Like many people after the 2016 election, I felt launched into an alternate nightmare universe version of America. (Sadly, I feel I still reside there.) NYC-based actor Glen Pannell was also devastated. He was desperate to do something meaningful to lift his spirits, but had no idea how. Pannell, who bears a strong resemblance to Vice President Mike Pence, had just attended a Halloween party dressed as “Mike Hot-Pence,” the pro-LGBT and women’s rights-supporting “good twin” of the soon-to-be VP. Then, after Pence became VP and the world turned upside-down, Pannell had an epiphany. Resurrecting what was supposed to be a one-time gag costume, Pannell once again donned his conventional navy blazer, his conservative tie and a pair of short shorts and ventured out into the world as Mike Hot-Pence. Since then, he’s been raising money for the nonprofit organizations that the real Pence fights against.
As if all this weren’t strange enough for Pannell — a graduate of Princeton and The Old Globe and University of San Diego MFA in Acting program — to fundraise in Times Square and elsewhere as Mike Hot-Pence, now Pannell is performing in a musical comedy at The Triad in NYC called The 1st Annual Trump Family Special. He plays — you guessed it — Mike Pence. I mean, seriously folks, how much more meta can you get?
With the show’s recent opening and critical elections right around the corner, it seemed like an ideal time to catch up with the talented thespian and activist to find out about his latest charity work, what it’s like to play two Pences, and to ask for Mike Hot-Pence’s predictions for the midterm elections.
Robin Rothstein: Can you go back to the beginning of Mike Hot-Pence and how he came into being?
Glen Pannell: In the fall of 2016, a friend challenged me to dress up as Mike Pence for Halloween. This came after weeks of “Do you know who you look like?” following the Republican National Convention, where most of America was introduced to Pence for the first time. A Pence Halloween costume held no appeal for me because it required zero creativity and promised zero fun. Plus, I didn’t want to get doused with drinks in the West Village. So I decided to explore a “Sexy Mike Pence” look, and squeezed myself into a pair of vintage short shorts topped with a conservative blazer and tie. I looked in the mirror, laughed out loud and instantly came up with the name Mike Hot-Pence.
The costume was a hit on Halloween night. Then, a few weeks after the election, I was looking for a way to channel all of my anger and frustration as the Trump cabinet — and agenda — took shape. I emptied out a whey protein jug, taped on a “Mike Hot-Pence Cares” label, and headed to Times Square in costume to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Within 48 hours, my “origin story” went viral and my fate was sealed — I knew what I would be doing on my weekends at least until the end of 2020.
Robin Rothstein: How much money has Mike Hot-Pence raised to date?
GP: So far, I’ve collected over $37,500 for organizations that support causes and communities under attack from the Trump-Pence administration. They just keep giving me reasons to get out every week.
Headed out 10/6 to collect for Matthew Shepard Foundation @MattShepardFDN, a non-profit that seeks to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance. I’ll be in Union Square 10am-12noon, probably in the northwest corner of the park, just outside the Greenmarket. 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/xrDrcTDU8v
— Mike Hot-Pence (@MikeHotPence) October 6, 2018
RR: Given the many causes and communities under attack, how does Mike Hot-Pence select his charities?
GP: In my first month raising money as Mike Hot-Pence, I collected for four organizations: Planned Parenthood, The Trevor Project, The International Refugee Assistance Project and The Natural Resources Defense Council. My sister sent me that list based on suggestions she had seen on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver just after the election. It made total sense for Mike Hot-Pence. As Governor of Indiana, Pence had become deeply unpopular because of his positions and policies on LGBTQ rights, access to reproductive healthcare, refugee resettlement and climate change. What Mike Pence fought against became the playbook for what Mike Hot-Pence fights for.
RR: You’re now in a musical playing, of all people Mike Pence. How did that strange twist of fate come to pass?
GP: The 1st Annual Trump Family Special is the brainchild of Danny Salles, a college friend I met 35 years ago writing and performing with the Princeton Triangle Club. Danny makes his living as a TV director and producer in Hollywood. So, he planned the first performances in LA for December 2017. When he was back home on the East Coast last fall, Danny asked if he could put me on tape for a video segment he envisioned late in the show with the Vice President calling in from a MAGA rally. I said, “No, you can’t put me on tape. Write me into the show, and I’ll fly out to LA and do it live!” I hadn’t even seen the script, but I trusted Danny because he’s so gifted and so funny. But I take credit for casting myself. I never expected a NYC run at The Triad just a 10-minute walk from my front door. But, showbiz is full of surprises. Just like politics.
RR: Given your strong likeness, did you ever consider portraying the VP?
