The charge that politics has become indistinguishable from entertainment--and that partly for this reason we now have in office a spoiled frat boy with not much upstairs--is overstated and not especially new. Such notions are not entirely wrong, though, and to see them translated literally into television programming, as they are on Comedy Central's new series That's My Bush!--to date, the network's most expensive venture and most watched premiere--is both shocking and exhilarating. It's one thing to be aware that the emperor has no metaphorical clothes but quite another to see him standing around naked, chugging a beer, and bumbling his way through his very own sitcom. To be fair, I should note that Comedy Central's George W. Bush is never totally naked. But he fornicates and farts--this is, after all, a live-action show created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the duo behind the hilarious, impolite cartoon South Park. And he's heard on tape announcing to his fraternity brothers at a long-ago Yale party that one day, when he becomes president, they can all move into the White House, and then asking, "Hey, wait a minute--where's my pants?"
Saturday Night Live sketches have for years lampooned standing presidents, and The West Wing offers a smart, sober version of the lives of an imaginary liberal president and his staff. But That's My Bush!, the belching evil twin of The West Wing, marks the first time anyone has made a standing president the centerpiece of a weekly episodic joke. The idea of the president and the first lady starring in their own cheesy sitcom is simple and pretty brilliant; and for better and worse, Stone and Parker stick close to formula. Although thus far the kids are missing--rumor has it that the creators' plan to bring in the first twins as wild lesbians was nixed by the network--the rest of the sitcom genre staples are there: a ditzy secretary, Princess, who can't tell the difference between a PalmPilot, a GameBoy, and a cheeseburger; the stuffy, villainous foil, here embodied by the realistically named Karl Rove; the sassy maid, Maggie; and the next-door neighbor, Larry, who pops in for a beer and chips and tells tacky jokes. The set is White-House-as-suburban-home. People drop by unexpectedly, watch television in the living room with their feet on the coffee table, and wander into the Oval Office.
Parker has said that he and Stone ordered how-to-write-a-sitcom books and went about cooking up paint-by-number plots and "literally just plugging [the Bushes] in." George is always getting himself into trouble, as his home life conflicts with his role as leader of the free world; Laura is a neglected housewife who cleans up George's messes and often teaches him a thing or two. In the first episode, "An Aborted Dinner Date," George accidentally schedules a "super-important" state dinner to unite abortion rights and pro-life advocates, for the same night he has promised Laura a special, intimate dinner. Being a bit of a wimp--or, as he puts it, "a pussy"--he cannot manage to postpone either one and winds up shuttling between the two, with zany results. In "A Poorly Executed Plan," George's frat buddies take him up on his drunken college offer and move in ("streaking through the White House and crapping in the Rose Garden," Laura complains). Meanwhile, Karl Rove has planned for the president to attend an execution and show everyone that he hasn't gone soft on capital punishment. Attempting to impress his old friends, George mistakenly invites them to the "super-important" execution. When Karl objects, George schedules a fake execution for their benefit--again, with zany results.
A canned audience cheers when the leads first walk in, laughs at steady intervals, "awws" at the touching moments, and recites George's Ralph Kramdenesque tag line along with him. "One of these days, Laura," George says, and the faceless crowd joins in, "I'm gonna punch you in the face!" Laughter, applause.
The one-joke idea of the presidency as a sitcom is an irreverent, welcome swipe at American politics in general. Yet That's My Bush! is not primarily interested in savaging the Bush administration. As producer Craig Wyrick-Solari promises, "I guarantee the show will offend everybody, on both sides." And anyway, Parker and Stone claim to have little interest in partisan politics. In fact, the show was planned and sold before the election, with a version starring Al and Tipper Gore on the ready. "The objective," says director Jeff Melman, "is to spoof sitcoms."
