Brow Beat

How a Few Weird, Surrealist Comedians Are Proving That Trump Is Not Actually Immune to Satire

Vic Berger, Tim Heidecker, and Anthony Atamanuik.
Vic Berger, Tim Heidecker, and Anthony Atamanuik.

Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshots via CNN, Adult Swim, and ElectionBastards2016.

Back in February, as Donald Trump was revealing himself to be a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik observed that he presented a challenge for comedians. “Election parodies traditionally exaggerate candidates,” wrote Poniewozik. But Trump was exaggeration itself, “the frilled lizard of politics,” constantly “inflating his self-presentation to appear ever larger.” Poniewozik declared him “almost comedy-proof.”

Poniewozik’s assessment has become the conventional wisdom. “I don’t think anybody’s comedy about Donald Trump is as effective as simply Donald Trump’s words themselves,” said Peter Sagal, of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! on a recent episode of Slate’s Trumpcast. “All I should do on my show is just read a transcript of what he said and then sigh.” Earlier this month, in Splitsider, John Hugar made the same point: “What Trump has taken away from satirists is the power of exaggeration.”

The frustration is understandable. Jimmy Fallon is repeating the same jokes about Trump’s hair that he made in September. Colbert’s recurring Trump impersonator has still not mastered the accent. We seem to be developing a strange fascination for watching children take shots at the candidate, as though we couldn’t bear to watch another professional comedian try and fail. And the enduring comedic artifact of this election cycle, so far, is an explanation.

But Trump is not, in fact, immune to satire. There’s a handful of comedians who have figured out how to spoof him effectively—they just don’t have the same exposure, and their comedy is reckless and weird. For the most part, they abandon the decorum and theatrical polish that hold together shows like SNL. That makes total sense: Trump is the embodiment of illusion, theater, spectacle. To really bring him down, you may have to go postmodern, to tear apart the medium itself.

Take Anthony Atamanuik, who honed his Trump bit at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York and has performed in two specials on Fusion. He’s a superb Trump impersonator in a conventional sense: No one has a firmer grip on the voice and mannerisms. But Atamanuik’s “Donald Trump” is downright monstrous. He takes Trump’s anti–political correctness crusade to a shocking extreme. When asked about his relationship with Megyn Kelly, he rattles off a few decreasingly euphemistic period puns, then gets to the point: “When the uterine lining drops out of her cervix, she can be a real cunt.”

Atamanuik’s “Trump” will extoll the virtues of “white power” as an energy source and warn the Pope against “shaved, cold, Italian ISIS” in “his backyard.” Each pun is set up with a shaggy, winking preamble. At first glance, they’re stupid vacations from the reality of the impersonation. They foreground the performer, the joke writer, over the character. But that’s the point. They’re an analogy. They suggest a Trump who is having fun at the expense of his message. Or who, perhaps, doesn’t understand the meaning of the words he is saying. Or a Trump who speaks in a hidden language, to an audience within the audience.

At key moments, Atamanuik will climb almost entirely out of the character. He will maintain the outward mannerisms but ditch Trump’s psychology. He ends performances of Trump vs. Bernie, his fake debate with James Adomian, on a description of all the terrible things that will happen in the early days of a Trump presidency (see around the 35:10 mark here):

And sometimes he climbs further into the character. Like other comedians, Atamanuik apparently subscribes to the Producers theory of this candidacy, which maintains that Trump never intended to succeed and has continued campaigning out of a deep psychological deficit. That idea’s not too fresh, but Atamanuik uses it, as a performer, to great effect. He’ll be spouting Trumpisms and slip seamlessly into a raw confessional mode. In a performance I saw in February, the closing monologue included a harrowing first-person disquisition in which Atamanuik theorized that Trump teared up at his New Hampshire victory speech because he felt unloved by his father as a child. Nothing changes about Atamanuik’s demeanor when he does this. He wants to catch you off guard. At first you’re just confused—and then you start listening, through the familiar bravado, to Trump’s tortured inner voice.

It’s not realistic, and it is deeply alienating, almost Brechtian in the way it sacrifices the coherence of character to make a bigger point. And it successfully disarms the demagogue. Once you’ve heard Atamanuik, Trump’s cadence triggers the comedian’s highly incongruous material in your mind. I cannot watch Trump read that stupid snake poem without hearing Atamanuik’s substitute: “Agitate me! Disrupt me! Save me from myself!”

Quite apart from Atamanuik, there’s Vic Berger, who creates representations of a Trump with no inner life whatsoever—a Trump-o-tron. He’s been making Vines and longer videos using footage from the campaign trail since the beginning of the primaries, the most popular of which have racked up half a million views on YouTube. Early on, he produced a vast corpus of extremely awkward clips of Jeb Bush. Then he turned his attention to the debates.

Berger first won my love with his edit of the seventh GOP primary debate. It starts with Megyn Kelly observing that Donald Trump has refused to attend. Trump—a grainy cut-out image of him—and a podium then motor onto the stage to a chorus of airhorns and “We want Trump!” “Wait a minute, you dummies!” says this phantom Trump. Trump then proceeds to abuse Jeb Bush, interrupt him with further airhorns, and fire him, Apprentice-style. At one point, he and his podium whirr across the stage (it takes 14 seconds) and fire Bush a second time. Sad music plays; Jeb looks pathetic. Berger would return to this theme again and again in subsequent videos. In his wildly popular riff on the ninth debate, Trump is even meaner. “Jeb is a mess,” he says. “Jeb is a waste. Jeb is a mess. Jeb is a big fat mistake.”

