If there’s one thing Trump was right about, it’s that the presidency is a TV show. His obsession with ratings and air time, his calls into FOX News and his war with the “fake news” media — to his critics, this all signaled a desperate insecurity, but it was an assault that kept his supporters enthralled. And Trump had the undeniable gift of turning each press cycle into a cliffhanger, which suited liberal outlets as well as the right-wing rags. With another cryptic comment, outlandish lie or bizarre ad-lib, he kept you watching to see what the fuck would happen next.
But 15 years before Trump took office, Comedy Central debuted an actual show with a completely different read on presidential narrative. It was That’s My Bush!, a political satire of the White House under George W. Bush from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the duo’s first attempt at a live-action series. Though it addressed hot-button issues with their familiar shock aesthetic — like casting a fetal puppet as an anti-choice advocate who was unsuccessfully aborted while in utero — critics and viewers alike were surprised to find it was less an evisceration of Bush than a sendup of family sitcom tropes. You had the president as the bumbling but well-intentioned head of the home, Laura Bush as the demanding and horny housewife, a sassy maid (played by the legendary Marcia Wallace) and a cheerful neighbor who could inexplicably pop in whenever he felt like it. The theme song, too, was right on the nose.
While mocking the farcical plot structures used time and again in TV comedies from the 1960s onward (trying to be in two places at once, characters trapped together in a confined space, a misunderstanding that snowballs into a catastrophe), Parker and Stone seemed to suggest there was something predictable, even cliché, to the role of commander-in-chief. As is typical of their libertarian, both-sides-are-wrong mentality, the episodes envisioned Bush simply trying to placate everyone at once instead of pushing for the conservative agenda that defined his administration. The show was so politically agnostic, in fact, that the creators — who had originally planned a different show, titled Everybody Loves Al, focusing on a presumptive President Al Gore — were able to quickly reframe the concept around Bush after the 2000 electoral stalemate had been resolved. The quick shift in cast and production mirrored a dumb prevailing assumption in that contest: The two candidates were, as far as anyone cared, the same guy.
That’s My Bush! ran for eight episodes in the spring of 2001, with a season finale that was well aware of being the last hurrah. Comedy Central officially canceled the series that August, with the creators admitting the costs were too high for a small cable network. In our cultural memory, however, it’s easy to misremember the chronology and attribute the sitcom’s demise to 9/11 — a harrowing event that demolished any sense Americans had of a “predictable” course of history or governance. Stone and Parker have said that the show wouldn’t have survived the turmoil of that time, no doubt since the appetite for a lighthearted Washington spoof would have vanished, and the same hyper-patriotism that sent Bush’s approval rating into the stratosphere would have led to fiery denunciations of the premise as an attack on the republic as we know it.
As such, the experiment in meta television is now seen as a relic of a very short era, and consequently hard to find in the age of streaming. It’s not on Paramount+, the platform of Comedy Central owner ViacomCBS, and while the episodes are listed on Amazon Prime Video, they are currently “unavailable.” Your options are to track down the DVD set or log onto the Internet Archive. But That’s My Bush! is worth unearthing, both for what it reveals about the public consciousness 20 years ago and for what it anticipated in the decades to follow.
There’s the way Bush has no political will of his own, always steered by a committee that includes Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and his wife. There are the studio audience’s hammy reactions to the intrigue of the president’s personal life instead of the legislative policy at hand. And, in Bush’s marital catchphrase, a play on Ralph Kramden’s in The Honeymooners — “One of these days, Laura, I’m gonna punch you in the face!” — we have an expression of violence that could not be more Trumpian in its sinister glee. Voters may have thought they were getting a centrist in the “compassionate conservative,” and That’s My Bush! stems from the line that he’s a harmless dolt, but it also hints at a corrupt dynasty and the moral bankruptcy of gaining power for no other reason than thinking you deserve it. It’s no accident that the best TV skewering of Trump was another genre parody, The President Show, in which comedian Anthony Atamanuik hosted a late-night variety show as the spotlight-hogging narcissist himself.
Where The President Show’s improvisational twists conveyed a regime full of the unexpected, That’s My Bush! sought to provoke on the topical level while making the presidency out to be a laughably anodyne gig, one that put you in the impossible bind of never offending any part of your constituency. In a way, this assessment of the office as a prison of neutrality — furthered by “No Drama” Obama — is what opened up a channel of appeal for Trump, someone who could be counted on to flout every norm and tradition, saying and doing whatever had occurred to him five seconds prior, and doubling down on his most extreme rhetoric when the moment called for him to dial it back.
It would be a stretch to call That’s My Bush! a prescient show, buried as it was by 9/11 and the War on Terror — and a few of the jokes will make you wince — but give Stone and Parker credit for this: They understood that politics is nothing more than formula.