GP: Strangely, when I first began dressing up as Mike Hot-Pence, it never even occurred to me that at some point I would be asked to play Mike Pence. And then, when I started getting a few offers, I turned them down. I just wasn’t interested. It’s much more fun and fulfilling playing the equal and opposite reaction to Mike Pence. Mike Hot-Pence is the good twin. He believes women have the right to make choices about their own bodies, that queer people deserve the same rights as everybody else, that the planet should be safeguarded and preserved for future generations. So the 1st Annual Trump Family Special is a rare opportunity to see me in Pence’s pants.
RR: And in the show, do you play Pence, er, straight?
GP: I think “twisted” best sums up my portrayal.
RR: Has portraying Mike Hot-Pence and Mike Pence provided you with any unique insights into the VP?
I came up with the Mike Hot-Pence costume right after the Access Hollywood tape became public, which most political pundits thought would sink Trump’s campaign. Mike Pence’s reaction became a news story all its own: Had Trump finally crossed Pence’s red line? Was Pence plotting a coup to replace Trump on the ticket? Did he really make Trump apologize to Karen Pence? I began to think Mike Pence might actually have a backbone.
Then the election happened. Mike Pence assumed the role of Waterboy-in-Chief, backing the president with every tweet and at every rally, but going dead silent when he could have denounced Trump’s offensive remarks about Charlottesville or Putin or shithole countries or Christine Blasey Ford. Pence had so many opportunities, but never raised his voice, choosing politics over principles. It makes my head hurt that he name-drops Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of his role models. Dr. King urged leaders to “be the headlight, not the taillight,” especially leaders who professed a deep faith. But here we are, two years in with Mike Pence, head down and mouth shut, coasting along at the back of the Trump train just waiting for his shot at headlight.
RR: How does the show fit in tonally with everything that’s been going on since the 2016 election? How do audiences receive it?
GP: We’ve played to full houses since we opened — crowds have been a blast, boisterous and appreciative. The last play I acted in was a 220-year-old Friedrich Schiller historical drama, so this is quite a change from that! I don’t think I’ve ever been in a production where the audience arrives so pumped to laugh. I have to walk through the house incognito to get backstage before the curtain goes up, so I get an early read on the energy in the room. You can almost hear a collective plea in the pre-show audience buzz: “Please release us from the torment of this never-ending dumpster fire.” As for tone, the comedy is over the top — especially my number, but I think it has to be. It’s a challenge to make fools of people who are doing such a good job of it on their own. What could be more ridiculous than the daughter of the Grabber-in-Chief hashtagging “TimesUp”? Or Mike Pence flying across the country so he can walk out of a football game after the national anthem? Or Don Jr. just opening his mouth? In terms of comedic targets, it’s like they’re all competing to be the lowest hanging fruit.
RR: Let’s go back to Mike Hot-Pence. What does he have coming up as we head into the midterm home stretch?
GP: I just partnered with the fundraising organization DanceRiot for a night of performance benefiting VoteRunLead, a national nonprofit that trains women to run for elected office and win. It was four hours of burlesque, comedy, music, activism, women dancing and drinking — Mike Pence would have been horrified. Right around the corner on Oct. 20, I have a special role at the Golden Probe Awards, presented by Lady Parts Justice. It’s a satirical awards ceremony aimed at raising awareness about politicians who pose the biggest threat to reproductive rights. I’ll take the stage at The Town Hall as “Mr. Golden Probes.” I’m not sure what my job duties are, but I’m excited! Margaret Cho will host, with guests like Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Jordan Klepper, Dan Savage and Stormy Daniels. In all of my various appearances and collections over the last two years, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that knows Trump personally. It’s crazy to think that my one degree of separation will be Stormy Daniels.
RR: Does Mike Hot-Pence have any midterm election predictions?
GP: Beto over Cruz. And a blue House.
RR: If Mike Hot-Pence ever became president, what would some of his policies be? What kind of Commander-in-Chief would he be?
GP: I think there are too many pictures of me without my pants on for me to ever become president. Besides, if there’s a magic wand that can make somebody Commander-in-Chief, I don’t think it should be wasted on a middle-aged white guy, even if he does have finely sculpted quads. So, if some twist of fate put me in the Oval Office, I would make sure that the room had a constant flow of people who didn’t look like me or think like me. The most powerful lesson from my 30-plus years in the theater is that the best collaborations come from a diverse range of voices in the creative process. And news flash: That’s not a 21st century development! The values that make America great are the same ones that made America great when this country was first born: fairness, inclusion, freedom of expression, to name some of my faves. My presidency would embrace those values once again. And, of course, my Oval Office would have a drastically different dress code.