TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you can imagine President Trump hosting a late night talk show in the Oval Office with Vice President Pence as his sidekick, you'll get a sense of the Comedy Central series, "The President Show." My guests are the two stars. Anthony Atamanuik plays President Trump and created the series. Peter Grosz plays Vice President Pence. They both serve as executive producers and writers on the show. Their Christmas special will be shown Thursday night on Comedy Central. It's called "I Came Up With Christmas: A President Show Christmas."
Atamanuik has had a long association with the improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade as a performer and teacher. Grosz wrote for the show, "The Colbert Report" and "Late Night With Seth Meyers" and has been a panelist on NPR's comedy news quiz show, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! Let's start with an excerpt of "The President Show." This is a scene in which President Trump is responding to questions from reporters at a press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRESIDENT SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can you tell us any more details about your tax plan?
ANTHONY ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) My tax plan is to never pay taxes. Oh, you mean the government one? No, I'm not going to read that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why can't your party pass a health care bill?
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Because football players, national anthem, kneeling - where's the outrage?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You didn't answer the question.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Excuse me, pointing out that I didn't answer the question is disrespectful to our flag. I mean, look at her. Isn't she beautiful - so many stars. If she wasn't my flag, I'd be dating her. And that's why tonight's theme is flag.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Isn't it hypocritical for Jared and Ivanka to use personal email for official business when you criticized...
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump, singing) Oh, say can you see by the lawn's pearly whites...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you singing the national anthem to avoid answering the question?
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump, singing) ...What so loudly we will and the rampart ramparting.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Do you not know the words?
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Quiet, honey. If words mattered, I wouldn't be president right now.
GROSS: Anthony Atamanuik, Peter Grosz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about Thursday's Christmas special, let's just get the general premise of "The President Show," which is set up in part as kind of a late night talk show. Anthony, you want to describe what the setup is?
ATAMANUIK: Yeah. I think that the setup of the show is predicated on the idea of the fireside chat and what would Trump's idea of the weekly presidential address be. And it was rooted sort of in that scene in "Casino" when De Niro's character can no longer work at the casino, so he ends up hosting this, like, late night - sort of sleazy late night show.
And I thought, well, if Trump was going to do his version of a fireside chat, this would be it. It would be this sort of late night show in the vein of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson and have this sort of maybe almost semi-rat-packy (ph) quality to it but set in the Oval Office.
GROSS: And with the Vice President Mike Pence as the second banana?
ATAMANUIK: Yes, with Mike Pence as the Ed McMahon and to do the monologue at the podium as opposed to doing it sort of in front of a curtain and having all the elements, including an interview, to make the show feel like a late night show. And then we end it like "McLaughlin Group" by saying bye, bye.
PETER GROSZ: It's a nod.
ATAMANUIK: Yes. That's my - yeah, it's truly a nod to "McLaughlin Group" because I love that show so much.
GROSS: Anthony, what made you think of doing Trump in the first place?
ATAMANUIK: I was improvising at the Upright Citizens Brigade in August of 2015. And someone said Mr. President as an initiation, which is an improv where someone starts a scene by saying a line. And I stepped out and did sort of, probably, a poor Trump at the time but enough that my friend and artistic director Shannon O'Neil suggested that I write a one-man Trump show. And so I figured it would be quite disposable. So I wrote it in a week and put it up. And then that material actually became the basis for what became a very long arduous journey that I did not think I would be taking.
GROSS: You know, it seems to me your voice is somewhat in the same register as Donald Trump's.
ATAMANUIK: Yes. Yeah, I definitely share his voice. And I would probably say I even share the sort of hummingbird quality of moving from idea - moving from thing to thing without always having the connective tissue there. So I don't know if that's because he was born on June 14 and I was born June 15. Maybe there's some astrological (laughter) reason? I'm not really sure. But I do have a sort of similar pattern that is both in the voice and maybe in the speech pattern, but not the thinking.
GROSZ: I think Anthony's brain is in the same register as Donald Trump.
ATAMANUIK: Oh, no.
GROSZ: But not in an insulting way. It's in the best. He does this - he has a mind meld with Trump. I like to say that he somehow is able to look inside Trump's soul and look past the superficial elements of mimicking the person as a impressionist or as an impersonator and go inside. And, you know, he's like - you know, he's my guy, and I'm on the team. But I do think it's like the best political impression ever because it goes past the surface, and it goes into the soul, which I think is pretty special.
ATAMANUIK: I think it's necessary. I mean, thank you, Pete, for saying that.
