Monday, October 25, 2004

The Democratic and Republican presidential tickets are singing and dancing their way into the hearts (or at least the funny bones) of Americans, via the Internet.

In lively animation, President Bush complains, “I wish our winning were a bit more certain,” prompting Vice President Dick Cheney to declare, “Better call my friends at Halliburton.” Meanwhile, vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards says of Sen. John Kerry, “I love to hug and kiss this guy.” “Are they gay?” “We won’t say. On our way, to DC Land!”

So goes the first verse of the hit parody, “Good to Be in DC,” by JibJab Media (, a California-based independent production studio. Sung to the tune of “Dixie,” with an animated cast that includes former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the cartoon premiered Oct. 7 on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”

“Good to Be in DC” is the sequel to “This Land,” created by JibJab’s owners Gregg and Evan Spiridellis. With music from the old Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” that short cartoon became an instant sensation when it was released in July, with Mr. Bush calling Mr. Kerry a “liberal wiener” and the Massachusetts Democrat calling the president “a right-wing nut job.”

The response to “This Land” was so great — as friends e-mailed the JibJab link to each other — that “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno contacted the Spiridellis brothers to commission a second cartoon.

“It just speaks to the power of the Internet,” says Evan Spiridellis, who draws the cartoons to match his brother’s lyrics. “I guess a producer [at ‘The Tonight Show’] received [the cartoon] in her inbox from a friend … one thing led to another and before we knew it we were sitting on the couch with Jay Leno. It was quite a surreal experience.”

Production of the cartoons is something of a family affair, Evan Spiridellis says. He does the art for the cartoon, his brother writes the lyrics, wife Adrienne produces the music, and actor Jim Meskimen, a friend of the brothers, does the voices of most of the characters.

JibJab got its start five years ago when the brothers saw an Internet cartoon. At the time, Gregg Spiridellis was attending Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and his brother was working as an independent animator. After Gregg’s graduation, the brothers created an animation business.

“We found that political satire and entertainment really worked [on the Web] because it’s relevant to people’s lives and is stuff they pass around,” Gregg Spiridellis says.

Their first political satire was produced during the 2000 election campaign. The cartoon, titled “Capitol Ill” featured a “rap battle” between Mr. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. It got about 5 million views and eventually was licensed by the Fox network’s “Mad TV” program.

JibJab’s creators don’t just produce political satire. They have authored two children’s books, produced some advertising and are working on a feature-length film based on one of their books. In creating political parodies, the brothers say they hope to establish brand recognition of their work.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum from these [parodies], which is why we started doing them,” Gregg Spiridellis says. “The Web is what makes this possible; it’s a direct connection with our fans. When we walk into a TV or film company, that’s incredible leverage. We’re just a couple of guys with millions of people who like our stuff.”

Humor long has played a part in online politics, says Michael Cornfield senior research consultant at the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

“The earliest form was so-called parody sites where people would cut and paste the logos and the fonts of existing serious sites to poke fun at them,” Mr. Cornfield says.

During the 2000 presidential race, the Bush campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against the parody site, saying that the site, which portrayed the Republican candidate negatively, attempted to influence the election and should be treated as a political committee and be subject to election laws. The FCC ultimately dismissed the complaint, but not before Mr. Bush had called the site’s creator, Zach Exley, calling him a “garbage man.”

Bush-Cheney campaign officials did not return calls for comment on the JibJab parodies, but a White House spokesman said the cartoons are all in good fun.

“I think they’re funny, and we’ve always had an ability to laugh at ourselves. It’s a free country, and there’s room for humor,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

The Kerry campaign says that being the target of the cartoon’s jokes — including Mr. Edwards dancing in a red thong — is worth it if it serves a greater good.

“Political leaders have been caricatured from the dawn of time, and that’s a good thing,” says David Wade, a press secretary for the Kerry/Edwards campaign.

“If JibJab actually succeeds in encouraging wired Americans to vote, the same way MTV did in 1992 in awakening younger voters, then it’s worth the ribbing,” Mr. Wade says.

The bipartisan nature of the cartoons may be what makes them so popular, Mr. Cornfield says.

“They are nonpartisan cartoons; they are Republicans and Democrats literally arm in arm, and it gives people a sense that there will be happy ending to this story,” the Pew researcher says.

The Spiridellis brothers deny having any political agenda.

“Most people say we are incredibly even-handed,” says Evan Spiridellis. “At the end of the day our personal political point of view has nothing to do with the cartoons, [they are] just to make people laugh.”

“You can’t say nuclear

That really scares me

Sometimes a brain can

Come in quite handy

But it’s not gonna help you

Because I won three purple hearts

This land will surely vote for me”

“This land is your land

This land is my land

I’m a Texas tiger

You’re a liberal wiener

I’m a great crusader

You’re Herman Munster

This land will surely vote for me”

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