Bury Presidential Comedy with George H.W. Bush

Column by Chris Stigall

The Chris Stigall Show
December 03, 2018 - 3:22 pm

Philadelphia (1210 WPHT) - When I was a kid in middle school, my favorite cast member on Saturday Night Live was – and still is – Dana Carvey.  I studied every character he invented or parodied.  One of his most famous impressions was of former president George H.W. Bush who died last Friday.

I loved that impression.  I remember a skit parodying a debate between Bush and his opponent Michael Dukakis particularly well.  Carvey’s Bush meandered, attempting to fill the two minutes he was allotted.  He groped around with phrases like “a thousand points of light” and “staying the course” and “recession – bad.”  It was so silly.  Jon Lovitz’ Dukakis responded simply, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

At that point in my life, I didn’t know about politics.  I didn’t know about Dana Carvey or Jon Lovitz’ personal politics either.  I didn’t have to and I didn’t care to.  It was just FUNNY.  It wasn’t full of overt attacks on Bush’s character or family or policies.  It didn’t feel like something shameful to be playfully supportive of the guy Carvey poked fun of on TV. 

In fact, I started performing my own H.W. impression.  In my 12-year-old head, I was as funny as Dana Carvey himself.  I did it in classes, at family gatherings – anywhere a captive audience gathered.  But I didn’t know the first thing about the real man I was impersonating. Rather, the impressionist I was impersonating.

During Bush’s only term in office, Carvey was invited to the White House to do his impression of the President in person.  I remember Bush sincerely laughing as Carvey riffed at the podium.  The assembled White House crowd was roaring with laughter. 

Carvey would later talk about how intimidating the episode was.  Not because he was afraid of angering the President, but because he couldn’t believe a goofy impression would afford him the honor of meeting and performing before the President of the United States. 

Again, I don’t know Carvey’s politics to this day, but I know he’s said in more recent interviews the intersection of comedy and today’s politics has become petty and personal. It’s not about the laugh and it’s certainly not about respect for the office you’re skewering anymore.  It’s about score settling. 

The Washington Post’s Travis Andrews wrote a piece this week on the Bush/SNL era and compared it today’s political/comedy environment.  He wondered if SNL paying tribute to the late president with a Carvey retrospective last weekend was a subtle commentary on the current president. 

The tribute featured a clip of Bush appearing on the show with Carvey in full makeup parodying him to his face.  Andrews said the clip “made it clear Bush was happy to play along, even with a comedian – and a show – that generally disagreed with his politics and made no effort to hide that fact.”

Andrews goes on to admit today’s treatment of President Trump on SNL is “relentless” and “far harsher” than the H.W. Bush years.  Nevertheless, he can’t help but throw in the obligatory “but Trump is no ordinary president” dig as to suggest Trump shouldn’t be afforded the good-natured ribbing Bush received.  Trump deserves the harsher treatment, you see?

And that’s just the problem.  This columnist drones on and on about the bygone era of politics and comedy and what a shame it is Trump won’t respond to SNL with the same humility and good humor Bush once did. 

Why would he?  How could he?  To what end?  Has Mr. Andrews done any research into the interviews Alec Baldwin has given when asked about his impression of Trump?  He’s said it’s “agony” for him to do because he has no respect for Trump.

The show actually featured a tearful “Halleluiah” tribute to Mrs. Clinton after Trump’s victory in 2016.  SNL has made it painfully clear.  Their side lost, they’re grieving, and now the nation is in terrible trouble. 

Trouble too great to warrant laughter. 

Perhaps the Washington Post doesn’t remember when Donald Trump guest hosted SNL in 2015 not long after he’d thrown his hat in the race.  I do.  At that time Trump was considered a laughable, political long shot.  However, he was a bankable ratings star so SNL jumped at the chance.

It scored some of their highest ratings in years, but that fact doesn’t matter to former cast member Taran Killam since Trump eventually won the White House.  In October of 2017, he told NPR Trump’s appearance is “something that only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on.”

“I don’t necessarily put so much weight into [the idea of] Trump hosting SNL helping him become president,” Killam continued.  “But there’s definitely something where it normalizes him and it makes it OK for him to be part of the conversation…”

Trump also made his rounds on late night talk shows around that time.  Jimmy Fallon received the most blowback for Trump’s appearance after the now infamous “can I touch your hair” moment.

The same word was later used to describe Fallon’s sin.  When he tussled Trump’s hair he “normalized” him. Fallon was so brow-beaten by his contemporaries he’d eventually have to apologize in the New York Times for not understanding the gravity of what he’d done in simply having fun with the future president.

Today, it’s pretty hard to imagine that former 12-year-old me doing Donald Trump impressions for teachers, friends, and family without it coming with a price to pay today.  It’s hard to imagine Trump inviting comedians to the White House to have a laugh at his expense, too.

It’s not because we’ve lost our ability to laugh at politics.  It’s not because Donald Trump doesn’t have the ability to laugh at himself.  He’s shown he knows how and is willing.

Very simply, most of today’s premiere comedians believe Donald Trump and those who cast their vote for him are irredeemable, dangerous, and certainly nothing worthy of  “normalizing.”

It’s kind of hard to have a laugh at that kind of hate.  I suspect the death of George H.W. Bush probably spells the death of good-natured, political comedy as well.