GROSZ: You're welcome.
ATAMANUIK: I guess we'll both be going to work today.
ATAMANUIK: But I think it's necessary. With Trump, I think the biggest question you get is Trump fatigue. Is - does Trump write - Trump writes his own material. Isn't it so easy to do Trump, you know, because he's coming up with so much? And although those are legitimate questions and statements, that - I think that it's a much darker representation of where we're at as a civilization.
Like, it is dangerous to be, like, you know, just do a voice and say some of his crazier things and that's enough because then, in a way, you are actually serving him a bit. I think you have to sort of undermine him with his own voice.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to break down how you do his voice because...
GROSS: ...You do really have a gift (laughter) for that. So - because you do it both in terms of like the sound of the voice, but also like the rhythm patterns of his speech. Like, you've kind of nailed the thought patterns behind his speech.
ATAMANUIK: Yeah. Yeah, I think doing the voices - it starts just with the physical part, which is I'll push my jaw forward and pull my, like, glottal, like, my tongue back. So that - then I'm like throwing - resting my tongue, and it's sitting on the back. And then you have to sort of combine your physicality with the speaking because he, like Bugs Bunny in that conducting - the Warner Brother's one where he's the conductor. Trump does conduct everything he says, so his hands are tied to his speech. So if you - his hands and his shoulders are tied to his speech.
And so then there's sort of, like, a laziness like Sinatra in that - there's a live album Sinatra did in Australia that's like this. He's very kind of lit through it. And there's sort of like every word begins, and it sort of never ends. And there's never a point in which there's a break in the words. It's always the same, and we're always speaking. Never am I taking a break. And so you're just running out of air. And then there's the big nasal inhale that happens.
And then inside, mentally, you know, there's a couple of different Trumps. There's sort of like chomping-on-celery Trump. And if you remember from "The Apprentice" when he would do his two-camera introductions, his mouth makes this weird, like, opening where his teeth look like they're, like, little chompers that are going to, you know, process celery or a carrot really fast. And I - that's like, to me, like, very two-camera Trump. So that's very, like, loud and announcing and stiff and talking stiff and straight right to the camera.
And then there's, like, Trump like casual Trump, who's sitting in an interview. Terry, they're all against me - even NPR, which should be for me because it's government radio. And I don't understand, OK? And explain this. I don't - I don't get it. What's fresh about this place? Quite frankly, it's very stale in here.
And then there's prompter Trump. And that's - I always just say it's like a grandmother reading "Goodnight Moon" to their kid. So he'll read Steve Bannon's sort of flourishy (ph) language and, you know, and say, like, that time has come for our civilization to dawn into a new era. The supremacy of all whites - wait; Steve, you left that in there.
GROSZ: Yeah, the American carnage immigration speech was that to a T.
ATAMANUIK: And then you notice in him that when he's reading the prompter, you realize he's probably not read it before. He discovers something that he finds interesting in the prompter, and he'll stop on it and be like, (as Donald Trump) look at that. There's so much carnage. Isn't that wonderful, folks? And like, we're going to stop it. We're going to stop it. And...
GROSZ: The best is when he says, oh, so true.
GROSZ: ...Because it really is like he's reading it for the first time.
ATAMANUIK: Yeah (laughter).
GROSZ: He's like, people can't find jobs. That's true. I've - I just - I just - that's true.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) I'd be out of a job if I didn't have this. Let me tell you. Believe me.
And so yeah, and then his - so then you have the second chamber, which is that he is listening to himself talk. Every time he speaks, he is not speaking to the press or anyone but himself. He's having a conversation with himself, and he's finessing in front of people what he wants people to believe. He's always begging people to reinforce his point of view.
He's only active when he's sparring with an individual. In, like, the debates, he flourished so much I think because it was an opportunity for him to be a wiseass, whereas everyone else felt they had to stick to script in order to, you know, have a chance at getting the nomination. And I think that he knew that he could sort of rally with people, and he could entertain himself by listening to what crazy things he would say.
And as that time moved on, and he got in front of crowds and he got in front of the press, he - you witness a person having a self-dialogue in front of other people, which is why he, in my view, doesn't really lie. He simply tells himself a story and repeats that story back as the truth. So in his mind, he never really - when he says something with conviction, he has already lied to himself to convince himself of the truth so that he does not see himself as lying.
GROSS: You know how you were saying that when he says something, it's, like, then he repeats it as if he's having a conversation with himself?
