Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky believes that this DVD is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.
"Oh George, you are the best, even if you are a clueless bastard sometimes."—Laura Bush (Carrie Quinn Dolin)
Remember when the thought of George Bush in the White House was actually funny?
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the White House, home of the wackiest first family since Grover Cleveland beat off the French ambassador with a leg of mutton. George W. Bush (Timothy Bottoms) is a good ol' boy who can barely tie his shoes, much less face off against world leaders and environmental protestors. His wife Laura (Carrie Quinn Dolin) likes shopping and when her husband goes "downtown" in the bedroom, but she is always embarrassed by his public gaffes. Advisor Karl Rove (Kurt Fuller) reminds the president to stick to his Republican ideology, even if the moral lesson of the week teaches George something new in each very special episode. And there are plenty of laughs. Because, you know, running the world's greatest superpower is a lot of laughs, right?
It looked like a show that had remarkable potential. It had an impressive pedigree: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, deviant masterminds of South Park, were at the top of their game as satirists. Timothy Bottoms could nail the character of George W. Bush so well that he would later reprise it in a serious television movie about the 9/11 attacks. And how could you possibly miss with a president whose verbal gaffes and questionable intellect made him an easy target for comedy?
So why did That's My Bush! only air eight episodes on Comedy Central? It would be easy to blame those 9/11 attacks I mentioned above. It was difficult, at least for a time, to mock the President during a period marked (at least briefly) by what people called "the death of irony." But I am not sure that was entirely it. (Admittedly, the show had already been sacked by Comedy Central due to its enormous cost per episode, but the usual endless reruns vanished after September.) I remember watching That's My Bush! when it originally ran. The show debuted with a massive hype machine behind it, with stories about how Parker and Stone has prepped two potential television shows about a borderline-incompetent POTUS, not sure which guy would get elected, or how they intended to throw in the Bush daughters (twins Jenna and Barbara) as lesbians but were discouraged by the network. And South Park had just come off an incendiary season that pushed good taste with assaults on NAMBLA, the "handicapable," child molestation scandals—even the nemesis of President Bush's father, Saddam Hussein, was a semi-regular, suggesting a potential crossover villain for the new show.
In light of all this, it struck me, watching That's My Bush! back in 2001, that the show that actually made it on the air seemed so…compromised. So much potential for political satire from two guys who could slice through the hypocrisy of the powerful with a razor—and the show was really just a send-up of the traditional sitcom. There was a dumb husband, a smart wife, a sassy maid, a ditzy secretary, a wacky neighbor. The show was making fun of a formula that by 2001 had become tired self-parody without any help from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. What were these guys thinking?
And so, while it debuted with a good deal of hype and promise, That's My Bush faded from sight. Parker and Stone redoubled their efforts at keeping South Park fresh and rejected working with live actors in favor of cartoons and marionettes. Six years later, a lot has happened to George Bush and America, and whether you voted for the guy or not, you have to see how, at least a little bit, his life has become very much like a situation comedy. Still, Comedy Central figured that he was enough of a lame duck that it was safe to release That's My Bush! The Definitive Collection without having to worry about backlash. So now you can enjoy all eight episodes, as President George W. Bush gets into wild scrapes, while his trusted advisor Karl Rove and wife Laura try to get him out. Meanwhile, he trades quips with his neighbor (John D'Aquino) and housemaid (Marcia Wallace) And everybody stares at the breasts of the White House secretary (Kristen Miller).
Trey Parker takes sole writing credit on the debut episode, "An Aborted Dinner Date," recycling the traditional "double-date" plot (hero plans two dates on the same night and has to keep the parties from finding out about each other). In this version, George has to attend an abortion summit the same night he has a date planned with his wife. This sort of story is characteristic of the show's approach to hot-button issues. Abortion, the death penalty, gun control, missile defense—every episode works in a controversial political issue, but only as a background plot device. This first episode does make some South Park style jokes about abortion (an "abortion survivor" leads the summit, played by a creepy puppet), but the story cuts away quickly to a bit where George tries to avoid talking to Laura by joking about The A-Team, followed by that episode's visit by Larry the Wacky Neighbor—to whom George actually says "Watchoo talkin' 'bout." Yeah, references to earlier sitcoms abound. The next scene features a Mariachi version of the Sanford and Son theme. And George even gets a dippy catch phrase: "Laura, one of these days, I'm gonna punch you in the face!"
