recent interview with President Obama: “Very cool, even though I realized after the interview was over, wow, we don’t agree on anything.”
When I saw Michael Moore in Trumpland, I noted that the film didn’t preach to the choir as intently as Maher does. Then again, that seems to have bit Michael Moore in the ass: His empathetic monologue about Trump being a “human molotov cocktail” for wounded working-class types has been posted to countless Facebook walls by Trump supporters who didn’t bother watching the rest of the film.
So, really, who can blame Maher for sticking to the script that was literally on his music stand, near an election-nerves-calming glass of whiskey. But if Maher’s on-message moralizing was empty calories for the liberal crowd, Atamanuik’s act was a pleasantly mind-bending martini followed by a refill splashed in their face by the waiter.
By now you’ve surely heard Atamanuik’s gonzo impression of Donald Trump: It was born during one of his performances at UCB and eventually spawned a recurring show there, Trump Dump. Over the summer, he took his blustering, babbling Hitler Lite act on the road with James Adomian, who did an equally genius Bernie Sanders.
I saw Atamanuik do his thing at SXSW and even though I knew he was bound to repeat his shtick about Trump’s energy plan (KKK Energy is the best energy company, it harvests white power), I knew I had to see his “last rally” just to reap one last belly laugh out of this otherwise joyless election. If anything has made this cringe-inducing horrorshow worthwhile, it’s the cathartic humor of things like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s election special or Vic Berger’s videos. Well, that and our first woman president (knock on wood).
Clearly, many of my fellow Americans/New Yorkers felt the same way, though Skirball wasn’t quite sold out. Still, that didn’t stop Atamanuik, as Trump, from bragging about the people that had lined up around the block to get in. He touted the two “blacks” who were supposedly there to vouch for him (Noami Ekperigan and Rae Sanni) as well as the woman whose skin was so lovely he wanted to carve and filet it (Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf). But the highlight of the show came when Judah Friedlander, Atamanuik’s old colleague from 30 Rock, came on to be world-champ debate moderator.
His first question for Trump: “How can you look at your two sons and still be pro-life?” Answer: “My sons Uday and Qusay, they’re so wonderful, I love them both, and they burn well. I’m going to burn them both alive.”
Friedlander then regaled Trump with what he said was a “true story” about seeing him play softball in East River Park.
“I would never go there,” Trump insisted of the downtown ballfield. “I’m going to build a wall!”
Friedlander recalled that in 1995, his team’s soccer practice was suddenly moved by police officers so that Trump could play. “You actually were not a good athlete that day,” Friedlander said, recounting how Trump grounded out and “blubbered” his way to first base and “tried to laugh it off like it was cool.” Needless to say, the world champ was not impressed.
All of the jokes about Trump having the sniffles because he snorted Giuliani’s lisp spit went over like a big honking line of gold dust and Viagra, but boy was the finale a comedown. That’s when things took a turn, and Atamanuik/Trump, seemingly tired of the whole act (“it’s the last time I’m doing this shit,” he said at one point) leaned into the audience of mostly NYU students, calling them out on their smugness and hypocrisy. Atamanuik was still using the Trump voice, so everyone kept laughing, but eventually he made it clear that “I don’t even care about this being funny anymore” and the titters died down.
Atamanuik/Trump argued that liberals who think they’re always right are actually right-wing. As an example, he offered up Jill Stein’s recent Facebook complaint about John Oliver, in which she called out “deceptive comedy” and “the oppressive tactics of corporate comedians.”
“You’re all fascist,” Atamanuik/Trump told the crowd. “Because you don’t care, you don’t care how you got here [on the backs of slaves], you just love that you can get your delivery from GrubHub and then you can watch The Fall— you can watch The Fall, you can eat the GrubHub and you don’t have to touch the dirty Mexican that delivered it.”
“But I’m the bad guy,” Atamanuik/Trump went on. “I’m the bad guy— it’s so good that I can be the bad guy so that you, when you’re standing there with all your posts and your tweets about Occupy and Jill and Bernie… but when that dirty poor other comes to the door, you don’t want to deal with them.”
He tore into the Democratic Party, which he said had gradually moved closer to the right in order to maintain political relevance. “By the way, when did Democrats become hawkish anti-Russia?” Atamanuik/Trump asked. “When did that happen? Last time I checked, when I was a young man, when I was a young Trump, the Democratic party was about liberating the working class, it was about elevating the working class, it was about making sure we achieve peace in our time, it was about nuclear non-proliferation.”
