James Adomian is a writer / performer from Los Angeles. He is also the headliner of this year's Austin Sketch Fest! He was nice enough to chat with one of our producers about his process and his now famous Bernie Sanders impression. Read about it all in this edition of the ASF Hot Seat.
AJ: When did you start doing comedy? What brought you to the comedy scene?
JA: I was never not doing comedy, I started as soon as I could which was arguably high school. For real though when I was 19 started taking classes at the Groundling (an improv and sketch comedy theater / conservatory) in Los Angeles where I grew up. When I was 23 I started doing stand up, I kind of walked away from it for a few years, but I got into it early and got back into it in my later twenties. Then when the Upright Citizens Brigade opened in L.A., when I was 25, I jumped on that very quickly and for a while I did Groundlings and UCB, two different styles or forms of improv and sketch training, and then after a certain time I was just just doing stuff at UCB. Then when I was 28 I started doing stand-up again. I did it as kind of just something fun to do and to be able to perform as myself, as opposed to as characters, and then that turned into a big part of my career. After that I'd kind of go back and forth, with stuff in character, which could be a live show in costume, could be a podcast, could be my acting work or my cartoon work and then also do a lot of stuff as myself, stand up most notably, talk shows. Some of those are improvised and some of them are scripted. I have a background in a lot of different styles. and I draw on trainings in various types of comedy in what I do day to day.
AJ: Is there anything specifically from your training at UCB / The Groundlings that you brought over to your stand up?
JA: Yes, if something goes wrong I know what to do. Not even if something goes wrong that's my fault, like some heckler in the audience, you know. Like if the lighting in the room is bad, address it organically. If some loud service is happening, which often happens, you can handle it without freaking out. Improv is very useful to know how to do that. And then out of nowhere when we Did the Trump vs Bernie last year we did a lot of improv, we got back into it.
AJ: What was the what was the process for Trump vs Bernie like? I know it started at Whiplash in New York
and I know you had been doing Bernie before that but when you and Anthony (Anthony Atamanuik) came together at that Whiplash show what was that conversation like? Did you say "Let's just do the things see what happens." and then it kind of spawned from there?
JA: Yeah exactly. I had know Tony pretty well from when I lived in New York for a couple years, but I had not seen a lot of them lately. Then I heard he was playing Donald Trump and I was like "My God" I've got to see Tony's Donald Trump impression. Because, knowing Tony, it's going to be insane. Then I was going to New York and figured, "What's a better way to see someone work than to do a show with them." So I said "Hey Tony, let's do a Trump vs Bernie debate", and he set it up at Whiplash and he was smart enough to have it filmed, and it took off from there.
AJ: Yeah, I've lived in New York before moving to Austin and was at the ASSSSCAT (a long running show at the UCB Theater in which Anthony performs regularly) where Tony did the Trump for the first time and it was kind of this crazy thing where you wouldn't, from looking at Tony, put it together that he would do a perfect Trump, but once he started doing it was crazy! Then after I moved I saw that video of you guys and it just made perfect sense.
JA: Yes so that was a wild wild ride last year doing that. I'm actually going to do Bernie on the T.V. show. Surprise or not.
Editors note: at the time of this interview, this was a surprise!
AJ: I was going to ask if that was in the works. That's exciting!
JA: Yeah I'm definitely going to be on as Bernie and maybe more characters.
AJ: I personally I would love to see Jesse Ventura on that show.
JA: Me too. Well, if he gets renewed there will be time for me to do everything.
AJ: What is your creative process like? How do you generate ideas? What is your biggest inspiration for ideas?
JA: I'm constantly thinking of ideas without trying very hard. That make it sound like I'm some kind of savant, which I'm not saying. I pay attention, I pay attention to what's wrong with the world, what doesn't make sense. I listen very closely to the way people talk and what they say. Whether it's someone I know, whether it's someone whose a friend of mine or is very close to me, or someone in the news that I don't know, but I have very strong feelings about or something going on in the world. I just listen very closely, and I look for things that make me laugh and whatever makes me laugh I try to remember or I write it down or I text to friends who I write with and that's how it works.
AJ: When you're starting to do an impression or a character, specifically with Bernie and Jesse, what were the things that you heard in their voice or in their cases, their personality that hooked you to those characters?
JA: Well sometimes I will know about someone for years before I ever do the impression. Like Jesse Ventura I've known about since I was a child as a wrestler and a wrestling announcer. And then I saw him again, and loved him, when he ran for Governor and won, that was when I was eighteen. Then with Bernie, I've known about Bernie since when he was the congressman from Vermont, and I loved him and also thought he was kind of a funny character with his complete disregard for personal hygiene. I've never smelled a guy, so maybe that's unfair to say, but by the looks of the guy he has no concern for what he looks like. I think when he started running for president, enough people were making fun of his hair that he finally trimmed his hair short, but for many years it was just this wild mop of cotton candy. And I mean I think he's right on with what he says not only with what I agree with, but what most of the country believes in, but never gets turned into policy. So there are may aspects of Bernie that are attractive to me; the guy / figure who is correct for the times that they live in but somehow ignored, not paid attention to, and also his personal appearance, he has a very thick Brooklyn accent, not only a Brooklyn Accent but and old-timey Brooklyn accent from the forties. He's just Incredibly interesting, his ideas are interesting, his appearance is interesting, his voice is interesting, everything about it is interesting, so over the years that makes it even appealing for me. I'll watch him on the news, I don't watch a lot of TV, but when I do, like in a hotel room, I watch it intensely. So, you know, whenever I see Bernie Sanders on TV or something, I'm paying attention, I'm listening to him and whatever makes me laugh about him, same with Jesse Ventura, same with anybody. And it might be years before I feel like there's a moment or an opportunity to do it in front of an audience. And with Bernie, I had always thought that with Bernie he was too obscure to do an impression of and then when I saw he was running for president I was like "I'm jumping on this" so soon as he announced he was running for president, I started doing the Bernie Sanders impression.
AJ: I remember you doing him on Comedy Bang Bang and I didn't know who he was at that time.
JA: Yeah. I think what's actually funny is a lot of people first heard of him from my appearance on those podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang and Harmontown and In the early round of for appearances, it's kind of crazy, I've heard from thousands of people I did it's very standard. It's it's kind of crazy to think that, and I've heard from thousands of people, that they first time they heard about Bernie was from me. And that's awesome.