Showing radical executive disorder

Review: As political satire, `That's My Bush!' loses points. But parodying past sitcoms boosts its approval rating.

April 04, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He's an idiot, but he's our idiot. And don't you think he's kind of lovable in his utter stupidity?

That's the overall tone of "That's My Bush!" - the much-anticipated satire of President George W. Bush from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. As political satire, there is not much to get excited about here. But, in the context of what Parker and Stone say they set out to do - parody the sitcom genre itself - the first two episodes have some good moments.

And as to what really matters for many Parker and Stone fans: The two also have created moments that are sure to offend some viewers and be discussed the morning after.

Tonight's pilot ends with George (Timothy Bottoms) and Laura Bush (Carrie Quinn Dolin) in bed kissing and making up after George's latest goofy escapade ends in disaster. As they kiss, Laura indicates how pleased she is by something unexpected happening under the covers - except George is not the one responsible.

Seconds later, we find out there's a third person in bed with them, a pro-life leader who had been at the White House earlier in the evening. The reason they didn't notice him under the covers: Despite the fact that he's 30 years old, he's the size of a Barbie doll. The pro-life leader, the guest star of tonight's episode, is a fetus who survived an abortion attempt.

Juvenile and gross? Maybe, but that's Parker and Stone. If that offends you, Comedy Central, the edgy cable channel that carries the series, probably wasn't expecting you to watch anyway.

Start with the series as political satire. The theme song tells us: "He's the president in residence/ He's kind of in charge/ I can't believe he's actually in the White House/ That's My Bush!"

The first thing George does when he comes on camera is walk right past Laura's open arms to hug their dog.

We next see George in the Oval Office in front of a TelePrompTer saying, "My fellow Americans, this week I plan to unite our country and bring both sides of the abortion issue together. Abortion is a serious and very personal issue, and let me assure you that you promised to have dinner with Laura. What? I mean, let me assure all of you that I'll do my best."

He then rushes out of the office to tell Laura she's going to have to quit putting personal messages on the TelePrompTer.

The sum total of the political satire in the first two episodes is this: He's a knucklehead who would like to be scheming, but he's too dumb to even pull that off.

Is this breakthrough? No. In fact, it is very much in the tradition of the kind of political humor in various print media that Andrew Jackson faced during his presidency, right down to the theme-song statement, "I can't believe he's actually in the White House."

Lawrence E. Mintz, director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland, points to "That Was The Week That Was" - a weekly prime-time series hosted by David Frost that ran on NBC during 1963 and '64 - as setting a standard for biting presidential humor.

Mintz is right. So fierce were the attacks on 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that the GOP mounted a successful and very expensive campaign to buy airtime for prime-time speeches during the campaign. A timid NBC regularly sold the Republicans the hour they sought, which just happened to be the hour "That Was The Week That Was" was supposed to air, thus, pre-empting the controversial show as often as possible.

Also, in the 1960s, you had hard-edged satire of President Lyndon Johnson on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which brought blacklisted performers like Pete Seeger back to sing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," an anti-war song. While goofier and decidedly less daring, "Laugh-In" carried on the tradition with Richard Nixon as its primary target in the late 1960s and early '70s. "Saturday Night Live" has been carrying the torch since 1975.

The smartest presidential satire of all was "Tanner '88," an HBO series in 1988 from Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman, starring Michael Murphy as a presidential candidate.

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular television at Syracuse University, called "Tanner '88" "an absolutely brilliant political satire."

"The difference between "That's My Bush!" and anything that came before: This is a weekly sitcom about a sitting president, Thompson said in an interview this week. "In the opening credits, it doesn't say, `Timothy Bottoms as George W. Bush'; it just shows Bottoms and says, `George W. Bush.' That's somewhat breakthrough in the way it contextualizes the presidential humor, but the best I can give it as political satire is a C-minus."

As a parody of classic sitcoms, though, it rates a B-plus. The references to sitcoms of the past are endless: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Honeymooners, Diff'rent Strokes.

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