The crowd had grown silent by the time Atamanuik/Trump called out progressives for their latent racism and sexism. “We like sharing the videos of those who built this country [during slavery] when they get beaten and shot, but what do we do when we walk down the street at night and someone walks by us? We clutch, cinch up, we’re afraid. What do we do in private, men, when women aren’t there? We talk about their bodies and what we want to do with them and how they’re just nothing but a hole. That’s the truth and we need to own it. We need to start owning who we are and stop pretending that I’m the vessel of all evil and terribleness in the world,” said Atamanuik/Trump.
After describing how slavery-era plantations had been replaced by prisons where disproportionately black prisoners made shirts for cents on the dollar, he said, “That’s the problem we should be worrying about, not a fat, bloated Oompa Loompa who gets you riled up so you can write some self-righteous post, share it with your friends, get a bunch of likes, and feel good about yourself so you don’t have to really do anything in the world.”
To Atamanuik’s point, I doubt that even the most ardent Trump haters know where he stands on privatized prisons. The Daily Beast has noted that his support for them didn’t get much attention. Indeed, recent statistics from Tyndall Report revealed that, since the beginning of the year, the big three nightly network news shows have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage, compared to 220 minutes devoted to such coverage eight years ago and 100 minutes devoted to Hillary’s emails. Meanwhile, fake news is taking over Facebook, and false reports from sites like Fox News and Breitbart are being trumpeted by Trump.
In a world of truthiness, where people can choose their own facts, it’s easy for the like-minded to form ideological circle jerks, which is why it felt so jarring when Atamanuik muddled the cuddle puddle at Skirball. After all, everyone had come to see the comedian mock Trump—the last thing they expected was to be shamed by him.
I’m not sure whether Atamanuik has done this at past Trump Dumps. In February, he told Huffington Post that he considers his impression “an act of comedic activism” and tries to “remind the audience that their rejection of the reflection of the real thing should be only the beginning.” But to everyone who was familiar with the comic solely from his Trump Zoltar voiceover or his album, Trump vs. Bernie: Live From Brooklyn, it no doubt came as a surprise when the clown broke out the funhouse mirror and held it up to them.
It’s clear Atamanuik has some mixed emotions about his act. He has described it as a “rebuke” of Trump and an attempt to maybe change the candidate’s mind, but he has also admitted that it feels “a little bit like a deal with the devil,” since, as a comedian, he’s making money off of it.
Not to overthink it, but one does have to ask: to what degree does Atamanuik’s act give liberals license to laugh with, rather than just at, Trump. To what degree are his jokes about double-teaming a 13-year-old with Bill Clinton delighting audiences for the same reason that the real Trump’s “lock her up” jokes are landing with his supporters: he’s not afraid to throw political correctness out the window and tell it like it is. Atamanuik himself has admitted that, for all of their political differences, he and Trump have similar personality traits. “The difference is that I have a reflective self and he has no reflective self,” he told The Daily Dot.
It’s partly those blurred lines that made Thursday’s table-turning such a gut punch: Should we have felt guilty for laughing along as Atamanuik/Trump faux-grabbed the crotches of his female comics? Given that Trump (albeit channeled through a satirist who finds his subject’s actions reprehensible) was an object of amusement at that moment, to what degree was our laughter different from Billy Bush’s?
When Atamanuik/Trump described cell phones as shackles on Thursday, he admitted, “I have one, I’m a hypocrite, a total hypocrite, but at least I know I’m one.” He told the crowd “MLK didn’t go to Selma and tweet.” (That said, even old-school organizers like Al Sharpton’s right-hand man, Michael A. Hardy, have acknowledged that the Black Lives Matter movement has used Twitter effectively.) He implored the audience to “show up somewhere, do something, drive to Philly on Tuesday.”
At that moment, however, the crowd seemed perfectly content to applaud someone else for doing something. They gave Atamanuik a standing ovation as he ripped off his Trump wig at the end of the show and headed off into the sunset. (Knock on wood.)
Update: Atamanuik chimes in via Twitter.
@MoscaMaurer Thank you for that article, I'm glad someone transcribed my off the cuff rant.
— Anthony Atamanuik (@TonyAtamanuik) November 7, 2016
— Anthony Atamanuik (@TonyAtamanuik) November 7, 2016