The I Told You Show
Anthony Atamanuik’s Take on Trump, The Election, and Where It All Went Wrong
Anthony Atamanuik knew this would happen.
An old school satirist with a twisted edge, he’s built a reputation portraying the most divisive figure of the free world: Donald Trump. Over the past year and a half, he’s toured the country with his show Trump Dump and the critically acclaimed Trump vs. Bernie Debate Tour. After the countless hours he’s accrued studying Trump’s every gesture and tick, he’s become somewhat of an expert, and his I Told You Show unleashes that expertise for those of us who want answers.
The show is in its infancy—only two runs in New York before it came to Boston on January 27, 2017. The Massachusetts Native took to the stage at his alma mater, Emerson College, to continue building the work in progress. What ensued was a string of anecdotes so winding and impassioned, it felt as though Atamanuik had pulled you into conversation at a bar, beckoning with stories you had to hear to believe.
He told us about attending a Trump rally (in full costume and makeup, mind you) and coming face-to-face with the reality his liberal friends were laughing off: this guy was winning. “When you looked out into the crowds, everyone was clapping and yelling as hard as they could, but no one was smiling” he said. “That’s when I knew he was going to win.”
In the show’s final moments, things turned dark as Atamanuik dropped the jokes and spoke bluntly. “You see that?” he pointed, as the television screen held the frozen image of President Trump timidly waving to a sea of journalists, “This is a man who's scared. And do you know what a narcissistic, scared man does?” Now, no one was laughing— “They kill everybody.”
Sharp, witty, and brutally honest, this show chiseled out a new perspective in the election’s post-mortem. Atamanuik was kind enough to sit down with me afterwards to chat even more about what he’s done, and what comes next.
Allison Raynor: When did you start thinking about doing this show, was it before or after the election?
Anthony Atamanuik: It was the day after the election, and I had a show that night and I didn’t know what to do. I was up for forty-eight hours at that point, and it was supposed to be a show where I played Hillary Clinton. That was the joke, that I’d be playing her now, but because she lost that joke didn’t really work. So I thought I’m just going to talk about things, I’m too tired. I went over to the UCB Chelsea and did this show that was just me talking extemporaneously, and I called it the ‘I told you show’ onstage.
Allison: So it grew from a bit?
Allison: Once you had more time to let it form in your mind, was there a certain conversation you were looking to have with the audience?
Anthony: I wanted it to be a warning. It’s a warning for people to not be precious about their beliefs, to fight that instinct for everyone to go to their corners. We’re all doing exactly what happens when things get bad: we’re turning on each other and blaming each other as opposed to having some cold hard dispassionate examination of what went on. And I really have no interest in taking on Trump’s people. I’m not going to convince them of anything; my job is to challenge and provoke my own ilk. Not only were we [on the left] complacent, but we were also snobby and elitist and full of ourselves, full of our righteousness. I don’t think that worked for us.
Allison: So clearly you’re taking a stance, but not necessarily a stance on one side—rather, a stance within a side, that of your peers on the left.
Anthony: Yes, and I welcome people to come up and disagree. The thing that’s great about this whole show is that a lot of it is researched and intelligent, and some of it grew from me reading one thing and talking out my ass about it. I’m hoping to crowdsource it. I would love for audience members to come up and say “No, that’s not true,” or “What you said, I don’t agree with and this is why.” Sometimes it’s good comedic fodder for taking apart somebody, and sometimes it’s good because I look like the fool.
I see myself as a living editorial cartoon. I’m a bomb thrower, an agitator.
Allison: When you were doing shows before the election for liberal audiences, Trump’s candidacy was a big joke for many. Now it’s become a cold hard reality. How has the tone of the room changed?
Anthony: Where I saw Trump Dump as a show, I see this as more of a lecture or a class. It’s not that I won’t continue to do Trump, and do Trump in different ways, but in the other show I was like a wrestling villain; it was all an abstraction because it wasn’t real. The experience I went through in the past year and half both confirmed some ideas I had, and taught me some new ones I didn’t know. All the different experiences I had on the campaign trail, meeting different people from different walks of life, that’s an important part of telling that story. So yeah, it’s definitely a lot more smiling, nodding, and people shaking their head than overt laughter—though I try to do enough things that will be entertaining so it’s not so dire.
Allison: There’s a wide artistic response when political tension comes to a head, everything from cartoons and movies to public art pieces and sit-ins. Where do you see yourself in that spectrum, or do you consider yourself an observer?
Anthony: I’m definitely a participant. I see myself as a living editorial cartoon. I’m a bomb thrower, an agitator. That’s what I want to see myself as. I hope I am. I wish I could take it to the president and make him reflect on his behavior, even if all I do is mock and undermine. I think we have to work around him, and one of the best ways to do that is to make him irrelevant. Then we can figure out how we’re going to run the country until we can get him out.
Allison: It sounds two-fold, the overt satire of the system coupled with taking your liberal audiences to task. How do you juggle those two elements in one show?
Anthony: I enjoy a challenge, and I enjoy getting the audience upset. You need the ability to get people to take the medicine without it being too painful, and to show there’s nothing wrong with laughing at yourself. And I’m not speaking from a place of perfection, I’m speaking from a place of confession. I’m just confessing how I am and I know there’s got to be other people like me, and if we confess who we are to each other we’re more likely to overcome the blind spots that insulate us from our own inaction.
I think it’s an artist’s job to do whatever they want to do—but I’m sure what will happen is that there’ll be more art that is satirical, more music that is political, as there always is in times of strife. Art tends to reflect those issues.
Allison: Over the next four years, there will of course be more and more satire and commentary aimed at this presidency. What do you expect or demand of yourself and other artists in terms of how this work is crafted?
Anthony: In terms of art, I have no demands other than on myself. I’m only responsible for my little corner of the world. I think it’s an artist’s job to do whatever they want to do—but I’m sure what will happen is that there’ll be more art that is satirical, more music that is political, as there always is in times of strife. Art tends to reflect those issues. Though, I’ll say this requirement: If you don’t want to wade into controversy, stay out of politics and social issues. If you’re a softball, be a softball. The people who are like “I don’t really have an opinion, but…”—no, if you want to do it, you have to own it. You can’t do both. That’s the one thing I’d say.
Allison: Lastly, whether your audiences like it or not, what do you hope to instill in their minds? What do you implore them to remember?
Anthony: Our whole failsafe of a system has been proven false. If someone like Trump can be president, that proves that the whole system is an illusion. I hope they take away a feeling of being both disturbed and encouraged. I hope they think “Oh God, no,” and then feel compelled to do something. Even if they vehemently disagree with everything I say, or think what I did was offensive or what have you. If their motivation as they step away from it is to do something, I did my job.