This month, the New York Times ran a piece titled "How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy," featuring a ton of comedians complaining about how hard it is to be funny since Trump took office. John Oliver is quoted, "People say [joking about Trump] writes itself—the worst kind of comedy. As a human being and a comedian, I cannot wait for this to be over." Because of his boisterous persona, and still-fervent base, Trump has been almost impervious to satire, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to impersonate him. On Saturday Night Live, actor Alec Baldwin has been pouting his lips and donning orange makeup with his Trump impression since 2015, while writer Sarah Cooper got a Netflix special from viral videos of her lip-syncing to Trump's speeches. But none of those compare to the freakishly on-point Trump take from 31-year-old Los Angeles actor and comedian James Austin Johnson, whose impersonation is so uncanny that it's almost frightening.
In his videos, Johnson walks around LA riffing—in Trump's rambling, vamping character—on random bits of pop culture like experimental music duo 100 Gecs or the ostensible music rights violations of "Weird Al" Yankovic. There's his impression of Trump's hypothetical musings on Scooby Doo: "We’re giving way too much attention to Mr. Scooby and he’s not doing anything. We call him Scooby, but he doesn’t 'do.' It’s a terrible deal." (Hearing the phrase "We call him Scooby but he doesn't 'do'" in that voice will forever be etched in my brain.)
There's something jaw-dropping about how accurately Johnson is able to channel the President's cadence, speech patterns, and eccentricities in his viral social media clips.There is nothing worse than a bad impression, but there are also few things better than impressions that absolutely nail it. Just check out his takes on Bob Dylan and Bobby Flay, which feature on his podcast What Things Are What Things.
Because Johnson's videos have been one of the few unequivocal bright spots of 2020, VICE decided to call him up and figure out how he was able to capture the true essence of President Trump.
VICE: Have you always sort of done these kinds of impressions?
James Austin Johnson: I'm a voices guy in the alternative comedy community in LA. I started as a teen Christian stand-up comedian in Nashville, Tennessee. Since then, of course, people change and things change, but I've always done voices and stuff. You know, my parents would make me get up at a party or a Bible study or something and do Jar Jar Binks, or whatever it was. Being what's called an 'ex-vangelical,' we grow up media savvy while a lot of our parents tried to make us only listen to Christian music and watch Christian media. They weren't really able to shelter me much. And so the voices and the comedy and stuff, would always be the pull away from the sort of Christian media world. Which I think gives me somewhat of an interesting perspective, especially doing a Trump voice, because I'm not just watching Trump dominate the media, or anything like that—I'm watching my Christian community get swept up in infighting, conspiracy theories, and the end-of-empire shit.
It was really distressing in 2016, but now, I'm realizing that this guy is what you get. Like, this is the natural endpoint of the conservative Christian outlook and where evangelicals invest in short-term conservative gains rather than the god shit. I have compassion for the right-wing, or an empathy, because I grew up in that community and still talk to Trump voters on the phone. Something that I think is missing from the mainstream Trump's comedy take is his charm. Aside from just liking the music of people's voices and cadences, and from a young age being attuned to speech patterns, I think I also understand a little bit of that. He's not charismatic to a broad amount of people, but to his base, they think he's Elvis. They've never met anyone cooler or more hilarious.
There are a ton of impressions of Trump, but for yours really eerily captures his essence—even it's his made-up opinions on 100 Gecs or Scooby Doo.
When I started trying the Trump voice, Itried to do 'rally Trump', mostly. 'Rally Trump' is all about love. He's just vamping and he's building up to the 'YMCA' moment when he can dance for the crowd. He never had love as a child, and he's gonna get it during this balls-to-the-wall-concert. It is all about this show. This is the most important show he's ever done. He hates all of the administrative stuff. He hates meeting Xi Jinping in the morning. He hates reading. He hates all of the shit we actually need the president for. But he loves the media stuff. He loves being the star, so that's why I try to just focus on how he behaves at the rallies, because to me, that is the pure essence of who he is.
When you first started doing Trump's voice, what did you try to home in on?
I tried it out in 2016 at a weekly comedy show in Highland Park called Rod Stewart Live!, which I host with two other comics, Sam Wiles and Zach Pugh—Trump killed the show when he ignored COVID-19. Trump is like Christopher Walken: It's an impression that everyone does. Everyone has their version of it. But I guess I was trying to isolate the things I heard in Trump. I think the problem with a lot of the dominant Trump impressions is that they're older guys. Trump has been in their consciousness since the 70s and 80s, and to me, they're doing 80s Trump. I'm 31, and have never given a shit about who Donald Trump is, until Fox News gave him a platform to point out how goofy Barack Obama's name sounded [to him], and he sounded like a disgusting monster. All he's ever looked at me is just a gross old guy who's aged like milk. I really know him as Jabba the Hutt and not an effective salesman.
Three of the most prominent takes on Trump are Alec Baldwin's, Sarah Cooper's, and Anthony Atamanuik, who did Comedy Central's The President Show as Trump. What do you think of those impressions?
Sarah Cooper is not doing an impression. She's doing performance art that I still think is pretty funny and effective. She illuminates Trump's actual words in a way that brings new light to them. Tony Atamanuik is my favorite. I love his take on Trump because he gets all the physicality and the presence right. He takes Trump and turns it into like a Groundlings character. He captures the energy of the great SNL political stuff I loved as a kid with his impression of Trump. It's so silly and playful. It's definitely different than Alec Baldwin's, who just brings pure evil to the present day SNL Trump. I honestly wish he would just play it more demonic and cruel because when Alec Baldwin squints, it just makes you feel bad. If that's what they're going for, then that's great. I'm a lifelong SNL fan and I think a lot of the mainstream shows miss how much love there is for Trump. In the quest to depict him as the monster that, of course, I believe he is, they're alienating some of the people who otherwise would laugh at their jokes.
It's really hard to laugh at a lot of depictions of Trump. It doesn't make you feel good. I really just want my comedy to be a balm by being really silly bullshit in that voice about stupid pop culture stuff.
You can follow James Austin Johnson @ShrimpJAJ on both Instagram and Twitter. Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago.