For some of us, the most heartening news since the 2000 election was that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were rushing onto cable TV an aggressively bad-taste sitcom called That's My Bush! to be set in the White House of our current commander in chief. It's not just that the time is ripe—after eight years of Rush Limbaugh and others making sport of the hapless Bubba—for some low-comedy retribution. It's that here, in Dubya, is a target of rare dimensions: an unholy spawn of Bush Sr. and Dan Quayle, with the voice of Yogi Berra as reimagined by George Orwell. Here, as Jacob Weisberg continues to document, is a presidential language over which psycholinguists will pore for decades, a bizarre coalescence of doublespeak, dimness, and dyslexia. With such a foundation, I figured, what pyramids of absurdity the makers of South Park could construct!
About two minutes into the first episode of That's My Bush!—which airs Wednesday on Comedy Central—I was forced to lower my expectations, which dropped still further in the subsequent 10. By the commercial, they had sunk somewhere below the floorboards, presumably in an effort to bury themselves alive. My expectations had reason to be mortified. That's My Bush! is primarily a sendup of old sitcoms like Three's Company, The Jeffersons, and Married… WithChildren—not the loftiest targets imaginable. How do you parody something that's already a dumb burlesque? By making the jokes even dumber, italicizing them, then jacking up the laugh track (or planting drunks) to suggest an audience—if not a universe—of cretins.
Parker, who wrote the episodes I saw, must think that he's deconstructing the form. The stereotypical Sassy Housekeeper (Marcia Wallace, the receptionist on the old Bob Newhart Show) is labeled "sassy" and attempts to instruct the president (Timothy Bottoms) in devastating comebacks. When the Funny Next-Door Neighbor (John D'Aquino) strolls into the Oval Office (past unblinking Secret Service agents) and plants himself in an easy chair, the formula calls for him to crack a joke, so he tells the president his lawn is full of snew. ("What's snew?" "Nothing much, what's snew with you?") Each episode ends with a ludicrously inadequate homily or lesson, such as the realization of Laura Bush (Carrie Quinn Dolin) why it's hard for pro-lifers and pro-choicers to agree: "Because, in a way, they're both right." When his wife tells him off, George smiles, makes a fist, and announces, "One of these days, Laura, I'm going to"—and here the audience joins in—"punch you in the face!!!" Raucous laughter all around at the prospect of a good wife-beating.
The problem with all this irony—layer upon layer of it, stretching into infinity—is that it's both old and irrelevant. That the sitcom form is unlifelike and absurd would be big news only to someone who has never seen a television. That a U.S. president could be the protagonist of a stupid sitcom could be shocking only to someone who has never seen a U.S. president. The sick sight gags, meanwhile, lose all their sting in this high-camp context. The idea of making the leader of an anti-abortion group an aborted fetus who managed to survive but not grow ("He is bitter, he is angry, and he hates to be canceled on!") is at once uproarious and poignant, but the handling of the little fellow is witless—a comic abortion. Much more successful is the frenzied climax of the second episode, in which George delivers what he thinks is a fake lethal injection to prove to his frat buddies that he hasn't gone soft. But even on the rare occasions that the show hits its target, the target is set too low.
The big game, meanwhile, walks away ungrazed. The George of That's My Bush! is a well-meaning idiot, a good-hearted hick who has stumbled into a job that's too big for him. Bottoms has Dubya's look of fuddlement down cold, but the accent strays so close to Clinton's rube Arkansas that it blurs the Yalie-WASP persona. He's a rich kid the way Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies is rich, with no aristocratic sense of entitlement. So he's harmless. Those frat brothers in the second episode are Animal House types—fat, slobbish, oblivious to White House decorum. Of course, anyone who has ever witnessed a gathering of Skull & Bones members knows that they're all too at ease in the presence of imperial power—they were bred for it, weaned on it. That's what makes them scary.
Americans on all sides deserve an Oval Office burlesque on par with that marvelous travesty of English history The Black Adder or even the spotty Yes, Prime Minister. But to be funny it can't be insight-free or politically disinterested. The story of the Dubya presidency to date is not that he's a shallow boob but that he and his handlers managed to disguise their true agenda better than even Ronald Reagan (who was also laughed off as a shallow boob). Anyone who can have Dubya protesting to Karl Rove (Kurt Fuller), "I'm a uniter, not a divider" in private is either a naif or a Republican. Turning Bush into a lovable dolt might be the biggest gift to the GOP since thousands of Florida Jews cast their ballots for Pat Buchanan.