GROSS: And talking about Roy Moore, he said, let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it. That's all I can say. He denies it. By the way, he totally denies it.
GROSS: And I thought it was so interesting to add the, like, by the way, because that usually implies, here's something you didn't know. Here's something else. Here's something that's just a bit of a tangent.
GROSZ: Yes. Here's something new.
GROSS: Here's something new. But he's just repeating the same thing again.
GROSZ: He also heightens his own statements.
ATAMANUIK: Yes, yes.
GROSZ: He thinks that totally denies it is better than denies it. So he says, totally denies it.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) He totally...
GROSZ: ...As if the millions of people who disagree with him will go, OK, well, totally - that's a different story.
GROSZ: That is full denial. I did not realize that he totally denied it, so I'm going to now switch my opinion. He heightens his own - he is such a con-man sales artist that he, in the middle of his speech - and this is something that I've really learned from being with Anthony and listening to him talk about Trump - he - the thing about him heightening his own thing - he realizes in the middle of a sentence, like, the sale job is not good enough, so he's going to put, like...
ATAMANUIK: Yeah, he's going to...
GROSZ: ...An extra coat on it or he's going to, you know, add a little, like, sparkle over here or over there, and he, like - he makes it more interesting.
ATAMANUIK: And he enjoys it.
ATAMANUIK: I mean, my favorite one, I always say, is there's a - Bibi Netanyahu and Trump were having a joint press conference, and they're talking about Palestinian schools having Israeli - anti-Israeli propaganda in them. And Bibi Netanyahu brings it up, and you see Trump, as he always does, sort of gripping the podium and turning with his shoulders. And he's - if you ever watch him in a joint press conference, he's just watching the other person, and in his head, you can just see him going, ugh, when will you be done? Like, when will you be done so I can talk more?
ATAMANUIK: And his impatience - and he winks, and looks out and - but Netanyahu said this thing about the Palestinian children, and Trump has a big thing with the babies. He's constantly talking about babies. The babies are dying, the babies are this, we need to save the babies. So, like, he's heard this, and he latched onto it. And it comes back to Trump, and Trump's like, I just want to say, I've been in those schools. I've seen those books. I've seen the books. They say such terrible things about the Jews. I've seen them - the little babies - the little Palestinian babies, reading these books, and it's so terrible, right, Bibi?
And Bibi Netanyahu's looking at him like, what are you talking about? But also, he's such a corrupt shill that he is just sort of panically going, yes, yes, Mr. President, yes, of course, yes, whatever you need. Like, that's the other thing is - all these people around him, they are so corrupt that they can't turn and go, you're nuts, because they've got their own agenda that they've got to satisfy. So and he - I think Trump, at a street level, knows that.
ATAMANUIK: So he knows that everybody has to pretend around him because nobody can say - it is literally the emperor has - it's literally the emperor has no clothes.
GROSS: So I think this would be a good point to take a short break, and when we come back, we'll talk with Peter Grosz about portraying Vice President Mike Pence. So if you're just joining us, my guests are Anthony Atamanuik, who, on "The President Show," stars as President Trump, and Peter Grosz, who plays Mike Pence. And this is on Comedy Central, and their Christmas special comes up this Thursday night. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about "The President Show," which is the Comedy Central show in which my guest, Anthony Atamanuik, plays President Trump, and my other guest, Peter Grosz, plays Vice President Mike Pence. And the show is kind of designed like a late-night talk show where the president's the host, and the vice president is the sidekick.
So let's hear a scene which showcases Peter Grosz as Mike Pence. So they're talking about executive orders, and the president is about to get the vice president to write one. They're sitting in the Oval Office, and the president keeps freezing time and giving his thoughts about what's happening, so you'll hear him freeze time and basically talk to himself or talk to the audience. So here's a scene from "The President Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRESIDENT SHOW")
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Speaking of charity cases, why don't you do your own executive order?
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Wait, really?
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Honest Injun, Mike.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Oh.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Here, there's a blank one. Here's a pen.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Thank you.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) You write anything you want, and I'll make it into law.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Anything, wow.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Anything at all.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) OK, well, let's see - something simple. How about executive order - contraception for unmarried women is banned. No, wait, wait - unmarried women are banned. That's good. No, all women are banned. Wait, we need women to make babies. Babies are banned. That's good - except for fetuses, which are now considered babies. I like that. And men can now marry fetuses, but not gay fetuses. That's unnatural. All gays shall convert to straight. All straights shall convert to super straight. And "The Handmaid's Tale" is now a documentary instead of a light friendly comedy. Good. And Finally...
