Peter Grosz isn’t a sociopathic, conniving, manipulative, cold blooded, calculating lunatic.
He just plays one on TV.
An alum of Second City, an actor and a writer, Grosz worked on Late Night with Seth Meyer, The Colbert Report, and he’s had a recurring role on nearly every season of VEEP. As my grandmother would say, it’s nothing to sneeze at.
But, in what may be his greatest and most important role yet, he plays Mike Pence on The President’s Show on Comedy Central. And he is brilliant. Anthony Atamanuik plays Trump, Mario Cantone plays Caramucci (“The Mooch”) and Jonathan Gemberling plays Steve Bannon (just watch it). It is remarkable to see something at once so screamingly funny and so devastating. I sat down with Peter in his office (where he has a life size cardboard cutout of Trump in a tuxedo) to learn how a nice, slim Jewish boy from Westchester winds up playing…well, someone very different.
Periel Aschenbrand: So you just came back from visiting my high school in Queens, which incidentally, was also Trump’s high school—though if I’m not mistaken, he got kicked out.
Pete Grosz: Yes. We did a segment called “Trump Goes Home” and it was right after his birthday so we went to his old neighborhood.
PA: Jamaica Estates.
PA: And you’re from New York, too, yes?
PG: Yes. I grew up in Scarsdale but live in Brooklyn now.
PA: Not that this is incredibly unique but I’ve understood that we’re both big fans of Don Rickles.
PG: He’s amazing. My wife and I made two trips specifically to see him. The first time was probably ten years ago and he was only doing like twelve shows a year and one of them was in Vegas and he was performing at The Stardust so we flew to Vegas and saw his show and then we did the same thing to go see him in Atlantic City. We took a bus to AC.
PA: Oy. From Port Authority?
PG: Yeah. It was a nightmare. The bus was horrible. There was a woman committing what looked like child abuse in the backseat. She wasn’t hitting her kid but she was screaming so loud on like an old Nextel phone, to her friend on speaker like a walkie talkie. The whole bus heard her screaming at her friend and her child. So it was hell for three hours. And then we got to see Don Rickles.
PA: That is probably one of the most awful places on Earth.
PG: Atlantic City?
PA: Actually, yes, but I meant Port Authority.
PG: Oh, yeah. Port Authority is bad. The bus to Atlantic City is bad. Atlantic City is bad. Don Rickles is good.
PA: Exactly. So tell me about growing up in Scarsdale.
PG: It was good.
PA: It was good?
PG: I don’t think I had a sense of how privileged it was to grow up in a place like that until after college when I started doing improv and met people from so many different communities and realized: “No place is like Scarsdale.”
PA: Did you come into the city a lot to see stand up when you were a kid?
PG: My parents actually took me into the city a lot to see plays, so I saw the original Cats, I saw, Les Miz, I saw Fame, I saw Phantom. And really cool stuff like the original Blue Man Group, Little Shop of Horrors, so I was kind of a comedy kid but I didn’t really see stand up in the city. I saw stand up on TV, a lot. I would watch a ton of HBO and Saturday Night Live.
PA: So your parents were pretty hip, culturally.
PG: My dad is European and he moved here when he was 27.
PA: From where?
PG: Romania. He thought my sister should go to private school, and she went through this whole thing where all the focus on her and her education so she bore all the brunt of their pressure. So while they were worrying about her, I just got out of the way and enjoyed no one being focused on me. And that will never happen with my son. He’ll never not have both of us looking at him all the time.
PA: It is a terrifying thing to have a child. Did you ever think you’d be playing Mike Pence?
PG: No. During the election I definitely thought him becoming Vice President was possible, after the first round of Trump not getting knocked out. By the end, I thought he had a small narrow path to win. But my first inkling came when he just wouldn’t die. Nothing was killing him. He was just the monster at the end of a horror movie where he gets a thousand lives and you can set him fire or chop his head off and he won’t fall down.
