Anthony Atamanuik’s The President Show is unlike anything else on television right now. It takes a current-day public figure and satirizes him by showing us a fictionalized different side of the “character.” It ignores the fact that you probably want to forget about the news when you’re sitting down to watch Comedy Central, and instead steers directly into the skid, almost saying, “You’re thinking about politics anyway. Why not watch us completely reduce and humiliate this guy while you’re at it?” Today we look back at a different approach to this same technique. You see, this is not the first show about a sitting first-term president to air on Comedy Central.
The 2000 election was one of great political turmoil and it left an entire country in suspense as the next leader of the free world came down to a stack of paper ballots. But there was more than just the fate of a nation that was being put on hold: the next big project from Matt Stone and Trey Parker was hanging in the balance. During the week leading up to the election, on Comedy Central, a series of cryptic advertisements kept appearing. It was the familiar image of the White House and a sign that read “Coming Soon…”
As far as Parker and Stone knew, they were preparing a show that would begin production almost immediately after the election ended called Everyone Loves Al. Al, as a robotic but loveable buffoon, and Tipper would function as the head of a sitcom family in a fictionalized version of the First Family. There’s not an awful lot that’s come out about what would have happened if that timeline had played out in American history, but I don’t believe it would be all that different from what we eventually got:
That’s My Bush! aired from April to May of 2001 for eight episodes, and as Trey and Matt describe in their DVD commentaries for the show, it’s not that different from the Al Gore version. George W. Bush (played by Timothy Bottoms) is less a robot and more of a schlubby everyman, but beyond that, everything else is the same: There’s a sassy maid (played by Mrs. Krabappel herself, Martha Wallace), Larry, the next-door neighbor (John D’Aquino), and an airhead secretary/princess (Kristen Miller). Along for the ride are a few Bush specific characters, Laura (Carrie Quinn Dolin), and Karl Rove (Kurt Fuller).
In 2001, television was filled to the brim with W. satire. Most famously you had Will Ferrell’s impression on Saturday Night Live as an out-of-his-league dolt, barely keeping his head above water without realizing it. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was at its peak, delivering trenchant satire four nights a week. With this as the backdrop, it’s very easy to assume that those South Park guys wanted a piece of the action and were ready to create a show to tear down George W. Bush themselves. But then as one sits and actually watches an episode, you realize that’s not the point at all. Bush is barely the target here. On That’s My Bush!, it’s the television sitcom that’s getting ripped apart.
During one of the audio commentaries, Matt Stone articulates the show’s driving question beautifully: “What if you had a sitcom that tried desperately to be a sitcom as long as it could, but ultimately just became a farce?” That succinctly describes what happens on That’s My Bush! There aren’t any “ripped from the headlines”/”rapid response”-style takedowns of Bush. Instead, he is merely the vehicle to point out how stupid sitcoms are. Take the show’s pilot as an example.
Once a president was finally in office, the writers convened and on a whiteboard they created a massive list of political issues, and on the other end of the board, cliched sitcom premises were listed. That’s My Bush! would then marry one item from each list. The pilot episode begins with abortion, as George attempts to bring a pro-life and a pro-choice advocate into the same dinner to hammer out some kind of peace between them. The sitcom premise is introduced when it is revealed that unfortunately this dinner is planned for the same evening as a romantic dinner date he had planned with Laura, and as she reminds him, “You said that even if you became president, your family would come first.”
The first half of the episode sets up the premise with some of the standard sitcom mile markers along the way. Laura and George get into a fight, but have to play it cool when kids enter the room (in this case, it’s a group of school children on a tour). The head of the pro-life organization is here early, and he’s a real tough customer (also he’s a 30-year-old partially aborted fetus). George gets some advice from his neighbor who suggests running back and forth between both dinners (but where does Larry live? How is he the White House’s neighbor? How does he walk through the front door?).
George attempts to follow Larry’s advice with the classic sitcom device of running back and forth between dinners, while switching (identical) jackets and ties in between the two dining rooms. Obviously, this all comes crashing to a halt when everyone involved ends up in the living room, Laura wearing only a ski parka, the fetus accidentally riding a dog, and George ending up with an entire sheet cake pushed into him. The episode ends Honeymooners-style with George and Laura talking over their differences. Bush apologizes and Laura forgives him with a slight barb, prompting George’s signature catchphrase (even though it’s the first episode, the “live” studio audience says it along with him): “One of these days Laura… I’m gonna punch you in the face!”
This Ralph Kramden-riff that closed every episode serves as the perfect encapsulation of the show: take an existing sitcom trope, inject an over-the-top level of edge into it, and put it into the sitting President’s mouth.
Ultimately, the show only made it for eight weeks, and the cast and crew kind of saw it coming. Despite the very quick schedule (each episode was shot in only two days), they still managed to go over budget, with each episode costing in the neighborhood of $1 million. Matt Stone describes the impossible odds they were up against: “We basically knew that in order for the show to continue we’d have to do better than South Park given the cost, and shooting on a lot…” And even if it had been bigger than South Park, what would have happened to That’s My Bush! after September 2001? With hindsight, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where there’s a season 2. But as long as there are presidents, it’s pretty safe to assume that comedians of every era will find new and innovative ways to satirize them (or use them as a way to satirize TV, as the case may be).
I mean, as long as nobody does anything to the first amendment, that is.