Chicago improv alum puts on his best Pence for ‘The President Show’
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You may not have heard about the time Donald Trump asked Mike Pence to help conceal a sack of neckwear gifted to him by Vladimir Putin, and the vice president snapped that he wanted no part of “covering up your Russian ties.”
That’s because it happened not in the White House but on “The President Show,” a parallel universe in which Trump (played by comedian Anthony Atamanuik) hosts a late-night talk show from the Oval Office, and Pence is his Ed McMahon-like sidekick.
The weekly Comedy Central series (10:30 p.m. Thursdays) imagines that Trump processes his enormous workload by giving Johnny Carson-like monologues in front of the press corps, bantering with Pence from behind his historic desk and interviewing celebrities from Mar-a-Lago.
The real Trump “certainly is providing a lot of inspiration,” said Peter Grosz, a product of Chicago’s improv scene who is one of the show’s executive producers. “And agitation! He’s giving the whole country agita and he’s giving us material.”
Grosz also plays Pence, despite bearing little resemblance to the WASPy VP. He can’t disagree with a colleague’s assessment that “I’m the bagel to Mike Pence’s corn muffin.”
From his place on the “President Show” couch, Grosz’s Pence dutifully serves up agreement on most of what his boss says, McMahon-style. But flashes of complicity and resentment sometimes surface.
“He’s kind of like a combination of Ned Flanders from ‘The Simpsons’ in his pious, milquetoast boringness,” Grosz said, “and also Smithers from ‘The Simpsons’ in his obsequiousness and suck-up-ness.
“But I think recently, as the news has shown us, that Pence is potentially just as implicated in all these scandals as anyone else. I mean, he seems to have known throughout the transition of a lot of the shady things that were going on. So now we’re sort of toying with a guy who thought he was taking a step up into the big leagues who’s getting a lot more than he bargained for. Maybe sold his soul a little bit to become vice president.”
Grosz grew up outside New York but spent his college years at Northwestern, where he performed with a young Seth Meyers. Excited about the promise of improv, he stayed put in Chicago after graduation, eventually touring with Second City and co-starring in four shows at its e.t.c. theater.
While in town, he passed an audition for what would be his biggest claim to fame to date: the series of Sonic commercials in which he and T.J. Jagodowski (a Chicagoan then and now) improvise about the drive-in’s various menu offerings. That gig continues some 15 years later.
After returning to New York, he landed writing jobs working for two fellow Northwestern grads: Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report,” and later Meyers on “Late Night.” While improvising at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, he got to know Atamanuik, who had worked up a Trump impersonation and spent much of the 2016 campaign touring the country spoofing the future president.
When Atamanuik and actor-writer Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”) dreamed up the “President Show” idea after the election, they recruited Grosz to come aboard and contribute his talk-show expertise.
Along the way, he said, “It was just kind of presented to me like, ‘Oh, you should be Mike Pence and you should be the sidekick!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, OK. That sounds really fun.’ “
Because Trump is such a showy role for Atamaniuk, Grosz chooses to underplay Pence as contrast, adjusting his voice very little for the character. But he wears a wig and some padding while on camera.
“Pence is a lot thicker than me,” Grosz said. “He’s got this sort of like linebacker-from-the-1960s body from back when a linebacker could be 220 pounds.”
Five episodes in, “The President Show” is not only a hit — Comedy Central brags that ratings in the time slot are up 25 percent from what “The Nightly Show” scored there a year ago — but also weirdly prescient.
From Week One, Atamanuik has opened the show by barking, “I’m the president, can you believe it?,” a phrase Trump himself then proclaimed while celebrating the House’s passage of his health care bill. And one recent episode featured the fake Trump mesmerized by a glowing blob of flesh, much like the orb that had the real president transfixed in Saudi Arabia.
Initially ordered for six episodes, “The President Show” has been extended to run through August. Grosz advises viewers to look for even more audacious comedy and perhaps even a more ambitious lineup of guests.
“We sort of are stretching and asking for the moon and seeing if we can get Hillary Clinton on the show at some point,” he said. “That’d be pretty amazing.”