What comes next for a Donald Trump impersonator? J-L Cauvin has thoughts
For stand-up comedians who depend on club gigs, 2020 was the year the laughter stopped. Not so for J-L Cauvin, whose impersonation of Donald Trump has been cracking up the social media masses for the last miserable nine months.
A stream of unfalteringly funny videos of Cauvin performing his shtick in a Make America Great Again hat transformed a comic journeyman into a headliner on YouTube and Twitter. Parodying a president who already flirts with self-parody isn’t easy, but Cauvin nailed the chesty voice, the malapropisms and the utter shamelessness.
Speaking on Zoom from his home in New Jersey, Cauvin acknowledged with some trepidation that he’d had a “shockingly good year.” He knows this doesn’t seem fair when lives and livelihoods are being lost. He’s also not sure how durable his newfound fame will be after Trump leaves the White House.
“I’m a naturally cynical, pessimistic person,” he said. “I think 17 years in stand-up comedy will make you that way. So now I’m trying to prepare to not fail in 2021.”
Part of this preparation involves making sure that the fans he’s gained since his video “Donald Trump vs. God on Easter PPV” went viral in March understand that impersonation is only a portion of his act. His portrayal of Trump as an overgrown, golf-club-wielding frat boy may be the draw, but stand-up and sketch comedy have been his stock in trade.
“They’re going to be screaming ‘Free Bird’ when I get onstage except that it will be Trump,” he joked.
Cauvin wasn’t complaining, but he recognizes a trap when he sees one. Professional comedy, which he began as a stress-relieving hobby while studying law at Georgetown University, has been an up-and-down road for him. Last year, when he turned 40, he decided to take a staff attorney job to stabilize his life. Throughout 2020, he has been working full-time as a lawyer while his career on the internet has exploded.
“In terms of money, this year blew away any I’ve had even as a full-time attorney, which is bizarre because I didn’t do one stand-up comedy club gig all year,” he said. “The ‘Donald Trump vs. God’ video combined with a bored, stressed nation was just a perfect storm.”
What he called his “hard-earned meager following,” acquired through a couple of late-night TV appearances and “semi-regular” stand-up, jumped exponentially. “Between my two channels, I’m up to 90,000 subscribers on YouTube,” he said. “My Twitter following went from 4,200 to 145,000. So I was having a lot more eyes seeing current and past work out of nowhere.”
Monetizing content on social media is tricky, but Cauvin has been a factory. He estimates that he’s created more than 10 hours of original Trump comedy since April. He may be the hardest-working man in stand-up with a white-collar day job.
I’m a naturally cynical, pessimistic person. I think 17 years in stand-up comedy will make you that way.
“I’ve been doing several videos a week, so my YouTube channel became a source of good revenue over the last seven months,” he said. “But the biggest source of revenue for me, other than private gigs, is Cameo, the website where D-list celebrities and flashes-in-the pan do private messages.”
He admitted he had reservations about jumping on this bandwagon: “I was like, ‘I don’t do Cameo. I’m a comedian. I need the stage to perform my craft.’ But then I saw the money coming in and said, ‘I’m a Cameo webcam girl at this point.’”
When we spoke earlier this month, his rate was up to $150 a message. He said he wasn’t a big enough celebrity to do the 60-second “Hey, it’s me. How are you?” bit. He feels the need to deliver, but the steady challenge of making strangers laugh has kept him limber.
“My favorite pair of messages came back-to-back one day this summer,” he said. “The first one was from an escort service that wanted Trump to cheer up the escorts, who were obviously, for social distancing purposes, not able to perform their craft. And the next was a message for an 8-year-old-girl who had just gotten her training wheels off her bicycle. So Trump offered condolence and congratulations in the span of 10 minutes.”
Trump has been in his act for a while, but the impression changed as Trump transformed from candidate to commander in chief. When he did his impersonation on “The Adam Carolla Show” several years ago, Cauvin said Trump was still much more “rapid-fire New York.”
“It was when he became the big speechmaker that everything started to slow down,” he said. “I used to do George Lopez, and that was the first impression I discovered that I could do a little raspy voice on command. I realized that Trump has a little raspy thing too. I obviously wouldn’t put a George Lopez accent on it, but I always thought how ironic that my impression of a Mexican American comedian who hates Trump is what made me realize I could do Trump.”
The clenched breath is another key element, but Cauvin says it’s unavoidable because he does the impression from the chest. “It’s almost like I’m holding my breath when I puff my chest. But I’m just replicating Trump’s own physiology, which makes him sound like he’s doing an impression of himself.”
What’s the secret to Cauvin’s Mike Pence? “Treating him, for lack of a better term, as a closeted gay man,” he said. “His whole essence is a guy fighting who he really is. That’s why he’s pretty good in the debates. You cannot rattle him. If you’ve been hiding your true self for 40 years, what’s an hour and a half with Kamala Harris?”
At 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, Cauvin doesn’t have any women in his repertoire, but he does do a mean Miss Piggy. For now, he’s taking a pass on Joe Biden. (“I could probably do a B-minus Joe Biden, but what’s the use of that?”) The problem with most Biden impressions, he said, is that they just come off as “generic old.”
