Why Comedy Will Be Better Off Without Bush



Why comedy will be better without bush

Not only do I think that political TV comedy will survive the Bush presidency, I think comedy will actually be better off without him. In many ways, the Bush years have been pretty rotten for political jokes. At least, certain types of political jokes — the non-offensive, middle-of-the-road jokes that most late-night talk shows and prime-time comedies rely on.

Now, to start with, every U.S. President is inherently funny. This is even true of people who have no funny characteristics at all. Remember George H.W. Bush? There was nothing inherently funny about him; he was the kind of guy whose only distinguishing characteristic was his baffling tendency to think politics was an interesting career. Yet Dana Carvey made him hilarious, in part by making fun of the things that made him so boring — his hedging, cautious language, his “wouldn’t be prudent” attitude. JFK was the subject of best-selling comedy albums, and Vaughn Meader wasn’t even able to talk about JFK’s private life. We don’t know yet what kind of jokes there will be about Obama’s presidency, because his presidency hasn’t started yet. But his presidency will be funny, because the office is inherently funny. You’re taking one man, a regular man, and making him the most powerful person in the world. The idea of someone who is flawed (as every person is flawed) being given that kind of authority is the fuel of all political comedy. It’s true of any authority figure, of course, political or otherwise; it’s just magnified with the U.S. President because it’s the ultimate authority-figure job. So comedy is safe.

But comedy has had its problems under Bush II. Yes, there have been jokes about his patented brand of linguistic homicide. But there are only so many laughs comedians can get by quoting things the President actually said. They’ve had to lean so heavily on “Bushisms” jokes, in part, because those are the only jokes that are safe to make for a mass audience. G.W. Bush may well have been the most polarizing President of the modern era: the two extremely close elections, the 2000 recount and Supreme Court hijinks, the Iraq war and Karl Rove’s “50 + 1” strategy (based on the idea that the Republicans would have a slight electoral advantage in a closely divided country) all guaranteed that any comment about Bush, positive or negative, would be highly controversial. Just ask the Dixie Chicks. And then, of course, in the aftermath of 9/11 there were several months where it was felt that it would be impolite to make fun of Bush; The Simpsons dropped the idea of doing a caricature of Bush — he was supposed to get revenge on Homer for beating up his dad — around that time.

The result was that from 2001 to somewhere in 2005, comedians shied away from any Bush joke that could get them into Dixie-Chick territory. Even The Daily Show played it pretty safe at times. The Simpsons never did do a caricature of Bush, after bringing Clinton (“Hey, I’m a pretty lousy president”) and Bush Sr. on in several episodes. Bush Sr. jokes were fine because he didn’t inspire strong feelings of love or hate (which is not the same as saying that there were no good reasons to support or oppose him); but from 2001 to 2005, W. was not only passionately opposed by many people, but he was the subject of an equally passionate cult of personality, particularly after 9/11. That guaranteed that any joke about G.W. Bush would get people angry. Except, of course, jokes about the way he talked. Nobody cares about those, because those jokes mostly suck anyway.

Comedy has finally recovered in the past two or three years, and that’s because Bush went from being a polarizing 50-50 figure to being more of a 25-75 figure. Once somebody has approval ratings in the low 30s for months on end, it’s safe to make fun of him. (Nixon may have had a similar thing going; I get the impression from late ’60s and early ’70s comedy that comedians were a little leery of Nixon jokes until Watergate broke and he became Mr. Unpopular.) But before that, it was a long comedic slog. The Bush I and Clinton and even Reagan presidencies inspired way better jokes. (Remember Harry Stone on Night Court, talking to Reagan on the phone and then telling someone standing next to him: “Listen, fathead, the last thing we need is to have some trigger-happy lunatic in charge!” then, into the phone: “No, Mr. President, I wasn’t talking to you. Yes, I’m sure you do get that kind of thing all the time.” It was just a throwaway joke, but just imagine that joke on NBC in 2004. It would have been a talk-radio controversy for the whole week.) And while I have no idea how Obama’s presidency will turn out, I think that if he turns out to be less controversial than Bush — not that hard — the jokes will be more plentiful.

