Media

Why We Can't Get Enough of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher

Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life.

The following are passages fromSatire 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 ofNew 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.

The shows that bookend the Bush presidency, however, offer a broader and more critical narrative frame for making meaning of the president as politician and office holder. As sitcom-styled series, they provide a specific satirical framework for scrutinizing the features that characterize the presidency in its historical context. They have also contributed to an era, in conjunction with other non-network television programming, where satire as a brutal art form has been revived. Hence, these shows lead us to rethink the necessary place, role, and function of satire in contemporary political culture and how such an important role has generally been absent from television for much of the medium’s existence.

Bookending Bush

by Jeffrey P. Jones

That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush bookend the Bush presidency. Both proved popular with audiences, but more important, both served as vehicles for processing the “meaning” of the president in real time (as does the news). If the president himself spends great effort in manufacturing and shaping his own imagery (again, as does the press), then it is rather significant that satirical television programming does the same, for the president is nothing if not symbolic.

As bookend means of making sense of George W. Bush, the changed and different portrayals over the span of six years are instructive. Bush moves from being a father figure to a small child. His stupidity is no longer harmless but instead quite dangerous. He is no longer simply daft yet affable and loveable but now stupid, arrogant, and mean-spirited. The caricature changes from Bush as President of the United States (“He’s the president in residence, he’s kind of in charge,” as the theme song puts it) to Bush as “Resident of the United States” (as the presidential seal that comprises the Lil’ Bush logo states). The image thus moves from Bush being “kind of in charge” to simply being an occupant of the residence/office (as are the other “unelected” children of presidents). The portrayal of Bush’s consorts has changed as well—from neighborly and sexy to vicious and wicked. And the political issues highlighted no longer transcend the Bush presidency (gun control, the death penalty, abortion). Instead, they are political issues and events that are specific to Bush’s time in office—Al-Qaeda, the Iraq war, relations with North Korea, global warming—and, in particular, issues that his administration has handled poorly.

The different portrayals are the result, of course, of the specific historical context in which they were written and appeared. Yet it is too simplistic to argue that one represents a naive pre-9/11 America and the other a wiser but disillusioned post-9/11, post–Iraq war nation. The writing in That’s My Bush! certainly reflects the political mood and culture of pre-9/11. There are seemingly no pressing political issues, only intractable ones that politics either exacerbates or can’t resolve. The comedic interest in the president is not his conduct as a politician but his characteristics as a man. As noted earlier, Trey Parker and Matt Stone argued that they weren’t out to make Bush “look like an idiot” because “he’s going to do that fine on his own.” Instead, they argued, by placing him in a situation comedy (even as a parody), they were going “to do something very, very subversive and actually make you really love this guy.” But perhaps Parker and Stone can be forgiven for their immature conception of politics and even political satire. The country had just spent eight years in a seemingly constant battle between Republicans and President Bill Clinton, waged largely at the personal level (what Clinton labeled the “politics of personal destruction”). Clinton proved so politically similar that Republican Party officials in the 1996 election complained that he had stolen their political ideas. But that didn’t stop them or right-wing media commentators from waging war daily on Clinton and his wife for their supposed personal failings as human beings.

In that context, the South Park approach to placing characters in stupid situations, offering up double entendres, and relying on puerile sexual humor fits well with both the popular culture and political culture of the Clinton years. Besides living in a thoroughly sexualized culture, Clinton himself sexualized the office of the presidency by engaging in actions that led to accusations against him for sexual indiscretion from numerous women. Therefore, the play on Bush’s name as female anatomy in the show’s title and in the episode “The First Lady’s Persqueeter” is not only what passed for political humor and commentary by 2000–2001, but also the language offered up by politicians themselves (see, for instance, The Starr Report). With that said, perhaps That’s My Bush! was exactly the type of political humor needed at that time. If these two candidates (Bush and Gore) were the best the two major political parties had to offer, then parodying the president as the central figure of a dysfunctional family in a parodic sitcom not only summarizes the moment but also created a scenario in which either candidate or president could be ridiculed on those terms. With Bush as the eventual lead character, those terms became (as one critic put it) “President Dumbass.” Those terms, then, were the “language” of the moment.

By the time Lil’ Bushaired in 2007, American political culture had changed drastically, largely related to events such as the shock of 9/11, two disastrous wars, the flouting of the Geneva Conventions abroad, threats to civil liberties at home, a lapdog Congress, Republican Party corruption and scandals, and an endless barrage of PR, smear campaigns, fake news, spin, and outright lies—and nary an admittance by the administration that mistakes had been made. The ignorance and arrogance of Bush and his team of advisors no longer seemed benign, but childish. The public mood had soured from its somewhat disinterested stance toward politics to one of extreme displeasure (as seen by Bush’s historically low approval ratings). But the changes in political culture did not lead citizens to be more mindful and watchful by intensifying their newspaper reading or network television news watching. Rather, citizens seemingly sought some form of solace by either watching the patriotic cheerleading supplied by Fox News (resulting in Fox becoming the cable news ratings leader) or watching new satirical forms of political television that supplied quite meaningful critiques of politics for those disgusted with the state of affairs and journalism’s seeming disinterest in helping to rectify it. From The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, cable television now regularly supplied programming that was entertaining, yet highly critical of politicians and the news media that support them.

Lil’ Bush reflects the frustration of the times. Its caricature is not nuanced, and it is more amusing than belly-laugh funny. It is an exercise in contempt. It is satire largely because of its gross exaggerations of political figures and their policies. But satire is not necessarily funny. Dictionary definitions of satire often include the notion of holding something or someone in contempt. And British satirist Rory Bremner contends that satire includes a “comic resolution of anger.” Jonathan Gray has written of the need for audience researchers to recognize the viewing practices associated with anti-fandom, or the visceral enjoyment that comes from loathing certain programs or personalities. The observation can be extended to include the representation of politics and political figures on television. Some forms of political satire may be enjoyable to watch for no other reason than they offer a venue through which citizens can revel in their disgust, loathing, and outright anger at certain aspects of political life.

Lil’ Bush is not necessarily funny or profound but is dripping with contempt for the Bush administration. Lil’ Bush reminds us that while television as an entertainment medium usually demands that all satire be funny, simply being able to participate in the public display and celebration of contempt, anger, and outrage is why Lil’ Bush matters. It also matters because it becomes one of the several television programs that have helped write the “meaning” of the Bush presidency while he is still in office. If journalism is the first draft of history, as the saying goes, then the elevation of television satire as a popular and legitimate avenue for processing the meaning of politics in contemporary society means that programs like That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush, as bookends to the Bush presidency, provide a poignantly sour counterpoint to those early drafts. And the second draft that emerges from the caricatures in these shows is not the “fallible yet funny” human being qua SNL. This draft, instead, is about the person who inhabits the most powerful political office in the world—the President of the United States— whether it be written as “President Dumbass” or “Resident Evil.”

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Jeffrey P. Jones is Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Jonathan Gray is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media studies at Fordham University. Ethan Thompson is Assistant Professor of Communications at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.