Hall of Happiness: The President Show
As my bizarre and instantly regretted decision to devote the entire month of July to the lesser projects of extremely unpopular former child star and even less popular veteran rock musician Corey Feldman once again illustrates, I make a lot of mistakes. A lot. Like, I am constantly making terrible, terrible, terrible mistakes.
One of the many mistakes I have made so far in running this website is purposefully eschewing things that are “popular” and “timely” and that “people enjoy and are interested in reading about” in favor of a heavy focus on me suffering through terrible movies and Pauly Shore comedy specials that appeal to absolutely no one. And also just suffering in general. I may never get another “job” but I regularly feel as if I am suffering the torments and trials of Job.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to introduce a feature here called Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place Hall of Happiness. It’s devoted to the things in my life that fill me with joy and remind me that life is more than just Dinesh D’Souza screeds and Marlon Wayans parodies. For the first entry in Nathan Rabin’s Hall of Happiness I’m writing up The President Show.
As its title suggests, the premise of The President Show is that Donald Trump, the crazy haired TV clown currently in the White House, is hosting an old-fashioned talk show so that he can get his message out to the American people directly, without having to endure the criticism and scrutiny of a press that maddeningly refuses to act as a state propaganda wing, with the exception of Fox News, Breitbart and pretty much every tabloid, particularly The National Enquirer, which seems to exclusively run headlines like, “Trump Solves Cancer and Creates Utopia in First 100 Days: Could He Be A Messiah Of Some Sort?”
That’s a fairly hack comic conceit ubiquitous on Saturday Night Live, home of the Joe Pesci Talk Show and many more of its ilk, and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, home of the Nicolas Cage Talk Show and many similar sketches. Yet it’s perfect for Trump because he is so transparently and pathologically a creature of television that it seems weirdly plausible that he’d actually host a show in addition to being President, solely so that when he watches television he somehow sees even more of himself than before. Television created Donald Trump, which helps explain why he’s a demented, ill informed man-child overflowing with incoherent rage at enemies that may or may not exist only in his mind.
How do you make the President seem even more ridiculous than his own actions and words, and Tweets, and wrestling-themed Gifs do? That has proven a daunting challenge not even the master satirists (and my personal arch-enemies) The Capitol Steps have quite figured out yet.
The President Show distinguishes itself by being bracingly dark and bracingly deep. The underlying conceit behind the show is that Trump isn’t just nasty and a bit loopy but genuinely unhinged and driven by suicidal self-loathing that he can only keep at bay for so long. Atamanuik’s Trump talks and talks and talks and talks. The comedian brilliantly replicates Trump’s predilection for inane throat-clearing, the way he’ll repeat a meaningless phrase like, “And we all know that” to buy himself time while the gears creak ever so slowly inside the busted, malfunctioning engine that is Trump’s brain.
The show captures the terrifying tenor of our times in its first episode when Trump feverishly describes the climax of Goodfellas and Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled paranoia and the relentless emphasis on doing more coke and stirring the spaghetti sauce, and doing more coke and stirring the spaghetti sauce, and tells the American public that that’s exactly how the next four years are going to feel. It’s a perfect analogy for the out-of-control state of American Presidential politics but it also captures how, despite his famous reputation as a lifelong teetotaler, Trump not only seems like a dude on a lot of uppers like cocaine and crystal meth, but like a dude who is perpetually hopped up on a lot of really bad drugs, low quality drugs, trucker speed and questionably legal pills.
The President Show depicts Trump as viscerally disgusting. In a particular brutal segment, Atamanuik’s Trump celebrates his child-like love for fast food by sloppily masticating particularly stomach-churning globs of fried animal flesh from Burger King and Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Trump’s bleak reckonings would get much grimmer over the course of the show, regularly bringing him to the brink of complete despair, but there’s something about the queasy physicality of Trump eating all that disgusting food that lingers.
In a characteristically dark running gag, seemingly once in every episode Atamanuik’s Trump achieves a powerful but inevitably fleeting moment of clarity during which the thick wall of illusion and lies and self-mythologizing that he’s built up around himself falls away. Suddenly and incontrovertibly, the show’s simultaneously pathetic and monstrous Trump finds himself faced with the horrifying reality that he is old and evil, physically repulsive despite his ridiculous fixation on beauty and youth and probably going to die sooner rather than later. I would be lying if I said I did not find some solace and comfort in the fact that Trump will probably die soon and that under all that bluster, he is clearly a painfully insecure, inadequate and unhappy little man, a lost little boy in a king’s robe.
Atamanuik portrays Trump as a petulant, belligerent and quick-to-anger child, the kind of eternal kindergartner who squeals about talking “to a lady astronaut on the computer!” when describing highlights of his first 100 days in office. It’s endearing, or at least it used to be kind of endearing because we are programmed both by culture and biology to find the way children behave adorable for various biological imperatives.
Yet Trump’s eternal toddlerhood is also utterly terrifying—and among its many strengths, The President Show does full justice to how scary and unpredictable Trump’s Presidency, and mere existence, is—because Trump is not a child. He’s a confused and overwhelmed senior citizen who, through a tragicomic series of disasters has somehow become the most powerful man in the world, with only the strength of our institutions (chief among them the fake news and Liberal media), and constitution to stand between him and the ultimate power he seeks.
Format-wise, The President Show hews to the conventions of the fake talk show. Mike Pence, who the show’s Trump describes perfectly as America’s answer to “white rice, no salt”, serves as Trump’s sidekick and straight-laced comic foil, a man whose blandness is soothing and all-consuming. There are desk pieces and faux press conferences andsegments where Atamanuik’s Trump ventures out into the wild as well as an interview segment where guests like Dan Savage or Keith Olbermann, are afforded an opportunity to score points off the rancid orange bloviator.
But if the format of The President Show is standard-issue, its execution is anything but is anything but. The President Show goes so hard at Trump, depicting, accurately I would imagine, his mind as a Lynchian realm of infinite horrors, and his relationship with his mother as Psycho redux but without Norman Bates’ squirming, ingratiating vulnerability, that you almost feel sorry for the man.
The President Show isn’t just dark, it’s evisceratingly, slashingly, dangerously dark, a show as extreme as its satirical target. It’s an extreme satire for extreme times. Atamanuik’s Trump and his cavalcade of pitch-black political humor has proven oddly cathartic. It’s allowed me to laugh about something, and someone, I otherwise spend an unhealthy amount of time despairing about.
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