About six months before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus, J-L Cauvin made the difficult decision to move out of New York City, where he had spent years trying to make it as a stand-up comic.
“I was super depressed about getting a full-time job again and moving to New Jersey,” he tells me on today’s bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “A job fell into my lap and I just said, you know what, I’ve been doing part-time legal work and road comedy for 16 years, I have to seize this opportunity at stability. I said, OK, comedy is no longer the priority.”
It couldn’t have worked out any better.
Cauvin had been closing his stand-up act with a Donald Trump impression since 2015—before that he ended his sets with an equally impressive Obama.
So in mid-March, stuck working from home with a lot of extra free time on his hands and no comedy clubs available to work out material, he posted a simple selfie video on Twitter making fun of the president’s Oval Office address.
“I did this video on my couch and it got like 18,000 views on Twitter,” he recalls. “And I picked up like 50 new followers. So I did a few more. And none of them hit as big as that.”
A couple of weeks later, he was headed out the door to walk his dog when a friend texted, “Can you believe this? He just said he wants to reopen the economy by Easter.”
“I said to my girlfriend, hold the dog for a second, I think this would make a funny video,” Cauvin says. He went back inside and spent two minutes riffing off-the-cuff as Trump about a pay-per-view event in which he and God would fight it out to see who can “bring back more people” on Easter Sunday. “And over the next 48 hours, it just exploded.”
It has since racked up seven million views on Twitter and a couple million more on YouTube.
The impression doesn’t just sound like Trump, but deftly captures the nonsensical, unfocused speaking style that has become his default mode in interviews and briefings.
“He doesn’t like to be scripted. It’s like somebody is punishing him when they make him read,” Cauvin says of “Teleprompter Trump.”
That’s why the comedian never writes out what he’s going to say in his videos.
“Because once you get scripted, you’re already setting yourself back from being him,” he explains. “What you have to do is be willing to go on a ridiculous journey and take nine tangents. But the place to come back to is always, ‘I’m great. How does this help me or hurt the people I don’t like?’”
“I think my voice has legitimately gotten roughed up from doing the impression so much,” Cauvin admits. “It’s almost like a guitarist getting calluses on their fingers.”
He worries that his own voice is starting to sound more like Trump’s.
“How ironic that to even let this man’s voice into me would be a corrupting, damaging process,” he jokes. “It’s like a Black Mirror episode or something.”
When asked what it’s been like to finally achieve some level of fame when he can’t capitalize on it by performing live, Cauvin says, “Honestly, it sort of sucks. There have been so many near hits in my career. That’s why I sort of expected Trump to quit or have a stroke or something like three days after I went viral. I was like, well, this can’t last.”
Cauvin’s only previous, much smaller brush with viral fame came back in 2013 when he produced an elaborate infomercial parody video to showcase his spot-on Louis C.K. impression.
This was pre-#MeToo downfall, when the comedian whom comics and fans just called “Louis” was still on top of the comedy world.
“It was Madonna, Beyoncé, and Louis,” Cauvin jokes.
Unlike his peers, Cauvin says he wasn’t taken with Louis C.K.’s skills.
“I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but he clearly wasn’t resonating with me,” he says. “I just didn’t like the way he did stand-up. But every time I said that, every comic would label me a hater. I was like, I’m not hating. He’s just not my favorite.”
But that video didn’t have anywhere near the cultural impact of his Trump.
“This was the moment I was waiting for,” he says. “I thought all I need is one of the things I do to blow up and then I can bring all this body of work with me. Instead of it happening over the course of six to eight years, it happened in a week or five days. And now there’s nowhere to perform. So I just have to hope that some sense of normalcy comes back.”
When he is able to get back on stage, he’s worried that audience members will shout “Trump!” at him like it’s his “Freebird.”
If he gets the chance to headline comedy clubs, he imagines doing a 35-minute stand-up set, followed by an extended, improvised Q&A with the audience as the president.
While Cauvin says he would happily trade whatever success he’s had for “global health and economic security,” he acknowledges that none of this would have happened without COVID-19.
If he had been in his law office all day, he never would have had time to make and post so many videos.
Cauvin jokes that when his workplace decides to re-open, he’s going to ask, “Can I be one of the last people to come back to the office? For safety, not for any side career, just for safety.”
Cobbling together revenue from YouTube, Cameo and advertising on his podcast, Cauvin says he’s managed to pull in more money through comedy for each of the past three months than he has from his law job.
“So that’s great. And if I could guarantee that then I’d be at a different crossroads, but this is momentary fame,” he says.