That goal is too easily achieved to be worth much. Old episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Bob Newhart Show and the rest of the Nick at Night clan by now work just fine as self-parodies. The commitment to mimicking the genre's predictable plot formulas, stock characters, and stilted artifice actually renders That's My Bush! considerably less funny than, say, South Park, in which the creators are free to feature such characters as Big Gay Al, baby-kicking children, a maniacal Barbra Streisand giant, a horny school chef, and talking poo. That's My Bush! is funniest when it shoots absurdly past its sitcom target. The pro-lifer, for instance, turns out to be a pint-sized, Chucky-like aborted fetus, ornery and blind and sporting a bad comb-over, who "survived eating mice and ants"--a hilarious, offensive jab at righteous defenders of the unborn that has no relation whatsoever to sitcom parody. When Karl Rove auditions an improvisational-comedy troupe to stage the mock execution, the digression into improv-comedy satire is funnier than any of the president-as-Mike-Brady routine. Desperate yet insanely confident, the troupe performs in the Oval Office. The improv leader shouts: "Okay, we're in an execution, but Dave is singer-songwriter Meat Loaf, and Pam is deaf. Go!"
At its core, though, That's My Bush! is a sitcom spoof. To be true to format, then, the creators must make the main characters, especially George, likable. And doing that, Stone recently told Time magazine, is "way more subversive than making him look like an asshole." President Bush is thus turned into a childlike good ol' boy who's in way over his head--as the theme song goes, only "kinda in charge." His incompetence is charming; he, Laura, and the audience-in-a-can all laugh along as he muddles his way through his job, accidentally executing improv comedians and causing fistfights between fetuses and feminists. But while Bush-as-lovable-Texas-doofus works well for sitcom purposes (as media critic Michael Wolff recently pointed out, "The dummies in America always get the sympathy vote"), the daft caricature is politically much less subversive than all that. It actually serves the real George W. Bush quite well: Besides distinguishing him from the snotty fancy-pants politicians, it nicely masks his many actions that are both keen and mean. As Wolff puts it, "Being dumb, possibly like a fox, is the best place you can be right now."
Even if its creators don't realize or admit it, the show, too, is dumb like a fox. The sitcom-parody format gets its laughs not just from exaggerated homage but by hinting at a creepier, darker world lurking beneath the genre's chipper faces, snappy and sappy dialogue, kooky mix-ups, and sanitized sexuality. Laura's sing-songy, Donna Reedy complaint to Maggie that now that "George is so busy being president, I feel like nobody pays attention to me" gives way in a later scene to a lewd, horny-housewife plea to George to "spread me out on that massive table, right under that big picture of Mr. Lincoln, and pound me." And the slapstick craziness of each episode results in edgy critique posing as good, clean apolitical fun. The improv troupe, unaware that one of their guys is about to die, camps it up in an execution chamber ("Oh, that table is to die for!"). Felix, the abortion-survivor pro-lifer, pounces on the face of his pro-choice opponent, who peels him off and flings him onto the Bush dog; screaming for help, he rides through the White House on the dog's back. That's My Bush! may not exactly speak truth to power, but it certainly farts in its general direction.
Its bark at sitcoms, in fact, allows That's My Bush! political bites that no one acknowledges--not the characters, not the "studio audience," not the producers themselves in their press materials. Maggie the maid, for instance, jokes about her big seat and dispenses marital advice to the first lady; but when asked by George if she doesn't have some laundry to do, she replies, with sitcom-maid mouthiness that gets the audience chortling, "Oh, you're right. I've got to do like your father did and separate the whites from the coloreds." When the typical sitcom mix-up explodes, it takes the president along with it. Giddily mugging and showing off for his beer-swilling frat brothers, George mistakes the condemned prisoner for an actor and says, "Hey, scum, are you ready to die by lethal injection?" He adds, "Maybe you prefer the gas chamber!"--then lifts his leg and passes gas. "You have the right to die like a little bitch, have your soul sent to hell," he yells, grabbing the Bible and pushing aside the priest. "What time is it? Time to die!" he squeals, laughing with his buddies. He then grabs the injection needle, pours in drain cleaner, does a little dance, and when the prisoner dies, sings "another one bites the dust" to the horrified onlookers. "It's no different than those 152 men you put to death in Texas," Laura says later, comforting a distraught George in bed. "You just did it yourself this time." He covers his head with a pillow, and everybody laughs. Oh, that nutty president. One of these days, he might just punch his wife in the face.