James Adomian on The Underculture, Impressions, and Bernie Sanders
From a fateful sitdown with Bernie Sanders to a neverending guest list of comedians, the host of “The Underculture” is using celebrity impressions to help make sense of the world.
Comedy podcasts tend to fall into one of two categories: ones with a living room couch vibe, featuring two or more people chatting, and those that find comedians transforming themselves into an entirely new reality. There’s definitely more of the first kind, but even rarer is the one that finds a meaningful way to combine the two.
“It’s like a little director’s commentary at the end of the podcast,” Adomian told IndieWire. “Right before we started recording when I was at South by Southwest, I suddenly realized that what would really work is if you’re in character for most of the podcast and then at the end of it, you do an interview as real people.”
Each episode of “The Underculture” is built like a fake public affairs show, with Adomian as the host playing “leaked audio” from notable names across the decades. In those “secret” recordings, Adomian gets the chance to dip into his seemingly endless magician’s bag of impressions, ranging from Orson Welles to fellow podcast host Marc Maron to philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
After years of appearances slipping into various personas on “Comedy Bang Bang,” “Chapo Trap House,” and a number of TV series he lends his voice to, another main impetus for “The Underculture” was wanting to have a single home where all those characters could live and respond to real life at a moment’s notice.
“As far as my career went, the timing just worked out,” Adomian said. “I sort of had these different followings from different people’s podcasts, and it got to the point where I thought, ‘I can’t just invite myself on someone else’s podcast all the time.’ I really need my own to be able to go on whenever something happens.”
Luckily, Adomian didn’t just have to rely on his own talents. Since the show started back in early May, he’s been able to draw on his institutional knowledge from his time as a stand-up and doing impressions at places like UCB. Some “Underculture” segments are extensions of long-running jokes between friends, while others are part of that special audio improv alchemy.
“I have a kind of catalogue in my memory and a couple of lists that go far back over the years. Whenever I see someone do an impression, I think, ‘OK, that’s good. That’s somebody to remember,’” Adomian said. “I know when someone’s enough of a virtuoso performer that they have a bunch of different stuff or they could take an assignment. Sometimes, I’ve been lucky where somebody approached me. Alice Wetterlund reached out to us and she was like, ‘Hey, I have this great Elizabeth Warren impression.’ She came in, she was great! We’ve had her on several times.”
The biggest moment so far in “The Underculture” came from different kind of unlikely surprise booking from a current presidential candidate. Adomian has co-headlined in the long-running live show “Bernie vs. Trump,” an ongoing imagined series of debates between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (played by “The President Show” star Anthony Atamanuik). When a video dropped in late November, Adomian had a slightly different scene partner: Sanders himself.
What followed was 20 minutes of Bernie Sanders, in conversation with Adomian’s Bernie Sanders. Watching the video, it’s fun to see that Adomian’s impressions aren’t just vocal ones. There’s plenty of physicality in it, too.
“You gotta trust your own instincts and trust the person you’re across from. Luckily, I already knew this, but he’s a funny guy. He had a really good sense of humor about making fun of himself,” Adomian said. “During the recording, his wife was there and a couple of campaign workers were in the room. So I thought, ‘Alright, this is good. If his wife is trying not to laugh, then it’s going to be fine.’”
It was an opportunity that Adomian said came together fairly quickly, despite the logistical challenge of setting up a 20-minute interview with a leading presidential candidate. Fortunately, everything went pretty much the way Adomian had hoped.
“There’s a few emergency ripcords that I can pull, there are things on my Batman utility belt if something goes wrong. But he went right at me from the very beginning. As soon as he sat down, he started in, doing Bernie back to Bernie and I was like, ‘Yep, this is exactly what we wanted,’” Adomian said. “My favorite moment is at the very end of the interview, when I asked him, ‘Do you have anything to plug? Do you have any other projects going on?’ And he goes, ‘Running for president, that’s the biggest thing I got going on right now.’”
