Anytime a current or former Saturday Night Live star appears on Late Night With Seth Meyers, there’s going to be some shop talk. Specifically, there are going to be dueling Lorne Michaels impressions, as Meyers and, in this case, James Austin Johnson reminisce about Michaels’ infamous habit of never actually telling anyone they’re hired.
“Mysterious, and cryptic, and warm at the same time, somehow” is how the fast-tracked SNL featured player described his initial interactions with Michaels, who typically talked (and talked) about seemingly everything but whether the auditioning Johnson was about to face telling his then 6 months pregnant wife they were moving to New York in the middle of a pandemic (and a New York winter). Meyers sympathized, doing his own Michaels impression as he recalled emerging after his own pre-hire meeting and parsing Michaels’ ambiguous, “Obviously, we’ll need to see how you look in wigs” for clues as to whether he had a job.
Still, unlike Meyers, who claimed to have gotten in two sketches his first year on Saturday Night Live, Johnson eventually discovered he was strapped onto the new guy bullet train when Michaels’ oblique interrogation revealed that the show was planning to have him play not just Joe Biden, but Donald Trump as well. Johnson, in fact, opened Season 47 by unveiling his Biden (his “38th” most confident impression) in the first episode’s cold open. So, no pressure there.
Johnson came onto most people’s radar thanks to his viral, stream-of-consciousness Trump, which finally made its appearance on the show a few episodes later. For Nashville native Johnson, finding the right take on the character (so called) of the former president and current seditious COVID vector, was a matter of being a little less accurate, as it turns out. Explaining that doing a spot-on Donald Trump and spouting eerily accurate, verbatim “horrific things” right from neophyte political candidate Trump’s speeches was met with unnerved/hostile silence from the bars he was performing at, Johnson told Meyers that unplugging from reality a skosh was what finally brought the bit home.
Doing a snippet of a medieval fantasy movie Trump promising to take care of the evil wizard on the hill and attack that dragon’s “soft underbelly” with the enchanted sword only he knows how to wield, Johnson demonstrated that a truly great Saturday Night Live political impression is less about finding the voice, and more about channeling a subject’s essence. That Johnson also does a technically brilliant Trump only makes the loopiness of his impersonation that much more uncanny.
For that, Johnson noted, he had to watch a whole lot of Donald Trump from over the years. (Here, Meyers denied that NBC ever aired a Donald Trump reality game show. Ever.) Explaining that a lot of his fellow faux Trumps ignore both Trump’s vocal and mental deterioration since the Home Alone 2 days, Johnson stated that “accessing the sort of dark dungeons of my throat” is key. Demonstrating how far back he has to go to replicate present-day Trump’s “gurgly” undertones, Johnson said it’s like going to a present-day Bob Dylan concert, where you can hear the entire long and sordid history of a voice all in one performance.