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Wait a minute, time freeze. And you think I'm a threat? I mean, this guy is really bonkers. He actually believes this [expletive]. Unfreeze.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) The Constitution is replaced by whatever the Christian version of Sharia law is.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Wow. You know what? I'll sign it.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) There you go.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Thank you so much.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. That's my guest Peter Grosz as Vice President Mike Pence, and my guest Anthony Atamanuik as President Trump. So, Peter, how did you start doing Pence?
GROSZ: On command.
GROSS: Command from whom?
GROSZ: Anthony - from Anthony. Anthony and Adam Pally, who is one of our other executive producers - the two of them spoke with me soon after the election when they had the idea to turn Anthony's impression into this show after Trump won. And he wasn't going to hang up the impression. He was going to keep doing something. And they came to me, initially, I think, just to sort of round out the team and because of my experience writing for Seth Meyers and for Colbert.
And they wanted me to sort of - bring me along as like, you know, like a head-writer-type person. And as we started talking, we realized, you know, we had a lot of the same comedy references and old TV comedy references. And just as we were brainstorming, I think either Anthony or Adam said, oh, and you should play Pence. As Anthony said, I think, you should play Pence as his sidekick like Ed McMahon. I was like, oh, yeah, that'd be great. I'd love to do that.
And I had never once thought about impersonating Mike Pence. You know, I just sat down and watched him. And he - the range of Trump as Anthony is just expressed so well. It just goes from, like, little child to old woman to, you know, impetuous man to all sorts of vocal ranges. And Pence is way more down the middle.
And I think what I do when I try to impersonate him is to always, at some point, at the beginning of the show, sort of show people that sort of squinty earnest Mike Pence that wants to just, like, you know, pull the country up on his knee and tell you a bedtime story - that kind of thing - and then also veer off into - like, the sound of that clip was like - that's not - that doesn't sound like Pence. It sounds like me.
But I think we want to show people, like, what the characterization of Pence behind the scenes sort of is. So even if it sounds exactly like me and I sort of lose like any sort of impression, I think if I just behave in a way that shows what Pence might be like, that seems to be good enough for us (laughter).
GROSS: So Mike Pence defines himself this way. He says, I'm a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order. And so they got the Jewish guy, Peter Grosz (laughter)...
GROSS: ...To play him.
GROSZ: Yes. My friend said that - when I told her the idea, she said, you are the bagel to Mike Pence's corn muffin.
GROSZ: Don't be mad. That's our magic trick.
GROSS: My guests are Anthony Atamanuik and Peter Grosz, the stars of The Comedy Central series "The President Show." After a break, we'll talk about their Christmas special, which is coming up tomorrow night. And Atamanuik will tell us about auditioning for "Saturday Night Live" by doing impressions of Trump and Alec Baldwin. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAVIC SOUL PARTY!'S "BLUE PEPPER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with the two stars of The Comedy Central series "The President Show." Anthony Atamanuik plays President Trump. Peter Grosz plays Mike Pence. The show is set up like a late night talk show in the Oval Office with Trump as the host and Pence as his sidekick.
Atamanuik and Grosz are also executive producers and writers on the show. They're now at work on "The President Show" Christmas special, which will be on Comedy Central tomorrow night. Let's hear another clip from "The President Show." Trump is dressed in a superhero costume with a cape, holding a shield covered in the American flag.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRESIDENT SHOW")
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) What a super show, and I'm a superhero. Every superhero has an origin story. I emerged from the ashes of the Republican Party and injected myself with their super serum - the radioactive white resentment the GOP has been manufacturing for years. And with great power comes great hostility. I possess the strength to shift even the heaviest blame onto anyone but myself, the uncanny ability to create nightmares for people called DREAMers and to give - to divide the nation with a single tweet, all while hiding behind my magic shield. My weaknesses - I have none, except accurate reporting and being photographed in tennis shorts.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Call me whatever you want - the Great White Deflector, the "Star-Spangled" Scammer, The Incredible Bulk. But I prefer the name that strikes fear into the hearts of almost 70 percent of Americans - Mr. President.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) And with the support of my trusty sidekick and pale enabler...
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Oh, Mike Pence.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Jesus, Mike.
GROSZ: (As Mike Pence) Oh, I like that name better - Jesus Mike.
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) With his help, I will continue to fight truth, justice and the American way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ATAMANUIK: (As Donald Trump) Bye-bye.
