Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Forgotten Favourites: That's My Bush!

I don't actually have a lot to say about That's My Bush!, the short-lived 2001 sitcom made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the duo behind South Park. It only lasted eight episodes, based partly on the huge cost of making it and, well, not many people giving a fuck once they realised that it wasn't a show actually making fun of George Bush. Everyone assumed it would be, but it turned out to just be a sitcom making fun of sitcoms. A little insular and such a curveball from expectations that I can't exactly blame people for not jumping on board, but, fuck it, I'll blame them anyway.

It's a remarkably stupid show full of lame, obvious jokes... but it works. It's meant to be stupid. It's only eight episodes, but they seem familiar because of the sitcom tropes Stone and Parker use. You've seen these stories a hundred times before, just not with these specific characters. There's the 'have to be in two places at once' episode or the 'trapped in an elevator' episode or the 'overhears a conversation and misunderstands what's going on' episode. It's all shit you've seen before, coupled with a random political issue that doesn't really mean anything, it's just that Bush was President and that was his day-to-day life.

Originally, Stone and Parker thought that the show would be about Al Gore with it being called "Everybody Loves Al." The show was pitched prior to the 2000 election, making Bush as the lead somewhat unexpected. Though, I do think Bush lends himself better to that likeable buffoon role.

The cast are all made up of sitcom types:

George is the likeable buffoon father/husband. He's well-meaning, but selfish at times and kind of dumb. See... well, every dad/husband in every sitcom. Ever.

Laura is the seemingly more intelligent mother/wife. Not necessarily smarter than her husband, she's just accepted as such. She acts as the moral barometer much of the time except when it's one of her own personal failings that is the centre of the episode.

Maggie is the sassy maid. Karl Rove is the sleazy workaholic. Princess is the dumb, hot bimbo. Larry is the annoying neighbour always willing to lend a hand.

The use of types is important as it allows Stone and Parker to work in shorthand. They don't need to really develop any characters, they can jump right in with no explanation ever. All you need to know is that Bush is President and be able to recognise all of the characters for their types. While you can argue that sitcom characters have some depth (and I would), the only characters here that offer any sort of complexity are George and Laura (though, Laura less so) and even that isn't much. It's all surface; all artiface.

Stone and Parker say that they constructed episodes in a fairly simple manner: combine sitcom stock situation with random political issue, then write the first half of the episode as a sitcom and the second half as farce. It's very effective with the first half setting up the situation, while the second half over does it so much that it collapses in upon itself. By the end of the show, it had become a parody of itself almost with a finale that had Dick Cheney get George fired, take over the show, and force Bush to seek work in the world, resulting in him running through a variety of sitcom parodies (The Jeffersons, Welcome Back, Kotter, Cheers, and Just Shoot Me...) before the status quo is eventually restored. What makes it even better is the inclusion of new opening credits with every new job.

Included within this framework is the Stone and Parker sensibility where they add cruder, more surprising touches to these stock characters and situations. When Barbara Bush arrives for an episode and the story is 'mother-in-law hates son's wife,' her hatred to Laura is so over-the-top, resulting in long, prolonged insults about Laura being a two-dollar truck stop whore or saying that she can smell the 'man jam' on her breath after accusing her of cheating on George. Or, the crazy mix-up episode has Laura worried that George finds her vagina digusting, while he discusses putting down their 24-year old cat (the unstated connection being that both plots involve concerns over an aging pussy, of course -- I'm kind of surprised they never used that word). The butting heads of these familiar, usually tame stories and characters with these harsher, more 'mature' elements creates an interesting tension that makes the show legitimately funny much of the time beyond its parodic nature. The surprise of the subjects of the plots creates laughs. George's punchline (with which he'd end every episode) is the perfect example of this: "One of these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you in the face!" It's said with affection, but is so direct and harsh in its parody of Ralph Kramden's 'moon' line that it can't help but amuse (slightly).

As they say in their commentaries for the show, Stone and Parker didn't think the show would have had much to say after these eight episodes. It works for a limited amount of time, but would grow tired and stale after a while -- mostly because of its lack of depth. It's so superficial that the final episode is almost all farce, getting through the premise in the cold open.

If you love (or hate) sitcoms, it's worth checking out.

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