NEW YORK – In James Austin Johnson, “Saturday Night Live” has a new master impressionist on board whose take on Donald Trump over the weekend was a breakout performance for the rookie.
Johnson nailed a stream-of-consciousness Trump during an opening segment Saturday that discussed Republican Glenn Youngkin's election as Virginia governor. Critics at Vulture and TheWrap said Johnson “stole the show,” or at least the cold open.
“'Saturday Night Live' finally has a truly great Trump impersonator,” wrote Dan Spinelli of Mother Jones. “Close your eyes and you'll think new cast member James Austin Johnson is the real thing.”
With Youngkin, portrayed by cast member Alex Moffat, looking uncomfortable on a split screen next to him, Johnson circled through topics like “Dune,” “Star Wars,” Chris Pratt and Santa Claus as a subject “countdown” mirroring ESPN's “Pardon the Interruption" appeared onscreen.
“Most people don't like him but he's a wonderful guy, OK? Tall, rich, like my sons. Glenn, you're like my son,” Johnson's “Trump” said.
“Please don't say that,” Moffat replied.
Johnson, a 32-year-old stand-up comic from Nashville, Tennessee, has already impersonated President Joe Biden twice in the season's five episodes, along with Adam Driver, Joe Buck, Jon Gruden, Lindsey Graham and Louis C.K. It's an unusually fast start for a new “SNL” player, particularly now that the on-air cast has swelled to 21 people.
The show did not make Johnson available for an interview on Monday. Even before he joined “Saturday Night Live,” he had attracted attention for his mimicry, particularly of Trump. A video of Johnson, as Trump discussing Scooby Doo, has received more than 2.4 million views on Twitter since being posted a year ago.
Of that performance, Vice's Josh Terry wrote last year that “there's something jaw-dropping about how accurately Johnson is able to channel the president's cadence, speech patterns and eccentricities.”
While it's unclear how much the news will dictate Johnson appearing as Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” he's clearly the successor to Alec Baldwin, who made his last appearance as Trump shortly after the 2020 election.
In an interview with Vice last year, Johnson said that Baldwin brought “pure evil” to the impersonation of Trump.
“A lot of the mainstream shows miss how much love there is for Trump,” he told Vice. “In the quest to depict him as the monster that, of course, I believe he is, they're alienating some of the people who would otherwise laugh at their jokes. It's really hard to laugh at a lot of depictions of Trump. It doesn't make you feel good. I really just want my comedy to be a balm by being really silly.”
Yet not everyone was happy to see Trump make a “reappearance” on the comedy show this past weekend.
The Atlantic's Molly Garber wrote that Johnson's impersonation is “deeply skillful,” poking fun at Trump's tendency to make himself inescapable. Yet giving Johnson the platform allowed Trump to hijack its attention.
“'SNL, for too long, was so interested in Trump as a joke that it ignored him as a threat,” Garber wrote. The most recent episode “suggests that the show has looked back over the previous years — and learned precisely nothing.”