when Anthony Atamanuik returns to Comedy Central Thursday night as The President Show’s fake Donald Trump, he will once again take a seat in the Oval Office, behind the Resolute desk—right in front of a subtle but pointed collection of Russian nesting dolls. Of course, he’s not sitting at the real desk—it’s a detailed replica, created by production designer Ellen Waggett and her team. Designing the set for a late-night show hosted by a presidential impersonator is no simple copy-paste project, though. It’s a visual character study in its own right—and Waggett’s task has been a strange blend of interior design, history, and psychology. For a closer look at some of the details you might miss, Vanity Fair chatted with Waggett about designing the faux Oval, and some of her favorite flourishes—including a hidden trap door.
Over the past few years, Waggett has visited most of the important D.C. landmarks—including the Pentagon and the Oval Office, as well as the rest of the White House. Those experiences all came courtesy of her work with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, and—yep—Michelle Obama, with whom Waggett worked on an event called Broadway at the White House.
Her Washington experience influences The President Show space starting with the set’s outside lobby, where the live audience waits before taking their seats. The holding area, Waggett said, is based on the Diplomatic Reception Room—known informally as the “Dip Room.”
“I wanted it to be this complete feeling that you’re in the White House and Trump has taken over, from the second the audience comes in,” Waggett said. ”You come in, and you’re in this incredibly formal place with a grandfather clock and with gold frames.”
The immersive experience extends to the studio were the show is taped: the audience sits in gold, Art Deco-style ballroom chairs, surrounded by gold satin curtains, crystal chandeliers, and sconces. It’s a practical choice—made so that cameras can shoot into the audience—as well as Waggett’s way to “slyly combine”the “80s, very flashy gold Trump penthouse style” with the more traditional colonial White House aesthetic. As for the set structure itself, it’s flexible: the Oval Office section folds, leaving room for the Mar-a-Lago replica used for the show’s interview segments—or the lectern from which “Trump” can deliver presidential addresses.
If you look closely, there are plenty of knickknacks that would not be found in the
real Oval Office: the nesting dolls, some framed gold coins—which Waggett said were a direct copy-paste from one of Trump’s hotels—and a mystery bookcase that functions as a hidden door, just like those you might have seen in the movies. (Viewers haven’t seen the door used yet, but Waggett said it’s coming.)
But the most tantalizing detail yet to come will be much harder to miss—because it’s a golden tank. Waggett said the idea was based on her work in the Pentagon last year, where she and Seth Meyers found a golden machine gun—previously owned by one of Saddam Hussein’s sons—casually hanging above a Xerox machine.
“It was the strangest, strangest thing,” Waggett recalled. “We ended up using it as a prop in the bit we were doing for Late Night . . . It was a very creepy, weird thing . . . That sort of bizarre—it’s a toy, but it’s a war instrument, and gold, and this weird combination of money and war and trophy was just very striking to me. So that’s where the golden tank’s from, which you haven’t seen yet, but you will.”