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The following are passages from Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. Copyright 2009 by New York University. Reproduced by permission of New York University Press, New York, NY.
With All Due Respect: Satirizing Presidents from Saturday Night Live to Lil’ Bush
by Jeffrey P. Jones
Embodying his on-screen persona as a conservative talk show host, faux television pundit Stephen Colbert offered a mouth-dropping satirical performance as the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. As is typical in his television parodies on Comedy Central, Colbert proceeded to lambaste both the press and the president, neither of whom seemed to appreciate the effort. Not to make the same mistake twice, the organizers of the 2007 event took a safer route by hiring the crowd-pleasing presidential impersonator Rich Little for the evening’s entertainment. But in reviving the long-since flagged career of the former late-night talk show staple, the event organizers reminded us of just how far television has come in its caricatures of presidents. For also appearing that same week on Comedy Central was the animated series, Lil’ Bush, a portrayal of George W. Bush as a dim-witted and dangerous fifth-grader running amok in the White House and wreaking havoc across the world with his diabolical pals Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’ Rummy. The airing of these two different sets of caricatures demonstrated that the acceptable norms of television’s treatment of the president have certainly changed.
Yet this was not the first time that Comedy Central had produced an entire series dedicated to satirizing President Bush. Beginning in April 2001, the network aired a short-lived series called That’s My Bush!, a show with the announced intention of spoofing the sitcom genre, but also satirizing the current president and his family and staff in the process. In the series, George W. Bush and Laura Bush are portrayed as the typical suburban sitcom couple, yet George is also painted as a simple-minded, lazy, privileged, and easily distracted man. The show’s writers and producers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, had planned to produce the program irrespective of which presidential candidate won the 2000 election (Bush or Al Gore). But with Bush emerging victorious in the contested election, he became the focus of the show. In turn, the series became the first bold move by the network in satirizing a sitting president in a not-so-flattering manner.
Taken together, That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush bookend the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. These portrayals are instructive because they represent how one cable network altered the course of how presidents are treated on television. Both programs are also series, representing the first time that entire shows were dedicated to satirizing the president. And, as discussed later in this chapter, both display an approach to political satire that is decidedly not the product of the safe, mass market thinking that is endemic to network television programming. To understand the force of these portrayals as political statements, it is helpful to contrast them with what came before. In this chapter, I chart the history of presidential caricatures on television, beginning with stand-up impersonators such as Rich Little and continuing through to the groundbreaking sketch comedy approach developed on Saturday Night Live. Since the mid-1970s, Saturday Night Live (SNL) has regularly processed presidential politics for viewers, offering interpretations that structured how images of the president were filtered through popular culture. But such caricatures are typically missing any form of meaningful political critique, instead depending largely on impersonation humor that is focused more on personal mannerisms and political style than on politics.