On Comedy Central, Bush’s Speech Was a Laughing Matter : Television: The cable channel’s ‘State of the Union: Undressed’ provides a real alternative, like it or not.


Renegade TV versus mainstream values.

In the new world of TV alternatives, underground counter-programming took a significant step Tuesday night when the Comedy Central cable channel, available in 22 million homes, did an all-out, almost merciless spoof of President Bush’s State of the Union address--showing the speech live and deflating it as he went along with mock news coverage and running commentary.

Just two days before, another new TV alternative, the Fox network, counter-programmed an almost sacred national monument--the Super Bowl--with a racy broadcast of “In Living Color” during halftime that contrasted wildly with the traditional intermission goings-on over at CBS.

But while “In Living Color” was primarily a clever marketing tool for Fox, Comedy Central’s “State of the Union: Undressed” was a fascinating example of what TV’s new universe originally promised but rarely has delivered: total disagreement with the Establishment, not only of society but also of the television world itself.


Comedy Central had to use a First Amendment argument in a threatened court suit to gain access to a pool feed of the address.

The comedy channel’s entire approach to Bush’s speech was sure to enrage some of the President’s supporters and probably others as well. But there were, after all, half a dozen other networks carrying the speech in traditional fashion.

In the beginning, the dream of many who looked to cable as a genuine alternative was that it would provide a smorgasbord of different views, from the extreme right to the extreme left. Maybe there would be a channel for the local police department and another for anarchists.

What happened, of course, was that the big brokers moved in, as usual, and perverted this dream so that much of cable is not so very different from what we see on ABC, CBS and NBC.

In this context, Comedy Central’s “State of the Union: Undressed” was groundbreaking--embodying the lack of respect for authority that is part of the proud tradition of the United States. A real TV alternative, like it or not. Unsportsmanlike, yes. Nihilistic, yes--reflecting a serious cynicism toward the politicians of any major party.

But, primarily because of the sophisticated, witty comments of Comedy Central’s two chief correspondents for the speech--Al Franken and Billy Kimball--the surreal takeoff also embodied some of the best elements of humor: rebellion and a healthy lack of conventional taste when it was called for. The success of the broadcast as a lampoon was chiefly attributable to the choice of Franken and Kimball to carry the experiment.


The takeoff was vastly more grown-up than the halftime broadcast of “In Living Color,” with its foul insinuations of the personal lives of two well-known personalities whose names were mentioned.

At the start of Bush’s speech, Kimball asked Franken for his thoughts. “Basically, I’m looking for an apology,” said Franken, an old-time regular of “Saturday Night Live,” which, along with “Laugh-In” and the Smothers Brothers comedy series of the 1960s, helped set the stage for the eventual emergence of broadcasts such as the State of the Union knockoff.

Added Franken: “I also expect him to mention Elvis.”

Which the President did.

Kimball and Franken wisely shut up when Bush spoke of those who have sacrificed their lives for the country and during a mention of AIDS. But for much of the time, their sublime outrageousness, often offered so quietly and matter-of-factly that it seemed like understatement, was deadly.

Sample: “The President is being applauded by the white senators’ caucus.”

When Bush noted that the economy was the “prime problem,” Franken observed: “Wow.”

The President, however, seemed to wear down the pair with his vigor as the speech went on. At one point, Franken deadpanned: “I should have prepared more. This is a long speech.”

At another point, Franken asked: “What’s he talking about now, Billy?” Kimball: “I couldn’t tell you, Al.”

As Bush discussed what can be done “to keep families together,” one of the pair fairly shouted off-screen: “Jobs! Jobs!”

But Kimball may have gotten off the best line of the night when he noted of a Bush passage: “Unusually angry note there when he mentioned kindness.”

And Franken noted: “Someone here should defend Bush. . . . Not me.”

There were, of course, the usual, mainstream TV post-mortems of the speech. But CBS had something new and fascinating that, in an odd way--if you were an understandably disoriented viewer of the Comedy Central spoof--fit in with its tough assessment of the address:

In a follow-up show called “America on the Line,” CBS used a whiz-bang computer setup in Omaha that it said received 24.6 million calls, 315,000 of which got through, from viewers who tried to air their views on specific questions. Bush did not come off well on such matters as job concern and his understanding of the middle-class.

However, the broadcast, anchored by Dan Rather, Connie Chung and Charles Kuralt, also noted that a more scientific CBS poll showed Bush doing well. In short, the comedy wasn’t all on Comedy Central.

And on the comedy channel, at least, there were no ifs, ands or buts. It preceded the Bush speech with two old military sitcoms--”CPO Sharkey” and “McHale’s Navy,” followed by “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes,” which led into the address. Irreverent promos also hyped the speech. And Comedy Central “news” anchor Paul Provenza promised a later “translation into English of the President’s address.”

The comedy channel got lots of mileage out of Bush’s throwing-up during a Japanese banquet, but the President one-upped the mockery by joking about the incident himself.

Viewers of Comedy Central saw expert opinions--during the speech--from such characters as a psychic, a manicurist (“I would say that prolonged clapping of the hands can irritate the hands”), an aerobics instructor, a fashion designer and a media consultant. There was also a graphic of an approval rating during the speech (it plummeted) and an “ambient noise meter.”

“We’ll be back next year,” said Kimball.

“I frankly doubt it,” said Franken.