In the South Park episode “A Million Little Fibers,” there’s a subplot involving a conspiracy between Oprah Winfrey’s anus and vagina. The vagina is a no-bullshit tough guy, while the anus, “Gary,” is a sensitive soul with dreams of visiting France. At the end of the episode, Gary is wounded and begins to hallucinate. “We’re in Paris,” the vagina offers as comfort to its dying friend. “We’re in Paris.”
To the extent that this is funny, it’s funny because it is, for lack of a better word, moving. Not that anyone actually cares about the fate of the anthropomorphized orifices, but just as audiences are primed to root for whoever’s point of view a story takes, so are they primed to react when a character trait that had been set up gets resolved. The humor comes in the juxtaposition between a sincere-ish response occurring over something so transparently stupid.
This is, more or less, what South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done their entire careers. For all the ballyhooed commentary in their famous cartoon, their most consistent satirical target has been the clichés and formulas of story structure itself. Instead of one-liners, a typical joke for them is to underline a cliché by swapping standard details (a lonely boy finds the holiday spirit thanks to a magical new friend) for inane or gross-out ones (the new friend is a talking turd). Team America: World Police mines humor by adhering to the well-established story beats of action movies, just as The Book Of Mormon does with musicals. As Patton Oswalt told The A.V. Club:
I was talking to Bobby Lopez, who is the lyricist [of Mormon]. He’s like, “This song is this old Broadway trope and this song is that old Broadway trope. We just took that delivery system and had it say shit you never would imagine you would hear being said on Broadway, and that’s what’s so fuckin’ shocking.” They weren’t up there going, “We did it. We fucked with the whole…” No! They literally did a Broadway show you would see in the ’50s! The opening is basically the “Hiya Hugo” thing from Bye Bye Birdie. He’s like, “Yeah! We fucked with it!” I love that! I’m so much more about content rather than form. And I think people get so hung up on form. “I’m gonna change the form, man!” “Yeah, but you don’t know how the form works yet.”
Team America is a cult favorite, and Mormon a Tony-winning smash, but those were not the first bombs Parker and Stone threw at form and formula. In 2001, when South Park was beginning its transition from shock humor to the more ambitious comedy it is today, the pair created another stylistically accurate genre spoof, taking aim at network sitcoms. Specifically, the worst and laziest that had proliferated over airwaves in the 1980s.
The result was That’s My Bush!, a family sitcom starring the nation’s First Family, and a workplace farce set in the Oval Office, starring the newly inaugurated President George W. Bush (Timothy Bottoms) and wife Laura (Carrie Quinn Dolin). Each episode took a political issue like the death penalty or drugs and paired it with a purposefully stale rehash of a sitcom plot: an inconvenient visit from college buddies, enemies resolving their differences by getting trapped in a small space. In the episode about euthanasia, Laura overhears George talking about her sickly pet cat, and misinterprets it as him expressing disgust with her vaginal odor. In the abortion episode, a fondue summit between the pro-choice and pro-life camps is scheduled on the same evening as a long-awaited date night, forcing George to attempt to attend both. (As he dashes from event to event, he frantically changes from a jacket and tie… into an identical jacket and tie.)
Despite being set in the White House—and a “real” White House, as opposed to the fictional administration of 1600 Penn—the show wasn’t out to score political points. Had the election gone differently, Parker and Stone were ready to develop a Gore series, which was to have been titled Everybody Loves Al.
Now, who knows what that would’ve looked like, but it’s hard to deny that the members of the Bush administration, at least in the way they were popularly viewed, were ideally suited to Parker and Stone’s purposes. The president came off as a quintessential TV dad, bumbling and buffoonish, an anti-intellectual frat boy who eschewed nuance and whose gut led him into foolhardy plans. Like a sober Homer Simpson, he basically lucked his way into a job where he held lives in his hands, and like Homer Simpson, he was not without a folksy charm or candidate-I’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with relatability. One can easily imagine him vegging out on the couch with a hand in his pants, à la Al Bundy, just as one can imagine a sitcom character choking on a pretzel. (Arguably, the joke of Al could have been that the sitcom version didn’t match the notoriously bland real guy, similar to how The Onion has “covered” Joe Biden. Whether that would have been funnier is up for debate.)
Bush’s qualities were countered by Laura, who perfectly fit the bill of a sitcom wife—loving, smarter than her husband, and perpetually exasperated by his schemes and foibles. Beyond them, one-time characters didn’t have to have their public personas stretched to meet the clichés of their roles. Administration puppet master Dick Cheney (Edmund L. Shaff) essentially played Bush’s hardass boss (firing him in the series finale, leading to the in-show spinoff That’s My Dick!—even the names were aligned for low-brow jokes.), while Barbara Bush (Marte Boyle Slout) cameoed as the mother-in-law from hell. Her relationship with Laura is basically the Marie-Debra dynamic from Everybody Loves Raymond, had Doris Roberts called Patricia Heaton a whore every other line.
