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.