Cauvin’s Trump fame has coincided with that of another presidential satirist, Sarah Cooper. Her viral TikTok videos, in which she lip-syncs along to Trump’s actual words, earned her a Netflix special. The two artists have been yoked together, sometimes unfairly, causing a few uncomfortable moments for Cauvin, who has made the mistake of engaging some of Cooper’s more zealous supporters on Twitter.
“I blew up in March and what happened to her in late April was like to the third power of what happened to me,” he said. “In May, people were saying, ‘You two are funny.’ Then it became who does a better impression. Because I’m in it, I have to be more restrained, and I’ve probably done a bad job at that. But I can’t be my own advocate because then you become a jealous hater.”
Cauvin, who’s of mixed-race heritage (Haitian on his father’s side, Irish on his mother’s), didn’t appreciate the accusations that followed. “By June, even though I had been seen by 10 million people, a lot more people had seen her. And I was getting, ‘You’re stealing. She did it first.’ And then the one thing that really bugged me was several people saying, ‘A white guy stealing from a Black woman,’ which I guess is the triple crown of social justice. Accusing a white man of stealing from a Black woman, you get an extra merit badge at whatever meeting you’re headed to. That offended me personally, creatively and chronologically.”
A friend advised him not to be drawn into the Twitter fray. But something else was bothering him: After establishing himself as “the go-to guy of 2020 for Trump,” Cauvin said he felt like he was being “eclipsed.”
“I’ve had a great year,” he insisted. “And I will continue to have a great year compared to any year I’ve had in entertainment or just working, as it turns out. But there’s a great year, and then there’s becoming a pop culture figure.”
Cauvin’s vision for his career, to be a special event headliner at comedy clubs and to have a sketch show, hasn’t fundamentally changed. His ear for comedy is as sharply evident in his writing as it is in his impressions, but performing has come first. The idea of being a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” was an early dream, but he’s fairly certain that ship has sailed.
“What a weird world that now my best chance to get on ‘SNL’ is to become an A-list celebrity and host,” he said.” ‘SNL’ is an institution, but ‘In Living Color’ was just as big an inspiration. That show was like a comet across the sky of sketch comedy. I could see myself doing a modern ‘In Living Color.’ That sounds so arrogant! Like saying, ‘I could see myself being a Jim Carrey meets the Rock kind of entertainer.’ I mean, who am I kidding? But a show like ‘In Living Color’ would be the goal.”
A graduate of Williams College and Georgetown University Law Center, Cauvin brings elite credentials to the comedy world. He’s self-deprecating about his legal resume, having prioritized stand-up over writing briefs. But he has high regard for another comedian with a similar background: the late Greg Giraldo.
“Any comedian who went to law school knows he was a Harvard-educated lawyer who became best-known for his roasts on Comedy Central,” Cauvin said. “He was such a smart comedian, but not smart in a Dennis Miller way. Not to denigrate Miller, but it wasn’t about references or being well read. It was about synthesizing a point of view into digestible, hilarious comedy. He was somebody.”
Fellow comics have on occasion been a target of Cauvin’s comedy. He made a video mocking the reverential hype around Louis C.K. before all the unseemly scandal, and more recently, Cauvin took aim at the serious turn in Dave Chappelle’s stand-up, imagining Chappelle doing a set of nonstop tragedy.
“Since I’ve had a career of frustration, I’ve sometimes taken it upon myself to be a public editor of stand-up comedy,” he said. “But I was going after Louis C.K. when he was unblemished, the undisputed king of comedy. Comedians never stop tiring of saying, ‘Hey, if I want to mock the pope or talk about cancer, that’s what comedians do.’ They’re very righteous free speech warriors, until you make a joke about comedy, and then it becomes ‘that’s off limits’ or ‘you’re a hater.’ But I’m not picking on the comedian down the block who’s making 20 bucks for a spot. I’m going after A-list celebrities.”
Cauvin described himself “as a borderline libertarian when it comes to comedy.” Crossing the line is part of the vitality. And it’s a point of pride for him that he refuses to “let the audience off the hook” by sharing that he has a Black parent before tackling race in his stand-up. The material, he believes, must stand on its own.
He still admires Billy Crystal’s impression of Sammy Davis Jr., even though he knows that blackface will get you canceled today. “I never had a problem with what he did, but I know that some people would look at me with my mostly white features and say, ‘Well, are you really the person to decide what’s OK?’ But can I decide for me? Then you get into the question of whether I’m Black enough to decide where I draw my line. I’ve been called a white guy 50 times in a derogatory way on social media this year.”
The policing of comedy is far more rabid on Twitter than it is in the clubs. Cauvin’s attitude remains defiantly laissez faire, though the lawyer in him can’t help seeing the other side of the argument.
“Am I giving permission to the angriest right-wing comedian who wants to get up there and say every racial slur and use comedy as a defense?” he said. “I don’t want to have his back. But like many constitutional issues, sometimes you have to give permission to the worst so that things can thrive.”
Trump may be leaving the White House, but he’s not about to concede the spotlight anytime soon. Cauvin recognizes that the character will have to remain in his quiver, but he vows to be more deliberate in his usage.
“I told people I would have quit the impression if he won again,” he said. “I’m not tired of doing the Trump videos, and I have some sketch stuff coming out before the inauguration of Joe Biden. But it feels like a show that I’ve been doing for a long time, and it’s ready for a finale.”
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