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Saturday Night Live welcomes world’s ‘best Trump impersonator’ for its 47th season

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Of all the things America has learned over the past 5 years or so, good or bad, one given remains true: Trump sells. Just ask CNN.

Or Saturday Night Live. The NBC late-night live television comedy and variety show enjoyed a nice ratings boost when caustic actor Alec Baldwin portrayed the 45th president of the United States — at least, until the act wore thin, lacking any creative growth from Baldwin. He was rewarded with an Emmy in 2017 for his politically motivated impersonation, but declared in 2019, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Well, SNL creator Lorne Michael has found the answer. The show is reportedly adding a comedian to its cast who is considered the world’s best impersonator of Donald Trump, announcing Monday that James Austin Johnson would be joining the SNL cast for its 47th season, which premiers this coming weekend.

Comedian Aristotle Athari and actor Sarah Sherman are also new additions to the show’s ensemble.

In a Nov. 2020 interview with Vanity Fair, Johnson pointed to a Scooby-Doo video impersonation he did that really got the ball rolling — the comedian looks nothing like Trump and makes no effort to adjust his appearance, but his voice is a dead-on ringer.

“I had a day job where I was folding clothes with other stand-up comedians and touring musicians, and we were all in this merch warehouse together. That’s really where I got a lot of my Trump takes from. It was like being around friends,” Johnson said. “There’s a social aspect to it, that we’ll just be chitchatting about something, having a conversation at work. That’s where the Scooby-Doo one came from.

“That was just some lunch break horsing around,” he added. “I literally ran out to get sandwiches in downtown L.A. and bring them back, and while I was walking back to my truck, I just started doing that video. And that’s probably the best one, circulation-wise.”

Getting his start as a teenage stand-up comedian in clubs around Nashville, Tenn., it wasn’t until Johnson got to Los Angeles that he began to perfect his Trump impression, according to Vanity Fair.

“When he first got elected and I was playing with the voice in 2016, 2017, it would show my sort of left-wing anger a lot. I would be like, ‘We’re going to kill everybody. We’re blowing up everybody’s houses I don’t like,’” Johnson recalled, imitating Trump’s voice. “I’d be more openly racist and homophobic as Trump.”

Johnson would explain that the response wasn’t that great to direct mimicry, which prompted him to start using his honed Trump voice to talk about more abstract topics.

One such example being his “Pokemon” bit:

“As it developed and got more sounding like him, the bar would go silent. Not necessarily laughing, which is very rare for that room. Either it’s talking and laughing, or it’s silent and laughing. But it’s never silent and silent,” he said. “I noticed that people were listening and not liking what they were hearing when I was repeating what Trump said or heightening it—making it more vicious to people, darker.”

Johnson rules out using written material, which may create angst for SNL writers looking to skewer Trump — how this stance applies to the show remains to be seen.

“I think I might have written out a couple of things a couple of times, and I just noticed that those wouldn’t take off online and it was missing some mojo of what makes Trump Trump,” he said. “And those are the Trump impressions that I hate. When I go online and I watch other people’s Trump impressions, they’re so written out, with these written-out jokes. It just doesn’t sound like Trump.”

He said his version of Trump “is not written out, and he’s not rehearsed.”

“I tend to hover around Rally Trump, and there’s absolutely no rehearsal there. I pick a pop-culture topic, usually something that is an actual opinion I actually hold,” Johnson explained.

And while the comedian “clearly” doesn’t support Trump, as VF noted, he doesn’t mind riding his coattails to fame and fortune.

“If it’s Trump that gets people to follow me on Twitter and Instagram, I’ll take it. I’m just going to keep putting up other sh*t,” he said. “I bet Modest Mouse doesn’t hate that they had that ‘Float On’ song. They have a bunch of weird guitar music that if all you know is ‘Float On,’ hey, that’s great. But if it brings people into their weird music, I look at it that way.”

Tom Tillison

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