GROSS: Let's talk about the Christmas show that you have coming up. Is it inspired by, like, the really corny, old-fashioned, kind of Perry Como-Andy Williams Christmas shows?
ATAMANUIK: Yes, it is inspired by those and it's sort of a combination of the like, oh, we're snowed in at the White House and everyone's just showing up and there's all these guests and it's combined with maybe a little bit of, like, "the Dean Martin Show," the sort of quality of it being almost off the rails constantly as if they didn't, you know, they - Trump maybe didn't prepare too much for one of the nativity scene or whatever. But, yeah, we're going to have singing and a lot of sort of classic Christmas nods.
GROSZ: Yeah, there's an animated piece.
ATAMANUIK: We have an animated piece. It's - I would say it's like a Whitman sampler. I tried to - I think we sat down when we mapped it out and said let's try to gather every sort of bellwether idea of a Christmas special and then put it through Trump's filter and figure out what the result of that would be. And I think it is going to be very funny, but I think it's also like all of our shows - hopefully honestly harrowing as well...
ATAMANUIK: ...You know?
GROSS: So you're going to be doing some singing on the Christmas special. And I think Broadway played a part in both of your lives. Peter, your mother used to take you to Broadway shows.
GROSZ: That is true.
GROSS: And, Anthony, your mother danced in Broadway shows before she started teaching dance, right?
ATAMANUIK: Yes, she was Fosse dancer and...
GROSS: A Fosse dancer - whoa.
ATAMANUIK: Yeah. She studied at Joffrey Ballet, and she was in "Unsinkable Molly Brown," the original, and "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." She was a chorus dancer.
GROSS: Which production of "How To Succeed?"
ATAMANUIK: You'd have to ask her. I've tuned out long ago...
ATAMANUIK: ...Hearing those stories. I mean (laughter) - my mother will rattle it off. You know, she was in the tour. She was in the Boston company of "Hair." And then that was it. And then she went and taught at Emerson. But who was the - who's the guy in "Mad Men" who...
GROSS: Oh, so that's the original production.
ATAMANUIK: Yes, she was in that production.
GROSS: That's the original production.
GROSZ: Oh, Robert Morris.
ATAMANUIK: Yeah, Robert Morris.
GROSZ: Oh, really.
ATAMANUIK: My mother moved to New York in 1957 and lived there until 1963. And so she worked a lot, you know, auditioning. I think her favorite story she tells me is she auditioned for something, and she did a great job and then afterwards she found out she didn't get the job because the producer said that she reminded him too much of his ex-wife.
ATAMANUIK: So she didn't get the job. She also used to tell me that - when I would not get auditions, she'd be like, you never know. You never know why, so yeah.
GROSS: Peter, you're writing for characters. You're writing for yourself as Vice President Pence and for Anthony as President Trump. You've written for characters before in the sense that, like, you wrote for Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report" when he played, you know, a blowhard conservative cable news show host What's it like for you to be one of the performers now on a show that you're writing for, Peter?
GROSZ: It's great. It's really fun. It's - I have forgotten that I am also, like, an on-camera personality in this context because I spend so much time thinking about the writing and all the other elements of the show. This is my first time being an executive producer of someone who, you know, is paying attention to the writing but also the graphics and the field and the editing and, you know, making sure there's - you know, I stock the fridge.
GROSZ: I do a lot of - no, I don't do that. But we actually went to - there was a party for Jordan Klepper's show, "The Opposition," and I had to sort of be reminded like, oh, you're going to go and they're going to want to, like, take a picture of you for publicity and stuff so then our people had to put a suit on me because I showed up in just, like, my regular schlubby (ph) writers clothes. So it's fun, but it's also - I sort of - I'm - I have to, like, split my brain. And actually while I'm sitting on set very often while Anthony's performing I will be sitting there reading in the teleprompter what he's saying just, like, checking that it's right and making sure that that's OK and, like, looking off to the side if a stagehand I know is going to - supposed to come in in a minute and carry a prop over or something. So I sort of - I'm like - I'm in it, but I'm also kind of above it trying to watch the whole thing. So it's - yeah, I try to do that as little as I can (laughter).
GROSS: Anthony, I think I have this right, that before Alec Baldwin started portraying President Trump on "Saturday Night Live," you auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" and in your audition you did Trump and you did Alec Baldwin (laughter).
ATAMANUIK: Yes, I did.
GROSZ: That is true.
GROSS: And you did not get the - did not get the role, but what was your audition like?