The satire has its funny moments, but the sitcom parody (and the intrusive laugh track) gets frustrating and distracting. The sitcom part only works as far as it does because of a charming performance by Timothy Bottoms. He is a well-meaning klutz. And he is helped out by a strong supporting cast. Carrie Quinn Dolan gets a little shrill sometimes as Laura Bush, but you can see how keeping a clod like her husband in line would drive any woman mad. Kurt Fuller is the voice of reason as Rove, while Marcia Wallace (veteran of The Bob Newhart Show) channels Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons to play the wise-cracking maid with a sarcastic aside to fill in any scene.
But with the second episode, the show reveals its weaknesses. George's frat brothers from Yale show up to party at the same time George has to attend an execution to show his support for the death penalty. But these frat guys don't seem to have come from Yale at all—they could have come from anywhere. Parker misses an opportunity to make fun of Bush's privileged background, his Skull and Bones connections, how "average Americans" oversimplify the complexities of the death penalty, the disconnect between the class pretensions of the Ivy League and crass behavior of a bunch of drunken idiots—all in favor of just getting laughs from the crass behavior of bunch of drunken idiots. Parker shows his usual dislike of actors by throwing in a subplot in which George orders a fake execution performed by a bad improv troupe. The satire does get sharp and funny and dark at the climax, when George really does execute the prisoner, thinking it is all staged. And Laura's consolation at the end ("It is no different than the 152 men you put to death in Texas; you just did it yourself this time.") drives the point home. The final episode involves George's impeachment—and Dick Cheney taking over the country. While power-mad Cheney stars in That's My Dick!, George and Laura go downwardly mobile. These are the moments when That's My Bush rises to its potential as satire.
I wish they came more often. When Parker and Stone devote an entire episode (by their own admission) mocking gun control in order specifically to build up to a punch line about "arming bears," there is real trouble. And the sitcom parody does wear thin quickly. Cliché plots like in-law trouble (Barbara Bush doesn't like Laura) and scheduling two dates on the same night were lame in the '70s, and they are not all that funny even when deliberately used as send-up. (The rapid-fire sitcom parodies in the final episode work because they whip by quickly.) An overdone laugh track works for one episode, but after three or four, not so much. Parker and Stone's trademark obsession with the grotesque comes into play often enough to cover these defects at times. Watch Laura confuse George's conflict over euthanizing the cat with her anxiety over having a smelly, um, persqueeter. Watch an adult formerly-aborted fetus ride a dog through the White House. When the show steers into wild farce, the South Park guys are at their best.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone offer abbreviated commentaries. They are quite proud of how the show turned out (although they admit the series could not have sustained itself long, even without 9/11), and they do explain how they matched up each political issue with a hoary sitcom device. But they only turn in about 5 minutes of commentary per episode. And they're sober. A second commentary track spotlights all the main cast members (Bottoms, Fuller, Dolin, Wallace, Miller, and D'Aquino), and they have a fine time laughing about their work on the show. These are also mini-commentaries, but they are a lot more fun that Parker and Stone.
It would be easy to dismiss That's My Bush! as naïve, given the difficulties of the real George Bush in the following years. Bush detractors may find (from their point of view) that the satire hits too close too home, given how much Bush has screwed up all these political issues during his tenure (although they will nod knowingly when Karl Rove sucks the last breath from an executed prisoner). Supporters of Bush may find (from their point of view) that this show reinforces popular misconceptions about Bush's intelligence and capabilities.
Overall though, while the show has its bright moments, its satire has dated much faster than much of South Park, perhaps because it is too closely tied to the roller coaster of recent political history. Like most presidencies, That's My Bush began with a lot of promises and press attention, but eventually it became a lame duck.
The court suggests censure for this president, rather than a full impeachment. The recommendation is forwarded to the legislature for further deliberation. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
• Mini-commentaries from Trey Parker and Matt Stone
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