James Austin Johnson is a comedian and actor from Tennessee. After coming up on the evangelical Christian comedy circuit (which is a thing!), he moved to L.A. to try to make it in the mainstream. Along the way, he developed one of the sharpest, funniest, dead-on impressions of Donald Trump I’ve ever seen, and saw his politics switch from the viewpoints he grew up around to something far more to the left.
What makes Johnson’s Trump work is that he doesn’t try to push political positions on the character; instead, he lets the idiocy and depravity of the man shine through in nonsensical ramblings about pop culture and other topics.
I chatted with Johnson over the phone earlier this week about what it’s like trying to lampoon one of the evilest most ridiculous and figures in U.S. history.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you start working on the impression?
I probably started working on it in 2015. I’ve always been a voices guy. I sort of specialize in disgusting or old or creepy old men typically and especially, uh, monsters and canceled people. My friends joke that as soon as I perfect an impression the guy gets canceled.
I come from a super conservative Christian background and up until pretty recently was still involved with that world, and now I’m not. I cover a lot of those kinds of subjects in my standup.
Definitely coming from that background, with all my family and half of my friends coming from that perspective, [it] definitely felt kind of like, oh shit: my world is being taken over by a fucking monster, like a guy who doesn’t represent a single one of our values. And I just couldn’t escape the guy. Since he came down the staircase at Trump Tower, he’s just dominated every minute of every day.
It was almost like a comedy duty to hone in on Trump. If you see some of my videos from 2015, it’s a terrible impression, but I really just had five years of being stuck in LA traffic and hearing his voice on, on NPR, just trying it out until I found the contours of his voice.
As someone who has also listened to hours and hours of Trump, your impression is one of the best I’ve heard. What are you doing vocally that makes things kind click into place?
He has a lot of shit in his throat. So it was about boosting sort of the distortion in my throat and cranking up the, um, ambient kind of gross throat noise. There’s like a hissy breathy croak in his throat. Also he has just totally blown out the top half of his head, like kind of his entire upper respiratory system with cocaine and crushed up the British Sudafed and everything all the time and, uh, screaming at 21-year-olds to take off their clothes and everything he does all day. So he’s sort of trashed his nose and his throat. So I try to close off certain nasal passages.
Everyone Gen X and up it seems fixates on the wealthy Trump of the eighties. That’s what I hear kind of all the hack Trump impressions doing, the old eighties Trump, the womanizer. [In a smoother Trump voice]: She’s a very beautiful woman. She’s got great legs and, you know, I’m hoping we get really close with it. I think it’d be really nice to get to know her. [In his normal voice]: And that’s not who Trump is now. Like, he’s the devil. And he’s old. That’s the main thing I focus on, is that this is a rasping old man who is inches from death at any moment. He’s dying. He’s inches from death and Billy Crystal has come out with the bellows from the Princess Bride and they pumped him full of steroids and give him a big shot in his ass, and he’s hanging on for dear life every moment of the day.
It seems like a lot of the traditional comedy world has kind of struggled to get a handle on Trump because the traditional, like, “look at this doofus” just doesn’t really seem to land with him. Why is Trump such a difficult person to lampoon?
Well, it’s hard to spoof a spoof, right? It’s like, Spaceballs is hilarious, but if you tried to make one of those Not Another Teen Movie‘s about Spaceballs, you’re doing a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. Trump is hilarious. So you’re trying to parody something that is already a parody of society.
The other thing is he’s very popular with people who think the mainstream and the media is against them. I grew up being raised [to believe] that Hollywood was the devil and that liberals are trying to like, murder babies. I was told a very simple worldview. Trump manages to uncomplicate the world for a lot of people. I’m on the phone with literal Trump voters once a week, you know, just talking to my own family. They don’t give a shit about, he fucks porn stars and he fucks around on his wife. They don’t care about any of his earthly sins. He repeats their own values back to them. And all they want to see is their values reflected in the world. The fact that we don’t all see Trump in the same light could be a reason for why a lot of the Trump comedy doesn’t hit.
I try to just highlight that he’s a bullshitter. Whenever I ramble in that Trump voice, I’m hoping to just sort of subtly illustrate, like, this guy just has no idea what he’s talking about. He just talks out of his ass and he’s pure Americana. He is confidence without substance. He gives voice to that angry confidence and he doesn’t have to be right. So, you know, whether or not my takes about Scooby Doo are correct or not, that’s besides the point.
How did you decide to go for this sort of absurdist approach, as opposed to trying to imitate something he would actually talk about?
Before COVID, when I was doing my Trump bits in front of people, I could sort of feel when, if I was getting a little bit more serious about how he makes me feel, how he makes me feel separate from the Christians in my life, how he makes me feel queasy about the rise of fascism — I just felt the audience pulling back. It doesn’t make anybody feel good. I mean, he doesn’t even make his supporters feel good. They feel like they’re under attack all the time.
Ultimately my job as a comedian is more important than my feelings as a former evangelical or a leftist or whatever it is. I have a job to do, which is to make the maximum amount of people in the room happy for a moment and take them on a vacation from reality.
It’s just cathartic for me to sort of take this Trump toy out and play with it and be silly with it. It defangs it a little bit, robs it a little bit of its mystique and power and I mean, as we’re aware, he hates being made fun of. So I think I just find a sweet spot between how stupid he is and not bringing up the political realities that make us feel so queasy all day.