There’s an element of slapstick to this spectacle, bizarre as it may seem at first glance. The comically slow robotic whirr is tried and true shtick—the “mechanical encrusted on the living,” to use philosopher Henri Bergson’s phrase. Bush’s hesitations as Trump interrupts him are perfectly timed and could be played for laughs on a stage by real players. But the real value of these videos lies in Berger’s unconventional use of video as a medium.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that these videos are not for everyone. The Vines are acerbic and ephemeral, like Listerine breath strips. The longer pieces are abrasive, disorienting, and dystopian. If you’re not tuned into the anti- and meta-comedy, you will find them incompetent.

But I’d argue that there’s something sharply funny in the redundancy and stiffness of Trump’s posturing in that debate vide, and in the equally redundant and stiff response of his chanting supporters. The intentionally bad cutout and the use of audio from the Apprentice remind us that Trump is a foreign element in our political world. He is a seam in reality. And yet we have come to accept him as though he were a being from the same dimension.

Like all of Berger’s best videos, the debate takes place in a representational netherworld. In manipulating real clips, Berger paradoxically surrenders any claim to reality. You know immediately that Trump didn’t say those things in that order, or sound an airhorn, or fart on camera. You know that what you’re watching uses the same distortive techniques as propaganda.

But, in most of these videos, Berger doesn’t seem to be trying to make anything like a propagandistic point. Usually, he’s constructing a new reality, from scraps, the way a dream does. That’s one reason these scenes can feel so internal, as if they’re unfolding in someone’s dazed, anxious mind. These videos are ultimately not about Trump. They’re about you.

You could say the same for the work of Tim Heidecker, with whom Berger will be spoofing the parties’ conventions this summer. Heidecker started observing Trump relatively early (the current right-wing political incarnation, not the “short-fingered vulgarian” of the ’80s and ’90s). Around 2011, he added a joke to his stand-up repertoire. It was: “Imagine if Donald Trump became president.” After that, he would go on for a bit about different things President Trump could fire (members of Congress, Obama, Obamacare). It was a “lame, shitty, bad joke,” he told me in an interview, but in the context of his gracefully inept routine, it killed. (Really—listen to that laughter.)

That joke would no longer play, but it illustrates a key to Heidecker’s satirical strategy. He doesn’t focus on Trump. Instead, he creates characters and situations that suggest a world that is wholly Trumpified. Trump does not appear in this clip—a music video for a song entitled “Our Values Are Under Attack”—but he haunts it. He is there in Heidecker’s facial tension, and in the song’s entitled pessimism. It could only have originated in a culture in which Trump is taken seriously.

The singer in the video is Jack Decker, the unimaginably arrogant hero of Decker, a 24-style spy-action series conceived by “Tim Heidecker,” a fictional movie reviewer played by Tim Heidecker on a different show, On Cinema. “Tim” is a terrible actor. As Heidecker explained in an A.V. Club interview in March, “Tim” is trying to emulate Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson, “and it ends up coming out like Donald Trump.” Decker’s lips are permanently pursed in a Trumpian duckface.

But again, we do not really see Trump the man here. We a see a crudely exaggerated depiction of the frustrations, fears, and vanities that lead people to support him. The most recent episode of Decker tells the story of Decker’s training as a Green Beret. When a new drill instructor from Saudi Arabia—played by the one white guy who plays all the terrorists, in the same stereotypical costume, ululating—is introduced to the recruits, Decker looks around suspiciously. “I got a bad feeling about this,” he whispers, stiltedly, to a companion. “This is a classic Taliban strategy. He’s a Trojan horse sent to move in next door and become friends with everybody, and then the attack begins.” That aired a few days before a Trump supporter in New Hampshire exhorted the candidate to get rid of “all these heebie jobbies they wear at the TSA,” apparently referring to hijabs.

Weird Trump comedy may be starting to gain a pop cultural foothold. Earlier this month, a dystopian fake Japanese advertisement for Trump’s candidacy, by a video artist named Mike Diva, went viral. As with Decker, Trump himself was not in the crosshairs. Rather, Diva wanted to capture and escalate the experience of being in Trump’s world. “I wanted to make the omnipresence of his face really overwhelming but also weirdly visually pleasing,” Diva told Slate. “I wanted to confuse people.”

And he did. Trump supporters on 4chan were so confused that one of them started a thread about the video called “Which one of you was this?” Another wrote that “the video makes Trump looks great and cool and sexually vigiorous [sic] regardless if that was its intention or not.” Atamanuik, Berger, and Heidecker have all grown increasingly vocal about their opposition to Trump, but some of their work still leaves room for such misinterpretation. This is most true of Berger, who has an unwelcome following among right-wing internet trolls. This month, a horrified Berger tweeted a photograph from a Trump rally of a supporter clashing with a protester. The supporter’s shirt said “Jeb is a mess” in an intimidating font.

This may just be the cost of experimentation. Regardless of their political impact, these videos and performances reflect the chaos and uncertainty of the current moment. As a a comedian, there may not be much you can do with Trump’s self-presentation, the traditional target of satire. Unlike most humans, he does not have anything like stable principles or ideas. The visible Trump is an illusion, a chameleon, a glitch. In order to make a good joke or capture a truth, a comedian has to either delve deeper—expose the broken interior—or zoom out to the culture surrounding him. The weirdness of these comics reflects the weirdness of those uncharted zones. When we watch Atamanuik, Berger, or Heidecker, we do not see a comedian in more-or-less civil dialogue with a politician. (So much for Jimmy Fallon talking to Trump in the mirror.) We see artists facing evil—the potential for the disintegration of the individual, the corruption of society on the whole. We’ll never know how our attempts to laugh at Trump—Fallon’s or anyone else’s—affected the vote. But when the election is past, and Trump vanquished, I’m skeptical that we’ll want to re-watch John Oliver’s level-headed explanation. We may prefer to hear those airhorns blowing.