ATAMANUIK: No, I did not. Well, my - I was doing the Trump versus Bernie special for Fusion, which is this ham radio station that calls itself a cable network. And they - we were in Los Angeles, and I did a showcase just on a lark. They said come do this showcase and do five minutes. And I went, OK, you know, why not? I'll just do that. And I got a call, like, the next day that they wanted me to come do a stage test. And then, you know, I did Alec because I worked at "30 Rock" and I was an, you know, extra essentially. We were improvisor extras on the show. And I used to do Alec for the other extras. I would - I would do an impression of him. Like, I would come into the room filled with extras and be like (imitating Alec Baldwin) what's everyone doing here? How are you doing? Alec Baldwin.
And I would (laughter) - and so I did this thing - he used to yell for Marci Klein all the time. And he'd be like, Marci, and he would scream it, like, on the set. And...
GROSZ: Marci was one of the producers (unintelligible).
ATAMANUIK: Marci was one of the producers, and she was producer over at "SNL" as well. And so I thought it was very funny to depict him picking over the craft service table because he used to put his hands on his thighs, and I would call him Bronto Baldwin because he was like a dinosaur, like, grazing over this field. And so, yeah, then I did Trump. I did Ronan Farrow talking to Woody Allen.
GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. What did that sound like?
ATAMANUIK: Well, I did Ronan Farrow like Sinatra (laughter) because I, you know (laughter) that's the joke, you know. You know, he's like, (imitating Ronan Farrow) Dad, you know, you and me. It's like we're looking in a mirror, you know?
He's like (imitating Woody Allen) yes, you know, I know, son.
And then - and we finished with Baldwin. And we got a lot of - I got a good amount of laughs, and I'll say this - "SNL" was the best job that I never got because I wouldn't have this show and I wouldn't have this voice. And I do see our show as hopefully a sort of a time capsule a bit, a historical time capsule sort of doing a snapshot of what this whole sort of slow-motion tragic event in our democracy as it's happening.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about "The President Show," which is the Comedy Central show that stars my guest Anthony Atamanuik as President Trump and my guest Peter Grosz as the vice president. And they have a Christmas special that's coming up this Thursday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Atamanuik, who plays President Trump on "The President Show" on Comedy Central, and Peter Grosz, who plays Mike Pence on the show. They have a Christmas special coming up this Thursday, and they both come from the world of improv and also Peter Grosz was a writer for Seth Meyers' late-night show and also for "The Colbert Report."
Have you both become much more political because of the political comedy that you're involved with now with "The President Show," but, Peter, before that for you for Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert?
GROSZ: I feel like I was always political. I always had these leanings in my comedy of what I was interested in was political. I tried to - before I got hired at Colbert, I had submitted to "The Daily Show" five times and Colbert three times before I finally got hired. So it was always on my radar a in a very, very big way. My influences and the things I like could be - range from, you know, like Peter Sellers or, like, the Three Stooges to the Marx Brothers to, you know, something that's, like, way headier, like the early "Daily Show" when I was, you know, just out of college and things like that that I was interested in. Or even, like - I loved the political comedy on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'80s. Like, the
ATAMANUIK: Oh, yeah.
GROSZ: Like, when Phil Hartman was playing Reagan.
ATAMANUIK: It was great.
GROSZ: There was a lot of really great - I still remember - this was early '90s. But, like, they did a great, like, Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill thing where all the senators were totally - they were grilling Clarence Thomas but also just as pervy and asking all the little questions. So I think I've always been interested in it, and I can't seem to get away from it, even when I'm acting. Like, being on "Veep" was kind of incredible because...
ATAMANUIK: Yeah, you've done all political.
GROSZ: Yeah. Like, I don't have any role in creating that show, but I'm so happy. I feel so lucky to have been on it a few times. Yeah, it's just part of my life, but my parents were political. My sister was political. So yeah, it's always, like, sort of been in the background.
GROSS: OK. So "The President Show" Christmas special is coming up. We just finished with Thanksgiving. Christmas is ahead. With America being divided as it is, a lot of families - a lot of people are just kind of - are dreading the holidays because the big family dinners often mean you're going to be at a festive holiday table arguing about politics with your family.
GROSS: And I think people on both sides of the divide feel the pain of that. Is it any worse for you because you're actually, like, portraying Pence and Trump? So I don't know if your family is politically divided or not, but if they are, I would imagine you'd catch a lot of (laughter) a lot of - that holiday dinners would be difficult.