Politics has become a strong undercurrent on “The Underculture,” featuring notable figures from election cycles past and present. Guests have played current presidential candidates Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, and Pete Buttigieg, with Adomian handling the likes of Sanders, Joe Biden, and MSNBC host Chris Matthews. It’s a way for the show to speak to what’s happening on the campaign trail, but Adomian says he’s ready to provide an antidote to election-season anxiety, if that’s what he senses people might need.
“I never really intended this to be a political comedy show. I like doing comedy about politics because it’s a big thing that’s out there. But I also like talking about all kinds of other stuff, too,” Adomian said. “I think it’s gonna ramp up. I think 2020 is going to be a lot of politics. Having seen a few of these election cycles before, my sense is that once it’s done, people are exhausted and they want to talk about anything else. So I guess leader we’ll either adapt or we’ll pause.”
In his own way, Adomian is kind of already adapting. Some of the episodes with political voices stand out because it’s not simply a “conversation” between DC insiders. “The Underculture” has matched up Elizabeth Warren with Paul Giamatti, Sanders with notable supporter Cardi B, and even Person of the Year Greta Thunberg with…Falkor the Luck Dragon from “The Neverending Story.”
Keeping those political ideas separate sometimes happens by necessity. There are times when Adomian’s TV work — which in the last two years has included “Our Cartoon President,” the Showtime animated series set in the Trump White House — has both given him new ideas for voices to bring into “The Underculture” fold and exhausted some potential topics.
“Sometimes the news is coming so fast and so thick that they write a script and then I’m like, ‘Oh shit, guys! I’m doing this on the podcast this week!’ Then I have to try to keep the joke different,” Adomian said. “Sometimes actually they cast me as a character in a cartoon and I just have to file that away and say, ‘Alright, for future reference, I know I can do Rudy Giuliani.’ And, in fact, yes. I did Rudy Giuliani first on ‘Our Cartoon President’ and then, what do you know? One of his leaked audio files turned up on ‘The Underculture.’”
As the podcast world moves towards coming up with an industry standard, Adomian has made sure that all the comedians who guest on “The Underculture” are paid for their time. Through donations via the show’s ongoing Patreon account, Adomian says that he’s been able to provide a recognition that the art of impressions isn’t just something you can show up and do.
“It takes preparation and research. I have these guests on my show, it’s not their normal acts that they’re doing, so they’re basically doing favors. So I think it’s absolutely worth it to compensate them for that,” Adomian said. “I think a lot of creative industries are slowly figuring out how to make the internet pay people for their work, even if it’s not much, even if it’s just some nominal appearance. I just like the idea of paying people because I know what it’s like to not be paid. And I feel like it’s a more respectful and harmonious way to do business if everybody’s happy.”
As for future guests, Adomian says that the Bernie appearance will probably stay a one-off in the overall fabric of the show. In his view, “The Underculture” is best when outsiders can put a fresh spin on a character rather than being confronted with the real person.
“I’d love celebrities to come on, but I want them to do an impression of another celebrity,” Adomian said. “I think that was a fun sort of diversion from what we normally do and I’m open to doing it again, but there are figures that I’m not a fan of that I wouldn’t want to validate. I do a Sebastian Gorka impression and that’s the last guy I’m going to sit down and do any kind of ‘Gorka vs. Gorka’ thing. I like Gorka in the little box where I have him.”
Besides, when you’re opposite the real person, you tend to lose the thing that Adomian says makes for the best impressions in the first place.
“I’ve always skewed towards people that are bombastic personalities. I probably err on the side of portraying figures that have funny voices, but then also have a funny worldview or a worldview with a big blind spot or a broken way of looking at the world,” Adomian said. “Jesse Ventura is fascinating, because he’s very loud. He’s very straight, he’s very masculine. But making fun of Jesse Ventura is so rewarding because it’s like when you’re in high school and you’re making fun of the funniest football coach on the team. That’s the seminal, absolute root of where I came to be a comedic performer, you know, finding the funniest teacher and making fun of him to make everybody laugh.”
“The Underculture” is part of the Forever Dog podcast network and can be found on all podcast platforms.