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Columns
Brains behind 'Bush' promise subliminal and surprising satire

Wednesday, April 04, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At first, Trey Parker wondered what George W. Bush was doing in Variety, the show-business bible. Then he realized it wasn't the 43rd president of the United States, but Timothy Bottoms, the once curly-haired actor from "The Last Picture Show," who bears an uncanny resemblance to the commander-in-chief. And that is how Bottoms, 50, came to be offered the role of President Bush in the Comedy Central sitcom "That's My Bush!" debuting at 10:30 tonight.

As for that title, well, Matt Stone says, "It had that really sitcom, Alan Thicke, '80s kind of feel to it. It just sounded like a sitcom, like 'Everybody Loves Raymond' or any of those kinds of things. 'All in the Family.' That real kind of cheesy sitcom sound to it."

Creators and executive producers Parker and Stone, the brains behind "South Park," have an eight-episode commitment and are prepared to go the distance -- even back to Texas years from now, if viewers take to the funny family. This is not a "Saturday Night Live" skit with someone doing an impersonation; it's a sitcom with an ensemble led by Bottoms.

Although it features the first couple, it's populated with the sort of sitcom regulars who popped up on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" or "The Bob Newhart Show" or any of the other comedies that have filled the airwaves: Sassy housekeeper, sexy secretary, nosy neighbor and the boss or what the men call the "Uh-oh, I gotta work" character. That's Bush adviser Karl Rove, played by Kurt Fuller.

Of course, on those traditional sitcoms, Laura Petrie's disclosure about Alan Brady's toupee or revelations during Newhart's therapy group might launch laughs, not frat brothers crashing an execution. That's the story in the second episode, where the president unwittingly invites his pals to witness a lethal injection.

His advisers tell him he can't bring his beer-drinking buddies to an execution, but the president pleads that they'll think he's a snob if he doesn't follow through. The president cooks up a plan to save face, but it goes awry.

The producers say, "He really learns maybe capital punishment isn't the best thing. But more important is Laura telling him at the end: 'That's what you get when you try to be something you're not. You tried to impress your frat buddies and you got yourself in trouble.' It always comes around to the sitcom stories."

Despite salacious reports to the contrary, the Bush daughters won't appear -- at least not in the initial episodes. That's not because the writers think it would be inappropriate or inflammatory, but because the young women are in college and it's been tough working them in. "That's My Bush!" already has a full complement of regulars.

"There hasn't been a fight yet because we haven't found a place for them. And so, we haven't really had the opportunity or desire to go fight it," Parker said, speaking by phone with reporters around the country. "If we came up with a script that was some brilliant idea, and we really thought it was great and it was a great way to work them in and it made sense to us, that's when we would go fight it. But for now, that hasn't happened."

Here's what else the pair -- their voices almost indistinguishable -- had to say about:

How "Bush" differs from "South Park": "We set out to make something that's literally 180 [degrees] from 'South Park,' that has this wholesome sitcom feel to it, and I think the outrageousness of it is so much more subliminal and subverted. People are going to be really surprised," says Parker.

Bush bashing: Not gonna happen, they claim. "I think people are expecting it to be 22 minutes of George Bush is a moron and can't talk and is stupid kind of jokes, and that's not what it really is," Stone insists. As with any sitcom, the central figure must be likable. Otherwise, no one would watch.

Meshing plots and politics: When they started mapping the shows, the men wrote eight of the biggest, most divisive issues -- such as abortion, euthanasia, gun control and death penalty -- on one side of a chalkboard. On the other were typical sitcom setups. And they matched the two, which is how the president ends up being double booked on the evening he had planned to broker peace between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. But politics takes a back seat to the more human stories.

Doing their homework: While the men had their favorites growing up, they indulged in a steady diet of current sitcoms to get the formula down pat. They watched everything from NBC's must-see lineup to the new Geena Davis show and "That '70s Show." Thus the sitcom conventions, such as the overly juiced laugh track and canned responses. There is no studio audience.

Producing only eight shows: The men had planned on doing 10, but the Florida fracas delayed everything. At one point, they were convinced the show would be about Al Gore and wrote half a script about him. Now, the men anticipate being sidelined by a possible writers' strike that could start in early May.

Off-limits topics: Assassination. They have to be careful about threatening the life of the president, even a fictional one bearing a real leader's name.

Being topical: The lead time on "Bush" is about a month, which means it's not possible to insert topical jokes the way "South Park" occasionally does. "Here, we just don't have that great control where we can shoot it within a couple of days and get it on the air. And also, it's never what we wanted to do with the show -- date it like that. If we could do that for the next Wednesday, it's already been done on Saturday on 'Saturday Night Live,' Leno and Letterman and Conan."

Whom they voted for: No one. Neither voted. They compared it to planning to see a movie, realizing the choices were "Battlefield Earth" and "Home Alone 8" and deciding to stay home. After the political conventions, they decided "one of the two lamest people in the country is going to be president, and that's why we didn't even bother."

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