ATAMANUIK: Yeah, my mother's brother - my uncle - I would say his side of the family is more conservative. Some of them, although conservative, are not, like, you know, Trumpers. They might like Paul Ryan more or even Pence more. They sort of have that beliefs - you know, that belief that, like, Pence is keeping Trump sane - sort of what we were talking about earlier. But I grew up in a political family where since I was probably as - you know, sitting at the adult table, which I sat pretty early - about 8 - massive political arguments always happened about Reagan and Mondale. And I don't know.
For me - maybe it's because I come from a loud Italian family. I don't really fear it. I mean, that to me is part of the dynamic. It's part of the dialogue of America is that people sit as families and discuss issues and what their views are and how to fix and shape the world. I think the problem is that often political conversation is a cover for deeper familial emotional issues that are going on. So what - you know, people getting really passionate about Trump or yelling about Clinton or Bernie Sanders really has to do with some family pain. Like, you didn't love me enough, you know, Mom or whatever, right? So I think that's one.
And I think, two, I think because we've lost civics education in schools and because we now celebrate the ditherings of the human mind in the form of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook - you know, 5,000 years of trying to quiet the mind philosophically and we blew that apart in 10 years - that you don't have people maybe as conditioned to have a dialogue where you can get impassioned about something but then step away from it and still love your family member.
And I think it's a dangerous place we're going to if we start to say that we can't discuss our political beliefs and we don't have the tolerance to hear somebody else's point of view. I mean, that's part of the message of the show - is, we often try to show - if we had a Trump supporter watching our show, we try to say to that viewer, your guy is not even representing what you want.
ATAMANUIK: So our message in the show is not to sit there and say, every person on the other side of the divide - you're, you know, ignorant; you're garbage, you're blah, blah, blah. That - nothing is served by that. What is served is to say, hey, you sense something that a lot of people sense, that people who supported Sanders sensed and people who supported Clinton sensed and - across the board of there's something wrong with our corporatist society. There is something wrong with the corporate feudalistic system that we call a democracy that is no longer one in a lot of ways.
And I think that that frustration manifested itself in making a decision that was a sort of outsider decision, hoping it would shake up the system or break things apart. And I think that those people should be told, hey, your guy didn't do what you wanted. Your guy sold you out. He's not going to change things. Nothing has happened that you thought was going to happen. So let's maybe return to the playing field where everybody is in common agreement about how to work towards solving these problems 'cause this clearly didn't work.
GROSS: Peter, do you have big family political conflicts at holiday time, and does playing Mike Pence intensify that?
GROSZ: Not within my family or my - just the - my side. But my wife grew up in Texas, and her brothers and parts of her family are just more conservative. And I don't really know how into Trump they are. I'm sure they didn't like Hillary Clinton. I think they're just, you know - they were over her probably 20 years ago. But they were - they loved George Bush. He was sort of, like, one of them - came from West Texas, you know, spoke their language. They really - they were very happy when he was president.
So I don't know. I mean, I feel like I can have more of a open political conversation with them and just ask them, like, how do you feel about what's going on? So I don't know. I think they're happy for - they're very nice, and they're very happy for me with this show. I know they don't agree with everything that happens on it, but we got a chance to watch an episode together once when I was down there. And they - you know, they were laughing and giggling at some of the silly stuff...
GROSZ: ...That Anthony was doing. So it was actually kind of nice. It was a good way to sort of get together and be like, yeah, we can all laugh at this man 'cause I do think ultimately he's right. The target of our show is Trump. The target of our show has never been the people who voted for him. I think we have a lot of empathy for people who voted for him. And we hopefully - we'll point out things that this guy is doing that are pretty silly.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much. Peter Grosz, Anthony Atamanuik, thank you so much for being with us.
GROSZ: Thank you.
ATAMANUIK: Thank you.
GROSS: Anthony Atamanuik and Peter Grosz are the stars of the Comedy Central series "The President Show." Their "President Show" Christmas special will be on Comedy Central tomorrow night. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film by Guillermo del Toro, who also made "Pan's Labyrinth" and the "Hellboy" series. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro is known for such otherworldly fantasies as "Pan's Labyrinth," "Crimson Peak" and the "Hellboy" movies. He won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for his new film, "The Shape Of Water," which stars Sally Hawkins as a woman whose job is cleaning offices. She finds herself caught up in government intrigue during the Cold War. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Shape Of Water" is such a lyrical and imaginative piece of storytelling that I'm genuinely disappointed that I didn't love it more. There's no doubting the visionary credentials of the director, Guillermo del Toro, though his richly atmospheric fantasies are often more inspired in concept than they are in the moment-to-moment unfolding. The great exception is his Oscar-winning 2006 film "Pan's Labyrinth," a masterpiece of historical fantasy in which he held a brutal Spanish war story and a transporting fairy tale in exquisite balance.
