“Saturday Night Live” newcomer James Austin Johnson has been enjoying the weirdest 20-year overnight success story propelled by a spot-on impersonation of a corrupt narcissistic commander- in-chief since … well, ever. (Sorry, Rich Little.)
But! After spending the first 10 years of his career in Nashville starring in, he says, “Christian movies that no one remembers” and the next 10 making a name for himself in Los Angeles, Johnson is ready for his second coming. Or at least, his second season on SNL.
It’s late summer, just before SNL won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, and Johnson is in Nashville with his wife Rebekah and their son, Homer (named for Johnson’s recently departed grandfather), where they regroup near their parents during breaks from SNL’s grueling schedule.
It was barely over a year ago when Johnson was invited to audition for SNL, after his impression of The Donald went super viral.
For the previous decade, Johnson had been making steady headway in the industry, working with the Coen Brothers on “Hail, Caesar!” and guest starring in an episode of “Better Call Saul.” But an invitation to join SNL as a featured player in season 47 – which would turn out to be the last for eight of his castmates, including Pete Davidson and Kate McKinnon – was Johnson’s clarion call.
As of our interview, he didn’t know if the show was promoting him to repertory player for season 48, but on September 26, Johnson confirmed he will return as a featured player.
“I am not privy to the big convos,” says Johnson. “I feel like a big side of beef. They’re the chef and I’m merely an ingredient of this.”
One thing Johnson, 33, does know is he’s moving his family from the Upper West Side, which he describes as “sterile,” to an apartment in Fort Greene. He is also understandably pumped for the midterm elections. And as for 2024, Johnson is all in for Biden and Trump to rematch. “It would be funny to debate myself,” he says. Either way, SNL fans are going to be seeing a lot more of him when season 48 debuts on October 1.
We sat down with Johnson to discuss his SNL Cinderella story, doing time in the Christian comedy circuit and why it’s harder for him to play Biden than Trump.
This interview originally ran in the fall print issue of Brooklyn Magazine. It has been has been lightly edited to bring it up to date.
You started out doing Christian comedy in Nashville. How did that help hone your chops?
Even when I was a “Christian comedian” as a teenager, I was still doing open mic alt-comedy. I was dancing like a robot to Pink Floyd and other weird shit even as a Christian comedian, so it’s always felt like my comedy. Leaving performing in Christian environments behind was a move that was more true to my actual beliefs. I’m just not obsessed with faith and religion. It’s not something I care about deeply and it took me a while to realize that I’m just not really informed by this. I like entertaining people and I’m a comedy fan, so I want to do the kind of comedy I want to see in the world. By the time my SNL audition happened, it felt like a “Slumdog Millionaire” type thing where all of my life experience informed how I approached the audition.
You’ve lived in Nashville, L.A., and now, New York. How’s life different in each city?
In Nashville, everyone was very focused on eating barbecue and getting into heaven as quickly as possible. Poisoning themselves with cigarettes and pork fat. In L.A., people are very focused on their patios or waking up on a friend’s couch and going to another patio to smoke and drink, and then hang out on someone else’s patio to drink wine. In New York people go to work and they eat grocery store sushi because it’s pretty good.
When I moved to New York, I found myself gaining weight because it turns out when you eat dollar slices of pizza every day, you’re going to get fat.
Oh, yeah, my pizza is Little Italy at 71st and Broadway. I’ve become East Coast-pilled about Dunkin Donuts. I truly became obsessed with Dunkin Donuts and like the fact that they are every two feet is so important to me. You know what? Dunkin Donuts has a much more remunerative rewards plan than Starbucks. At Starbucks, you have to get like 200 drinks before they let you get an upgrade, before they let you get free cream cheese for your bagel. But Dunkin Donuts gives me a free coffee like every two days. It’s crazy.
I’m guessing you frequent the Dunkin Donuts underneath 30 Rock?
I love the subterranean Dunkin Donuts under 30 Rock! And here’s the other thing that means I’m gonna live in New York for as long as possible: I love an underground food court. Columbus Circle has a pretty good one. I’m obsessed with being underground and going to a mall food court. It’s a glimpse into America’s future. We’re all gonna be living underground pretty soon. I worked so much last year that I still don’t know where to eat or where to drink. We did get some good use out of Riverside Park around Zabar’s.
That’s not far from the old Trump apartments.
We actually live in one of those apartment buildings Trump built on the Hudson. It doesn’t have Trump’s name on the building anymore, but it just killed me to learn he built it after we moved in. I play Donald Trump on TV and I live in a building associated with him. Although, I think he got screwed out of a deal by Chinese investors in this property. I tried to do a deep dive on it and apparently he got that parcel in the 1990s when he was fucking up every deal. Somehow he got screwed out of millions.
Is your family going to stay on the Upper West Side?
We rushed and moved to the Upper West Side when I got the SNL audition last year — but it’s so sterile, overpriced and we’re the only people under 90. Like, I’m not an investment banker who defrauds millions of people. We’re young parents, and I need a good wine bar every 30 feet, so that’s why we’re moving to Fort Greene.
Why Fort Greene?
I looked in Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, and we have friends already in Fort Greene. My SNL co-star Sarah Sherman lives there and so does our nanny. My friends, Brad Evans and Nick Ciarelli, who are great “Tonight Show” writers, two of my favorite comedy writers, they live over there. I saw a dozen apartments while I was here for the show and as soon as I walked in the Fort Greene place, I was like, “I know my wife will like this.” It’s small, but we have a place in Nashville that we can dump all my stupid shit we don’t need. In New York, all you need is a Moleskine, some Nikes, and a bed.
