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 Playing for Laughs 

February 16, 2006 
I’ll never be a fan of Dick Cheney, and I’ve had my fun with the Incident, but I have to respect the simple way, humble yet dignified, he blamed himself for that hunting accident. No excuses. No histrionics. Just a straight, Today's column is "Playing for Laughs" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.unadorned acceptance of fault. “I pulled the trigger ... I shot my friend.”

In fact Cheney’s position may distress his defenders, such as Rush Limbaugh, who has already laid out the unofficial Republican position that it was Harry Whittington’s own fault he got shot. It was as if Stalin had taken responsibility for the Ukrainian famine when his apologists had already put out the word that the peasants had committed mass suicide by starvation.

I try to think of every presidency as a sitcom; this makes it more bearable than measuring it against, say, the U.S. Constitution. The Ronald Reagan Show ran for eight years, its ratings slumping slightly toward the end, but it’s still fondly remembered; The Clintons ran for eight years too, with a brilliant supporting cast of eccentric characters backing up its two stars, and toward the end it became pretty racy, with parents strongly cautioned. It may yet be revived in a spinoff, Hillary!

George the Younger, now in its sixth year, is floundering. George W. Bush is its gaffe-prone Ted Baxter, and Cheney is its Lou Grant, a reassuring adult presence. George’s signature facial expression is a blank look, reminiscent of Johnny Carson’s mock-blank stare when a joke flopped; his vaguely simian features add to the fun, leading the viewer to suspect that his trousers are concealing a vivid crimson backside like a baboon’s.

Though the scripts have gotten weaker over the years, the show is sustained by a great running gag: George can never think fast enough to ad lib his way out of trouble, and he needs the articulate Dick to finish his sentences for him. The two go together like Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Each episode is prefaced by an ominous FBI warning, which is part of the joke.

In one of the show’s classic episodes, George and Dick hilariously got their wires crossed. Dick charged that the villain, Saddam Hussein, was surreptitiously supplying terrorists with nuclear weapons. George chimed in, “Yeah, and he’s giving them box-cutters too!” Dick gave him a look that could wilt a redwood, but George responded with that trademark blank stare, bringing down the house.

[Breaker quote for Playing for Laughs: The presidency as sitcom]Then there was the time George’s bumbling CIA director assured him that the evidence of Saddam’s arsenal was a “slam dunk,” a term Dick, catching that blank stare again, explained to him by holding two thumbs up. A few weeks into the war, George, thinking it was already over, appeared in a flight suit under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” This became a national catch phrase, one of many the show has inspired.

And who can forget the time Hurricane Katrina caught George unprepared? The show descended into pure slapstick, but audiences howled as George pledged to rebuild New Orleans under water, no matter what the cost.

Recent episodes have featured George calling himself a “conservative” while proposing a $2.77 trillion budget, and calling for “strict construction” of the Constitution while claiming that he is entitled to ignore acts of Congress forbidding domestic spying. Other episodes have introduced zany minor characters like Harriet Miers, Jack Abramoff, and Scooter Libby. The repeated punchline, “denies any wrongdoing,” should also become a national catch phrase.

Some critics think George the Younger occasionally strains credulity, but most agree that it has taken satire to a level unusual for television. In addition, it is wholesome entertainment for the entire family, unlike, say, The Clintons, where the raunch often got out of control. Mrs. Bush gives the show its healthy tone, in the most fetching female role since June Cleaver, Beaver’s mom. She deserves much credit for the absence of the gratuitous sex that mars too many of today’s sitcoms.

If the show can be faulted for anything, it’s for milking the oldest sitcom cliché by showing the father as a boob. But this is to cavil. George the Younger should take its place beside M*A*S*H, Taxi, Cheers, and Seinfeld as one of television’s enduring comedy series, with a long afterlife on cable.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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