PA: I feel like all you have to do is just leave NYC to understand how this happened.
PG: You can go to Northern New Jersey and see Trump signs.
PA: You can go to Staten Island.
PG: You can go to Queens! One of my friends who is actually a producer on the show said to me, you are the bagel to Mike Pence’s corn muffin.
PA: That’s amazing.
PG: I thought that was really funny because I’m way too Jewish to be Mike Pence.
PA: But it works. You’re so good.
PG: It works. Anthony’s Trump is so big, it sucks up all the oxygen, just the way the real Trump does, that my portrayal of Pence gets to be far more subtle, and a lot more low key and low energy and I think it exists really well playing off of his Trump. And that actually is a very safe place to play in, because I don’t have to be as bold and I don’t have to take up as much of the audience’s full mental energy.
PA: Anthony is obviously absolutely brilliant as Trump but I would imagine it’s actually very difficult to be that nuanced and you just do such a masterful job. And that is how Pence is.
PG: So that’s the other thing. It accurately portrays their relationship.
PA: It’s a win-win.
PG: It’s a win-win.
PA: How long does it take you to get ready?
PG: About an hour and fifteen minutes because I get a full bald cap put on, which is really fun, I’ve never had that done before. And I get this custom made Mike Pence wig, which they took my head measurements for. There’s a lace front to it and the woman who made it, individually weaved in the Mike Pence colored hairs.
PA: Is that what the color is called?
PG: Mike Pence White! First she made a wig and I didn’t have a bald cap and my hair is dark, so they had to put white makeup on my hair and it wasn’t sticking properly and it’s actually way easier with the bald cap. So there’s that and the makeup. Our makeup guy tweaks my eyebrows and I wear what looks like a bulletproof vest, but is actually just foam. Pence is a pretty stocky guy and I’m sure I weigh like fifty pounds less than him so I wear this vest.
PA: Are you incredibly hot?
PG: I’m nowhere near as hot as Anthony, who wears a full fat suit from knees to elbows—in two sections.
PA: I’m sure it would murder Trump to know that somebody has to wear a full fat suit to portray him.
PG: Please put that in the article.
PA: I promise you that I will.
PG: I know he reads Tablet.
PA: I’m sure he watches the show.
PG: That’s always the question. We thought he might tweet about it, like, “The failing President’s Show, horrible ratings. . .”
PG: But also by the second show, he started to be engulfed in a major way in all this Russia stuff. Flynn got fired, Comey. . .
PA: Do you watch them a lot on TV?
PG: Anthony watches Trump a lot. I watch Pence more than I watch Trump. I want to make sure I’m picking up on the nuances.
PA: That makes sense. Your Pence is very nuanced.
PG: Thanks. He’s a more subtle target. He’s a big squinter. And he tilts his head a lot.
PG: And he always has a weird smile on his face. I think it’s an adopted earnestness. When I’m doing it, I can feel what’s behind it. You can feel the flippancy or insecurity behind the action. When I make the Pence face, it’s like, that’s not a normal face, it’s a performed thing. It’s not a natural way to exist in the world.
PA: This seems like a good time to segue to alcohol. What’s your favorite drink?
PG: I would say a Manhattan, up. Not on the rocks. If I had my druthers, Bakers or Blanton.
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
PG: As water or seltzer. I don’t. I never drink coffee. I never did.
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
PG: We never really celebrated Purim as a kid and Purim and Sukkot are the one that always get short shrift, and I think they might be my favorites.
PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
PG: I did.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
PA: That’s very considerate. Favorite pair of shoes?
PG: I have these Cole Haan wingtip type shoes with really cool stitching and blue shoelaces that they don’t make anymore.
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
PG: Cell phone, wallet, keys, a day planner because I don’t put anything in my phone and gum or breathmints because I’m paranoid I’m going to breathe on somebody and they’re going to fall over.
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.