"The Shape Of Water" attempts and sometimes achieves a similar alchemy. Set in 1962, it's both a stylized vision of Cold War paranoia and an old-school monster movie in the vein of "Creature From The Black Lagoon." The creature here is a sort of scaly green humanoid with gills, webbed extremities and soulful eyes played by del Toro's regular collaborator Doug Jones. He was recently discovered in the Amazon and is now being held and observed in a top-secret facility in Baltimore where government officials, believing him to possess godlike powers, hope to use him in their fight against the Russians.
We are ushered into this underground laboratory by a shy cleaning woman named Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, the British actress known for her work in "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "Blue Jasmine." Hawkins' performance is wondrously expressive and almost entirely silent. Elisa is mute, having had her vocal cords slashed by an abusive guardian when she was just a baby. Her physical disability grants her an immediate sense of empathy for the captive specimen, and as she mops the floor near his water tank, she initiates an unlikely friendship, feeding him boiled eggs and communicating with him in sign language.
Before long, Elisa becomes determined to set the creature free, at which point "The Shape Of Water" morphs into a tense "Prison Break" thriller and a striking "Beauty And The Beast" romance. It also becomes, somewhat heavy-handedly, a tale of repressed minorities banding together to fight the establishment. It's no accident that Elisa's only two other friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay artist embodied with soulful depth by Richard Jenkins, and a coworker, Zelda, warmly played by Octavia Spencer, who, after "The Help" and "Hidden Figures," is no stranger to capturing the resilience a black woman needed to survive in the '60s. One sequence beautifully captures her friendship with Elisa, who listens quietly as Zelda discusses her daily routine.
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OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Zelda) Oh, my feet are already killing me. I made Bruce (ph) the pigs in the blanket tonight before leaving. And boy, he just ate them up - no thank yous, no yum yums - not a feat. Man is as solid as a grave. But if farts were flattery, honey, he'd be Shakespeare. And then I get home, and I make him breakfast - eggs, bacon and buttered toast. I butter the man's toast, Elisa - mmm hmm, both sides, as if he was a child. And I don't even get a thank you. You'd be grateful because you're an educated woman. But my Bruce - all he had going for him was animal magnetism back in the day. Hasn't worked in a while. What in the Sam Hill? Lou (ph), you boys mind putting the trash in the can? That's what it's there for.
CHANG: Elsewhere at the lab, Michael Stuhlbarg lends some heft and nuance to the role of a scientist so awed by the creature's existence that he winds up disobeying orders and becoming an unexpected ally. But the villain of the piece, the one who reminds us that humans are often the greatest monsters, is a sadistic government agent tasked with ensuring that the creature cooperates. He's played by Michael Shannon, who gives an arresting, if obvious, performance in his by-now-patented bug-eyed lunatic mode.
The look of "The Shape Of Water" is intoxicating, and true to the movie's title, marvelously fluid. Del Toro moves the camera around his sets like an expressionist master. At times, he seems to be trying to see how many different shades of green he can fit into Paul D. Austerberry's production design, from the bright teal of a sporty new Cadillac to the murkier aquamarine of the laboratory walls.
The director loves the visual and emotional extravagance of old Hollywood. And at one point, he gives Elisa and her amphibious paramour a dreamlike dance number in the style of the old black-and-white musicals she watches on TV. It's a lovely gesture, but also one you can see coming. If del Toro was an exuberant devotee of classic American movies, his scholarship sometimes feels a bit, well, studied. Out there as it is, "The Shape Of Water" has fewer surprises up its sleeve than you might hope, and its surrealism can feel too neatly diagrammed by half.
I'm not sure the movie fully earns its audacious central romance, which feels less like a wondrous, spontaneous leap than a stroke of calculated perversity that arrives right on cue, which more or less sums up my attitude toward the movie. It's a gorgeous achievement, to be sure, but no matter how much I wanted to fall for it, it kept wriggling out of my embrace.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll ask, are we at a turning point in how we handle allegations of sexual harassment? We'll also look back on how Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas were handled in his confirmation hearings. We'll hear from New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who co-wrote a book about the hearings, and Rebecca Traister, who writes about feminist issues. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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