It's nothing personal, mr. president. The South Park guys are actually sending up situation comedy. So when the George W. Bush character says to a prisoner he's about to execute, "Hey scum, ready to die by lethal injection? Maybe you'd prefer the gas chamber," and then farts in his face, you have to understand that they're actually deconstructing a sitcom trope. If anything, Mr. President, Trey Parker and Matt Stone think this is going to be a big boost to your image. "We wanted to take George Bush, who is somewhat vilified, and make him likeable," explains Stone. "To us, that's way more subversive than making him look like an a_____."
If one of Bush's big campaign promises was to restore dignity to the Oval Office, he'd better focus on that tax cut. That's My Bush!, the South Park creators' sitcom about the current Administration that finally ends the discussion about how far the media can go in their treatment of a politician's personal life, debuted in the U.S. in April (the series is airing in Australia on SBS through July 7). In the first few episodes, Bush stages a fake execution for his old frat buddies but mistakenly takes them to the real one; the Chief Executive steals cable but mixes up the wires and launches a bomb at the Third World; and an attempted assassination makes the President rethink gun control.
But Parker and Stone don't seem to have any disdain for the President. Neither voted, and they sold the idea of a sitcom about the presidency to cable TV's Comedy Central (half-owned by AOL Time Warner, parent company of Time) months before the election; the recount pushed the show back from its planned March debut and also reduced the number of episodes from 10 to eight. In fact, before November, the only plot they had sketched out had President Gore trying to convince people that he was the real President while being usurped by a life-size robot. And before they chose the presidency as their canvas, the duo considered making a sitcom about the Baldwin brothers. "Sitcoms take a person, like Raymond, and make everybody love him," says Parker. "So we thought, ĆHow f_____ up would it be to take a real person and make everybody love him?'" Love, in the world of Parker and Stone, doesn't involve a lot of coddling.
Before they started preparing for the show, which involved watching old sitcoms, taking a trip to the White House and getting a tour of the Everybody Loves Raymond set, neither had watched a sitcom in 10 years. "The ones I hate the most are the ones where the laughs come from people being mean to each other," says Stone. So in the Bush show they went about spoofing the genre, down to the wacky neighbor, ditsy secretary and, of course, the stupid, bumbling husband.
The budget-the largest Comedy Central has ever attempted, although it won't say precisely how big it is-gives the show convincing White House sets. "This is very expensive for Comedy Central. There's almost no way they can make money on it," says Parker. "I'm thinking we get to do eight of these, and that's it. But they'll always be on dvd."
As they shoot the execution scene, Parker's mother and grandmother sit on director's chairs, the elder taking furious notes. "I was a little worried at first," says grandma Betty Marsh. "But I think the President will appreciate it, because it's so funny." As she says this, Bush is pouring Drano into the veins of the prisoner, grabbing the priest's bible away from him and yelling, "You have the right to die like a little bitch." Mum laughs. Grandma looks a bit confused.
Timothy Bottoms, who plays the President, does a spot-on imitation. His Bush is indeed lovable and bumbling, but his politics seem to have little relation to those of the real Bush. End-of-episode lessons, for example, make him pro-choice but still anti≠gun control. Bottoms, who needs little makeup for the part (except for prosthetics to make his ears stick out), says he discovered his similarity to the President about a year ago: "I wasn't getting much work so I called up my agency and said, ĆIf George Bush wins the presidency, could you call his Administration and see if he needs a body double to use as a decoy?'"
Instead, he got a call from Parker, who had glanced at a picture of Bottoms in a Variety review of a play and said to Stone, "What is Bush doing in Variety?" Turns out Bottoms, best known for playing Sonny in The Last Picture Show, is apolitical but oddly tight with the Republicans, being good friends with Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti and married to a woman who has a friend who once dated W. But Bottoms wasn't very familiar with sitcoms, or with Parker and Stone. "My kids told me I'd better watch South Park, so I turned it on," he says. He was underwhelmed. "I said, ĆYou guys watch this stuff?'"
Bottoms doesn't seem too worried about Bush's reaction to the show. In fact, the only person the admittedly liberal-leaning staff seems concerned about is chief strategist Karl Rove, who is portrayed as the archconservative, hot-tempered brains behind the White House and as the staff member who quite obviously resents the Big Guy. "I just don't want to get audited," says Kurt Fuller, who plays Rove.
But other than an order from Comedy Central not to proceed with an early plan to cast the Bush daughters as wild lesbians and a legal problem with joking about assassinating the President, they haven't felt hampered. "I was more scared about the Scientologists and the Mormons when we did them on South Park. They're way more organized than the government," says Parker. The Administration declines to comment.
Parts of the show, though funny, are clearly going to annoy some viewers, however. "At the end of every episode, George says, ĆOne of these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you in the face,' and the audience says it with him," Parker explains. Then he laughs and shakes his head. "Dude, it's so wrong."