Filed under:

Why Comedy Will Be Better Off Without Bush

  1. Did any entertainers actually suffer backlash for supporting Bush during these past years, before ’05 or after? Honest question, I don’t remember any cases, but I could’ve missed them.

  2. You have a more positive view of what’s to come with comedians than I do, that’s for sure. I have read a few items in American newspapers that say Obama is too cool, literate, well spoken … etc to ever make fun of him.

    I also think political correctness will be a factor here because many people won’t make fun of a black guy no matter what they say/do or they will feel uncomfortable hearing jokes about minorities.

  3. jwl – Obama will be the President of the United States. If/when he starts making mistakes, he’ll be fair game.

  4. jwl,

    When Obama was on the Daily Show in the week before the election, Stewart asked him if he was afraid that his white half might resist voting for his black half at the last minute in the booth.

  5. “I have read a few items in American newspapers that say Obama is too cool, literate, well spoken … etc to ever make fun of him.”

    I have to think that’ll end up being the same kind of in-the-moment navel-gazing that led to widespread declarations of “the end of irony” after 9/11, with the same lasting significance.

  6. Depends.

    Race is a very touchy issue in America, and one that comics have never had to deal with before when lampooning a President of the United States. That’s not saying that if Obama does something worthy of ridicule that he won’t get it, but you can be sure there will be far more vetting of every joke, at least initially, in order to avoid saying a line one night, and finding Al Shapton’s on the doorstep of your corporate parent the next morning making allegations that could harm your career (and keeping his name in the public spotlight at the same time).

    On the other hand, if Obama does something worthy of ridicule during the day and the usual sources of political comedy come on that night and are doing Sarah Palin clothing/Joe Biden hair plugs jokes, people will go elsewhere either on cable or on the Internet to find their political humor.

  7. Boring!!

    They’ll only do the jokes as long as it’s safe and/or “politically correct”.
    Sadly, networks, including the Daily Show, know who butter’s their bread.
    They all jump on the money wagon when the ride is smooth but see who stays on board when they hit the potholes.
    Check out HBO if you want some off the edge journalism.

    C MAC

  8. Too bad that the Dixie Chicks got bashed so badly when they said what is now the common perception of the entire planet…at a time when only the planet OUTSIDE the USA felt that way.

    One of the main difficulties that we face today is the wilful ignorance of the populace…always willing to ignore common sense and logic because “we’re too busy” to even take the time to think about the world around us, and what effects those “omnipotent government entities” decisions will actually have, once made without our knowledge, and enforced to the highest possible degree.

    People still believe that the idea of a “Sovereign Nation” is a factual one, but the fact remains that only a PERSON can be Sovereign. A proper definition of a “Sovereign Nation” would be “A Nation of Sovereigns.” Since people are specifically limited in their education in such matters–strangely enough, by government-enforced education mandates–it is not a surprise that the people remain ignorant…but with the world changing in such dramatic leaps and bounds over the last few decades, why are the people still ignorant, even though they have no choice but to see what is happening?

    Until people think, they are not a thinking people…and until there exists a truly thinking people, government and big business interests will continue to expand their ever-more-opressive control over them.

    Now you can go back to your regularly schedule discussion on “the humour of politics” and ignore the realities of what politics is doing to the people…which isn’t tthe least bit funny for those who think…

  9. What are you babbeling about Electropig??? That Sociological “every person is sovergine” clap-trap is so irrelevent to the topic at hand that I don’t know why you bothered to post. Good God! Now i know what my friends mean when they say the tin-foil hat left.
    The reason that the Dixi-Chicks were beaten up so bad after there comments about Bush is that even if America was not popular at all the American people were hurting and President Bush was there to rally the people. Whether he did a good job or not is besides the point. Suffice it to say the people looked up to him for leadership and beating up beating him up at that time and place was a bit like someone going up to your father and beating him senseless for no reason whatsoever.

    I think that comedy will endure because everyone screws up eventually and Obama is bound to do something stupid. In Canada we don’t have politicians like Dubya but we find something to laugh at and in America they will too!

Sign in to comment.