You’re not totally new to Brooklyn. You did a show at The Bell House over the summer.
Honestly, Bell House was one of the best shows of my life. Completely perfect is how I would describe it. I’ve noticed in New York, SNL is almost like the Mets or the Yankees, where people like it because it’s a local thing. If I’m performing in a southern room where the crowd is older and it’s people who only know me only for Trump and Biden, those shows are a little tougher, because they’re not really there to see my comedy, or to see my point of view. They’re there to see my impressions. At Bell House, I was able to do Trump and Biden more as an encore. I would call it one of the best shows I’ve ever had.
Why do you think Biden gets a worse rap than Trump for his age? Biden is viewed as decrepit but Trump is one McDonald’s hamburger away from a cardiac event.
Exactly. The public perception of both guys is very interesting. They’re both around the same age. Their demeanors are definitely different. With Biden, you almost can’t play him too old because, somehow, it doesn’t quite work on SNL. If I’m at the podium and I’m speaking into camera, and playing it too exaggeratedly, it’s just hard to watch for eight minutes. It’s hard to keep that up for eight minutes. When I’ve done Trump, we do it in these small shotgun blasts. Biden is often anchoring a sketch with other figures around him. Donald was an island, it was always the Donald Trump show.
And Biden is just more traditional?
With the Joe Biden cold opens, we’re really trying to say something about the Democratic Party. I try a different thing every time I do Biden. I showed up with Trump locked and loaded and Joe is something I’m still figuring out. I talked to Dana Carvey and he said that it took him like a year to know what he was doing with his George H.W. Bush impression. So I’m being patient with Joe. Because, eventually, I’m going to strike the right chord that perfectly sums up the general subconscious opinion of him. When you’re doing Donald Trump, you have like 11 different Donalds because he’s been in the media for decades. With Joe Biden, he’s been around that entire time. He just hasn’t been as eye-catching of a media figure. He’s not like a media whore, you know?
Biden has little outbursts, but he’s kind of a somber guy.
He’s a somber daddy. He’s an emotional man, and he’s genuinely empathetic. He has a lot of qualities that I think are pretty admirable as a guy. I try to focus on who he is as a guy. I would describe it as “Biden the human,” which makes it difficult to do on SNL. Your first instinct with SNL is to be “Biden takes his dentures out and makes them dance on the table,” to go vaudeville with it. I don’t know, that just doesn’t feel like Biden to me. So I play him as human as I can. We look for comedy around that.
For the sake of comedy, what’s your ideal presidential match-up in 2024?
I hope it’s Trump and Biden. I hope Trump runs again. I would of course love to figure out the logistics of debating myself. I think that’d be so funny. At this point, I am so invested in that story as a viewer, that I can’t imagine another Republican ever leading the GOP again. It would be a shame if they turned on him. You can print it! I hope Donald Trump is the nominee in 2024! I think he’s hilarious and predictable, and I would take that over anyone else.
Have you heard what Biden or Trump think of your impressions?
I’ve never heard from the man. I would love to meet Biden. At a rally a few months ago, Trump was talking about me. You know how he does that thing where he gets attached to a word then jumps to another word and loses track of his speech? He was talking about someone in Washington being a liar. [Johnson slips into his Trump impression]: “The liar. Do you remember that, the liar? Jon Lovitz, a liar. SNL’s not so good anymore. It used to be so good but it’s not so good anymore. Alec Baldwin, he was a sick puppy.” And then, “They got a new guy doing me. I heard it’s pretty good. We don’t watch the show, it’s such an awful show. But apparently the new guy is better than Alec.” He had no clue what my name was, which is awesome, because I feel like the minute he decides I’m a political enemy of his, I’m going to be getting death threats for my baby and wife.
Have you gotten the hang of working at SNL?
It takes like a year to learn how to do that job. You have to be really brave. You’ve got to beat down doors. You’ve gotta know when the timing is right. There’s an art to actually getting the right sketch on the hook. When to pull it in, when to let it lie.I submitted something on the week Oscar Isaac hosted that would have been perfect for Benedict Cumberbatch. But just the week before I submitted something else that had a wizard in it, so that’s going to be a third time I submit a wizard sketch. It’s pretty interesting knowing when to really push for a sketch.
How does it feel to have so many of SNL’s long-time cast members leave after your first season?
I learned a lot from people like Aidy Bryant and Kyle Mooney. I had a real fun time getting to know Pete — the most I’ve ever felt like a celebrity is hanging out with Pete Davidson. I had some nice conversations with Kate McKinnon, too. So it’s is like four generals leaving the military at the same time. All of those people were leaders of specific tones that the show works in. So it’s like, I don’t know, it’s like getting a crayon box. And you know, you’re missing red and green and blue.
Last thing: you’re the show’s new impressionist. The show’s longest-running impressionist, Darrell Hammond, is now the announcer. What’s your relationship like with him?
It’s an insane full-circle moment to hear him announce the cast’s names. The moment Aristotle Athari, Sarah Sherman and I went to our first rehearsal and heard him say our names in the opening credit sequence, we were all very emotional. It’s truly surreal. I really look forward to be able to talk with him what it’s like to work on the show and process for finding voices. I’ve been very lucky to get to know Bill Hader and Dana Carvey recently and we’ve talked about process. Hopefully, Darrell is up next.