One night last October, as this election cycle's strange, topsy-turvy presidential campaign was just beginning to warm up, two comedians took the stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York to stage a fake debate.
At one podium stood James Adomian as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, wearing two white wigs stuck to the sides of his head and railing passionately about "the top 1% of the top 10% of the top 1% of the top 10% of the top 1% of the top 10%." At the other, Anthony Atamanuik, his face slathered with bronzer and a Make America Great Again baseball hat on his head, played real estate mogul Donald Trump, boasting, "I'm killing everyone in the polls — and if I'm elected president, I'll kill everyone. I promise you that."
For the pair, the faux presidential face-off was just a one-off lark, a way to have fun with two of the race's most fascinating and comedically ripe figures. But when they posted a clip of the show on YouTube, it quickly took off, racking up hundreds of thousands of views.
"It turned out we had touched on something that people were starved for," Adomian said in Los Angeles in April on the day of the New York primary. "It's like watching a clash between the light-side and dark-side Jedi."
The real Trump and Sanders have never squared off in a one-on-one debate, of course — and if the trajectory of this presidential campaign continues the way pundits are projecting, they likely never will. But for the past six months, Atamanuik and Adomian have been filling that gap, albeit in a bizarro-world fashion, taking their "Trump vs Bernie" show to comedy clubs across the country and to the airwaves. In March, the two debated on the Comedy Central show "@midnight," tackling such pressing national issues as pornography for the elderly and the lack of a social safety net for ghosts — an episode that has been watched nearly 4 million times on YouTube.
On May 11, the millennial-skewing, multiplatform channel Fusion — which aired a "Trump vs Bernie" debate special this week — will run a one-hour sketch show, "Trump vs Bernie: Shout the Vote," with Adomian and Atamanuik playing the candidates as well as Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, respectively. Meanwhile, the two are preparing to kick off a two-month tour that will take them to venues around the country and in Europe.
For Atamanuik and Adomian, who have known each other and occasionally performed improv together since 2008, the whole thing has been an unforeseen but happy accident. "I think it was just a good bet at a roulette table," said Atamanuik, who co-hosts a weekly improv show at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and has appeared on such TV series as "30 Rock" and "Broad City. "It was like a small business. We built it a piece at a time."
That isn't to say the satire isn't animated by genuine personal convictions. Though there is plenty of cutting mockery to go around in their mock debates, both comedians are Sanders supporters. "Bernie has been my favorite politician for a long time," said Adomian, who over the years has done impressions of the likes of Orson Welles, Jesse Ventura and George W. Bush. And both share a clear sense of fear and loathing when it comes to Trump.
"He has some pretty dangerous ideas, and I just try to live inside his mind-set and take who he is and what he says to its ultimate end," said Atamanuik.
Satirizing a political campaign that is unfolding in real time is tricky business, of course, and that goes double for one as wild and unpredictable as this year's has been. Though Adomian and Atamanuik return to certain riffs and punch lines from debate to debate, the two are constantly perusing the latest election news and adding material to keep the show fresh and push the absurdity into uncharted territory.
"It's, like, why not have Bernie Sanders talk about Super Mario Bros.?" Adomian said, laughing. "It's fun to figure out how the math would work. If Bernie is going to talk about Super Mario Bros., it's going to be from a class-consciousness, economic-reform framework: 'I was endorsed by the Plumbers Union!'"
With the dynamics of the race continually in flux, Fusion's decision to jump on the "Bernie vs Trump" train this spring wasn't easy. On the one hand, Fusion's young, politically engaged and left-leaning audience made "Trump vs Bernie" a natural fit. On the other hand, Sanders' increasingly difficult odds in the race meant time was of the essence.
"It was super-stressful," said Bryan Carmel, the vice president of development at Fusion, who is working to bring more comedy to the channel. "By the time we started really talking about doing this, Bernie was starting to taper a little bit, and we were really hoping he wouldn't flame out. I can imagine that probably scared some other networks away. It was a leap of faith."
Having closely studied Trump and Sanders for months, Atamanuik and Adomian have honed their impressions to incorporate more and more of the candidates' nuances. "Bernie is like a condensed essence of every student's smartass impression of a college professor boiled down into one person," Adomian said. "He's stooped and messy. He wears a suit but he looks like he sleeps in it. And he has amazing hand gestures — there's what he's saying with his voice and then there's this separate monologue of what he's saying with his hands."
As for Trump, Atamanuik said, "The key is that he's like a rich, chubby, pre-pubescent boy. Yeah, there's the pouty lips and the bluster, but there are so many different expressions he does. He breathes deeply in through his nose to punctuate things that are important. When he's bored, he opens his mouth and breathes into the microphone. He likes to grab the mic like he's holding a martini glass."
By its very nature, political satire tends to have a limited shelf life, but Adomian and Atamanuik say they'll continue debating as Trump and Sanders as long as they can. "We're in it until the convention, just like the candidates are," Adomian said.