AUSTIN, Texas—In 2018, Elon Musk showed up at South by Southwest to inspire humanity. In 2019, “Elon Musk” showed up to destroy it.
“By the way, my accent? It’s correct,” “Musk” told a sold out theater on Friday night toward the beginning of “his” SXSW Comedy keynote, Elon Musk: The Frightening and Awful Future of Humanity. “I’m South African and also Canadian, so I’m evil but kind of shy about it.”
— James Adomian (@JAdomian) March 9, 2019
If you’re thinking something looks a little different about Mindy Tucker‘s “Musk” portrait from SXSW 2019, it’s not the choice of sweater. “When I’m doing an impression, I’m most interested in making fun of folks who are already larger-than-life personalities: bombastic figures, figures with giant egos, and maybe bigger blind spots—I love that,” “Elon,” aka comedian James Adomian, tells Ars. “That’s what makes it interesting to me and the audience. I’m not going to be doing a Robert De Niro impression. Obviously, sometimes you do an impression someone else has done before, but you want your own take on it, and that involves finding the craziest thing about them and exaggerating it—that’s where the comedy is. It’d be boring if I didn’t pick big targets.”
Adomian is a veteran of the LA comedy scene, and he’s perhaps better known for his work on Comedy Bang! Bang! or some of his political impressions, like George W. Bush once upon a time or Bernie Sanders more recently (a personality that toured extensively in a much-lauded Trump v. Bernie comedy tour). But about a year ago, Musk tended to be all over the news: the Falcon Heavy launched with Starman, Tesla Autopilot bosses became Spinal Tap drummers, the concept of hyperloops was turning five years old. And Adomian himself was certainly aware of the entrepreneur’s situation given all the “crazy SpaceX rocket launches in LA that surprised and terrified everybody” at that time.
So, while the comedian isn’t sure if he first pulled it out on a podcast or during SXSW 2018 improv sets, he definitely had a new impression ready for the world—one kinda, sorta born out of an old Sebastian Gorka-as-Bond villain idea.
“Elon Musk is one of the most bombastic millionaires, even if his personality is kind of shy, overtly shy,” Adomian tells Ars. “I thought, ‘This is juicy—this is a guy reaching to Mars, running so many companies, getting kicked off of companies, maybe facing penalties for Twitter—which is a level of online few people attain. So I started doing it here and there, depending on how much he’s in the news. And as soon as I started talking about doing SXSW this year, one of the first ideas was, ‘Why don’t we do an Elon Musk keynote? I did a fake Bernie one last year that was popular, let’s do that again but with Elon Musk.'”
Thus, Elon Musk: The Frightening and Awful Future of Humanity was born. Adomian tinkered and honed his impression on and off throughout the last year between appearances on Chapo Trap House as “Musk” or by doing the audio book for Scott Dikkers’ parody tome, Welcome to the Future, Which Is Mine. This week at SXSW, the line to get into comedy venue Esther’s Follies for the show started more than an hour and a half ahead of showtime. But once the curtain finally lifted, “Musk” addressed adoring fans for more than an hour about all sorts of his projects: SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company, obviously, but he also tapped into old PayPal war stories and provided updates on things like Neuralink.
Ars was far from the only Musk-curious would-be attendee to miss out, but Adomian happily filled us in on what went down. With real-life Musk having such grand ambitions all the time, SXSW “Musk” obviously needed the same level of grandiose goals for his keynote. As such, in Future of Humanity Musk set out to do a live rocket launch to Mars during SXSW 2019. Without spoiling anything major (Adomian says he had the performance filmed and a full video will be coming soon), “Musk” does things like solve the city’s pedicab crisis with Tesla battery-powered artificial intelligence pedicabs, he talks trash about the SEC, drills a Boring Company tunnel toward the center of the Earth, and the eccentric CEO demonstrates the latest Neuralink technology being developed for the eventual SpaceX journey to Mars.
“He always spins off these ideas, and you’re like, ‘Is this a serious project or did you come up with it at 2am while stoned?'” Adomian says. “So we had him upload his consciousness into a Teddy Ruxpin doll from the ’80s because it was analogue and sturdy enough to withstand very low temperatures in the vacuum of space.”
The show has plenty of surprise guests, too—there are martial arts battles with Alex Jones and musical interludes from Grimes. “She’s this anarchist, anti-corporate, pop punk musical artist, then she starts dating Elon and she now has a song called, ‘We Appreciate Power,'” Adomian says. “‘Being with him isn’t anything I believe in, but here I am—he has billions of dollars.’”
If Adomian’s Musk grew out of a Gorka-done-as-Bond villain, let’s just call this SXSW keynote his Moonraker.
“I was even talking shit about NASA and JPL, which is funny because some of those guys are here in the audience for the 50th anniversary of Apollo,” Adomian says. “Elon Musk is just clowning on them: ‘Congratulations on your blue ribbon at the science fair, guys.’”
Ultimately, “Musk’s” 2019 SXSW keynote may be just the start. Despite how high-profile Musk-adjacent accomplishments and companies seem to be, Musk himself is still a relativity untapped personality within the comedy world—SNL hasn’t even tossed his likeness into a skit yet. “Everyone knows who he is, everyone pays attention to him, everyone follows the news about Tesla, or SpaceX, or his crazy personal escapades, but I’ve never seen him made fun of on TV or anything like that,” Adomian says.
The real Musk’s profile is likely only going to get bigger from here. SpaceX’s recent successful test of the crewed Dragon capsule means a highly publicized partnership to fly NASA astronauts will go forward soon. Tesla’s recent Model 3 announcements may spread those EVs to more consumers. And it feels like every other month brings about a new potential customer for The Boring Company or another Hyperloop concept competition. “I’ll be doing Elon ’til one of us shoots us to Mars,” as Adomian puts it.
Based on Musk’s public track record to date, there will be no shortage of material: viral photos of him smoking weed, submarine proposals to save kids tragically stuck in caves, the routine trolling of government agencies on Twitter. For the impressionist impresario, that situation suits him just fine. Based on his observations, Adomian thinks Musk must have some ability to laugh at himself (it’s likely some SpaceX employee attending SXSW has already caught wind of the “Musk” bits before). And the Musk headspace remains a place the comedian is happy to tinker within.
“Sometimes I have to make fun of people I hate—I didn’t always enjoy doing George W. Bush because it was kind of sickening to put myself in his headspace all the time, but I felt it was my duty to have him blithely confessing to war crimes,” Adomian says. “Then there are people I admire and get to make fun of, like Bernie Sanders. That’s like making fun of your favorite professor as a student—I love you, but I’m still laughing at you.
“With Elon Musk, I don’t know how to categorize him—he’s a historical figure and I’m lucky to be alive at the same time,” Adomian continues. “If I was alive 100 years ago, I’d want to do a Nikola Tesla. When I’m making fun of Elon, it’s mean, and I’m making him look bad, but I’m kind of fascinated by his vision. I’m of two minds: he’s someone that’s sort of shaping our culture at the highest level—science, the future of evolution—and I think he’s someone that makes some big missteps. But I can’t fault anyone for taking moonshots.”