From Chevy Chase’s pratfalling Gerald Ford to Dana Carvey’s take on George H.W. Bush to Will Ferrell’s rendition of his son George W. Bush, “Saturday Night Live’s” portrayals of presidents have shaped the perception of the nation’s leaders.
Add James Austin Johnson to the list, as the 33-year-old now finds himself in the unique position of playing two presidents who are constantly in the headlines: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It’s his goofy vision of Trump as a mile-a-minute absurdist wisecracker that has earned him the most attention, and he’s parlayed his newfound fame into a national “The Age of JAJ” tour that brings him to The Den Theatre for four shows Friday and Saturday.
“Everyone in New York and L.A., when they watch your comedy show they’re like, ‘I could do that, but…’,” Johnson says. “There’s a love of comedy that just unique to Chicago. It coincides with the love of drinking indoors, which the great public transit makes it possible to do.
“I love that Chicagoans feel like when they go in a building that has alcohol, they can enjoy themselves because they can get home. It reminds me of the same things that I love about Canadian cities where there is an embrace of beer and giggling that you just don’t see in a lot of places.”
Johnson grew up — and still spends the off-season — in Nashville, where he recalls his first celebrity impression consisting of bobbing his head around like Stevie Wonder whenever they put sunglasses on him at 3 years old. He now does “30 to 40” impressions in his performing repertoire, and in addition he goofs on lots of singers offstage.
He started performing stand-up at 14 but only added impressions to his act five years ago, when he realized that he found a way to parody Trump in a way that stood out from the takes by Alec Baldwin and others. Yet his interpretation evolved over time before he landed the “SNL” job in 2021.
“I started doing a really, really [bad] version of him in 2016, because it takes a little bit to find the hook and you need a hook, a keyword or phrase or sort of something that gets you into the mindset and the speech pattern of the character,” explains Johnson. “At some point, I just stopped saying the things he actually said. Sixty-five percent of the country, when they hear him talk, it chilled them to the bone and were just reminded of the bane of their existence.”
Johnson cracked the code by realizing that while he hated Trump’s political positions, he needed to find something he actually liked about the former president and work from that perspective while satirizing him.
“I figured out that I had to abstract it and move it into the dumb world and make it silly and stupid and do actual comedy. The thing I found I like about Donald Trump is he’s a funny guy, just look at his speeches,” he says. “Then I just started having Trump talk about Radiohead and ‘Final Fantasy VII’ wizards and stuff like that. I used the Trump speech patterns and it was something about harnessing the way that he talks and the way that he sounds, but totally divorcing it from things he would actually talk about.
“No matter how much you like or dislike him, your opinion about him doesn’t affect a thing in the world. It doesn’t affect his policies or his popularity. So why am I trying to preach, why am I trying to tell people how to feel about him? What the hell do I know? I should just be silly and helping us laugh and shrug through a really crazy period of history.”