That’s My Bush! could’ve carried this even farther had it lasted past eight episodes, with Colin Powell as the token black friend or Jeb as the preferred son who drives the hero mad with sibling rivalry. And of course the Bush twins would have been in the great tradition of sitcom kids, especially in their college-partying days. (Parker and Stone, who reportedly conceived of a lesbian subplot involving the two, eventually agreed to not feature them as characters, instead consolidating their planned bimbo traits into Princess, an assistant played by Kristen Miller.)
Despite the unflattering portrayals, none of the jokes were political in any ideological sense. Bear in mind that the show aired in April and May of 2001, when it was not only too early into the administration’s tenure to comment on the impact of its policies, but toward the end of America’s national nightmare of peace and prosperity. It’s hard to imagine now, given how divisive Bush’s eight years in office proved to be, but at the time his billing himself as a uniter and a “compassionate conservative” were not particularly controversial. So ideologically close was he seen to his election opponent that Saturday Night Live did a sketch where he and Gore were fused into “a flaming maelstrom of moderate thought.”
It was a great time to joke about political banality, but a harder time for hardcore satire on the state of the union, especially compared to today. In the show’s eight episodes, there’s only one line that comes across as particularly pointed (Bush admonishes the wisecracking maid to stop bothering him and do the laundry, and she retorts, “I can do what your father did and separate the whites from the coloreds.”). Even the bits touching on issues that remain hotly debated don’t come down on any particular side. In the abortion episode, the moral Bush learns is that the pro-life and pro-choice camps came by their views sincerely, and therefore each side needs to respect the other. That’s the kind of easy, nothing lesson that comes standard-issue for desperately innocuous sitcoms.
The point of the show was easier to see beyond the First Family. Filling out the cast were other stock characters, including Princess as a pretty-but-dumb blond, a confidant/best friend (Kurt Fuller, whose Karl Rove was intentionally not close to the real thing), and Maggie, a sassy housekeeper in the tradition of Mr. Belvedere or The Brady Bunch’s Alice (Marcia Wallace, the late Bob Newhart Show alum who went on to voice Edna Krabappel). There was also Larry O’Shea (John D’Aquino), Bush’s next-door neighbor, who dropped in on his buddy every week and was basically Married… With Children’s Jefferson.
The show’s most overt send-up, Larry is the character who best explains what Parker and Stone were doing, which was to parody sitcom tropes by emphasizing their ridiculousness. Bush’s acting was deliberately broad, the jokes intentionally bad (“What’s a Hindu?” “Lays eggs.”). The buried hostility in a lot of sitcom marriages—for example, the implicit threat in The Honeymooners’ famous catchphrase, “One of these days… Pow! Right in the kisser!”—is here made explicit in Bush’s “One of these days, Laura, I’m going to punch you in the face!” a line that ends every episode, accompanied by whoops of canned laughter and the “live studio audience” reciting along. Naturally, there’s a jaunty theme song.
The pop-culture context needed to get the joke wasn’t exactly obscure, but it was necessary to appreciate it on more than one level. When Rove tells Bush why he can’t reschedule a meeting with the head of the pro-life movement—a 40-year-old fetus with a combover and Cartman voice who himself survived an abortion—Rove describes him with the line, “He is bitter, he is angry, and he hates being canceled on.” As with Oprah’s dying anus, the punchline comes from less the content than the structure; it’s funny because the line has the cadence of a joke—in this case, the “rule of threes” joke—with the added edge of a hot-button issue.
All this was probably harder than it looked, especially for Bottoms, who was simultaneously convincing as both a sitcom character and a recognizable version of a real person. (He later gave a dramatic turn as Bush in the TV movie DC 9/11: Time Of Crisis). But here’s the issue: In order for That’s My Bush! to be a successful take on bad sitcoms, it itself had to be bad. Where The Book Of Mormon didn’t violate itself by being a good musical that also tweaked musical structure, That’s My Bush! couldn’t be a good bad sitcom and still be good. Had the punchlines been clever or the stories intelligent, it would have failed in its quest for verisimilitude, which was a key component of the joke. No matter how adeptly the show captures the tone and laziness of sitcoms at their worst, it—intentionally or not—doesn’t provoke a single unironic laugh.
Because of this, the show’s audience eroded quickly, despite strong viewership for the pilot. There was a certain amount of precedent for this: The notorious British show Heil Honey I’m Home—which spoofed sitcoms from the 1950s, this time with Adolf Hitler as patriarch—lasted a single episode. That makes That’s My Bush! a comparable success, but it’s hard to imagine how this could’ve extended much past eight episodes, even with countless clichés to base episodes on. (The show was cancelled prior to 9/11, but Parker has said the attacks would have forced cancellation regardless because of the political mood. A steep budget—approximately $700,000 an episode—also hastened the show’s demise.) Perhaps a stronger political point of view was necessary, just as Team America and The Book Of Mormon featured thoughtful and coherent takes on American foreign policy and faith, giving them a depth that led to appreciative audiences revisiting them. That’s My Bush!, on the other hand, was so transparently stupid that the second it was over, everyone wanted to pretend it had never happened in the first place. Which, as it turns out, was the most prescient commentary it could have made about its subject matter.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo