Presidential parodying takes on new tartness

For all the fighting people do over the job, there are more than a few downsides to being leader of the free world. The work is hard. The hours are long. And the thanks one earns from the American people often seem to come in the form of one-liners, parodies, and punchlines.

George W. Bush came to town fully aware of the environment he was entering. He had lived through a campaign where his malapropisms were regular fodder for everyone from "Saturday Night Live" to Snickers commercials.

But as if late-night monologues and sketches aren't enough, starting tonight the White House is going to have a whole new comic problem on its hands - a weekly situation comedy devoted solely to skewering this administration. Even worse, it's coming from from the guys who created "South Park," the sharp, sometimes juvenile, made-for-adults cartoon.

That's right. Gerald Ford had Chevy Chase. George Bush senior had Dana Carvey. George W. Bush gets the guys who invented Mr. Hankey, a talking piece of poo.

The debut of the first presidential sitcom, "That's My Bush" on Comedy Central, represents a further refinement - coarsening, really - of the evolution of political comedy in the United States.

While presidential parodying has gone on since the days of George Washington, in today's postmodern, self-mocking age political humor is simultaneously growing sharper, nastier - and more mainstream.

"Times have changed," says Mark Russell the piano-playing political humorist who has taken numerous shots at the presidency in his 40-year-plus career. "It used be considered brash to poke fun at the president. It's gone from brash to sledgehammer."

As more in-your-face humor permeates today's pop culture, it is raising questions about its impact on Americans' perceptions of politicians and the dignity of the office. For the White House, it is threatening that most precious of presidential assets - message control.

Still, for now, the best way for an administration to handle the burlesque remains the same: smile knowingly, laugh along, and don't prove them right.

The good old days

It wasn't always like this. Mr. Russell fondly recalls the days when he and few colleagues had the political comedy stage to themselves. When mainstream comedians waded into politics, the jokes tended to be evergreens that could be pulled out for almost any administration. "Bob Hope with the occasional political joke was edgy," Russell says.

Of course, Russell has benefited from the new climate, too. Where he once rarely found an audience outside the Beltway, he now garners more than $20,000 an appearance.

"There just wasn't much out there, but what there was, was more politically savvy," says Dan Amundson, research director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It was based around specific policies or political decisions, not personal traits."

All that changed with "The First Family," a musical spoof of the Kennedy White House. The album, the work of a 27-year-old comedian named Vaughn Meader, treated the Kennedys as if they were just another family down the street. Although, by today's standards, it was the equivalent of a big, sloppy kiss, the record moved political humor into the mainstream. It became the best-selling album in history at the time, and Mr. Meader became a star.

After Kennedy was assassinated, Meader's moment came and went, but political humor's new place in pop culture proved more permanent. So much so that, according to a 2000 poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, nearly a third of all people today get their political "news" from Jay Leno or David Letterman.

In fact, the late-night shows are considered so important that Mr. Amundson's group keeps track of the jabs with something called the Late Night Comedy Count. For the record, Bill Clinton took the most shots in 1999 - 1,287, compared with 72 for Linda Tripp and 18 for the Pope.

As the White House has become less and less imperial - through Vietnam, Watergate, Iran Contra, and Monica Lewinsky - the boundaries of what is acceptable to joke about have been pushed further.

"The humor against President Clinton was longer and more vicious than anything I'd ever seen," says Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "The jokes were more personal and vengeful than anything I'd ever seen before."

Not without reason, of course. While scandals were rarely in short supply during Mr. Clinton's eight years, there was a certain intern that is most remembered - a scandal of the most, well, personal nature.

The effect was to make the good-natured jabs of political humor into nasty one-two combinations. And for a while, Mr. Fitzwater says, George W. Bush was dealing with a "hangover" of that kind of nasty humor.

That's my presidency

But just how far, and how strangely, the boundaries have been pushed in 2001 becomes clear with "That's My Bush." The show is really less a comedy about Bush than it is a parody of a situation comedy about a typical dysfunctional American family, starring the president.

All the sitcom homages are there - the snappy, quipping maid ("The Jeffersons"), the clever wife ("The Flintstones"), the wacky neighbor ("Three's Company"), and the well-meaning, but befuddled husband ("The Simpsons"). And the plot lines are straight off Nick at Nite, with a twist. For instance, in one episode, the president's former fraternity brothers have come to stay at the White House, and Bush wants to prove he's still "cool" - by taking them to an execution.

While the show takes more than a few shots at the first family, and is sometimes more than a little crude, what makes it unusual is how it tries to erase the line between fiction and reality. The opening credits do not say "Starring Timothy Bottoms as George W. Bush," but rather, "Starring George W. Bush."

"I hate to use the word, but it has all gotten very postmodern," says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University and author of "It's Showtime! Media, Politics, and Popular Culture." "We have the "West Wing," and "Wag the Dog," and now this. In the end, it all transfers the relationship from president/citizen to entertainer/audience."

Even Bush himself - the real one - has gotten into the act. At a speech to the Radio-Television Correspondents Association last week, Bush stepped outside himself and had a little fun quoting his own past misstatements: "I am on the record saying, 'We ought to make the pie higher,' " he said with a grin. "Believe me, what this country needs is taller pie."

Grin and bear it

But there may be hazards in simply embracing the jokes, Mr. Schultz says, since it can erode the line between the parody and reality. "At some point, you begin to wonder: Who is Bush really? We don't have a president - we have someone who is playing president."

Should Bush hit a bumpy patch in coming months, he risks the possibility of public perception hardening. While he's gamely playing along with the "dumb guy" jokes for now, he could find that image coming back to haunt him, especially if the public decides he's not actually up to the job, says Amundson.

But in the end, any successful president has to be able to laugh at himself and show he's not offended - even if, deep down, he is. "It's part of the office," says Russell. "They have to act like they don't care."

For inspiration, Bush has to look no further than his father. George H.W. Bush had such a good rapport with Dana Carvey, his comic doppelganger, that he invited Mr. Carvey to the White House in his last week in office to help say good-bye to the staff.

All of which raises the question: Will George W. Bush make a guest appearance on "That's My Bush"? Maybe - but then again, maybe not. Even being a good sport has its limits.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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