- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

President Bush’s polarizing eight years in office did manage to unite one group behind him in virtual lockstep. Where would comedians be without the Bush administration?

Humorists had a field day when Bill Clinton was president, riffing on his various appetites, but they were just warming up for his successor. The plainspoken man from Crawford, Texas, gave comics an easy target. What other president inspired a sitcom, Comedy Central’s “That’s My Bush,” during his first year in office?

Comics feasted on the president’s “Bushisms,” his actions (especially those perceived as misdeeds by some) and even the way he pronounced the word “nuclear.”

Insult comic Lisa Lampanelli said Mr. Bush’s Texas roots opened the floodgates for her fellow comics before he set foot in the Oval Office.

“When you have a president who’s a white guy with a Southern accent, by default they go to the stupid jokes,” said Miss Lampanelli, who will have two shows Jan. 24 at the Warner Theatre downtown.

Events such as the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the current economic crisis gave political humorists even more material about the president. Comedians live for disaster, even when it hits close to home, Miss Lampanelli said.

“Comics get happy when bad things happen in their lives,” she said.

Then again, the constant barrage of “Bush is dumb” gags worked only for top-flight comics like Lewis Black and Stephen Colbert, she said.

“Those guys really know what they’re doing,” she said. “Any open miker [amateur] figured he’d take a shot, but it takes a really good comic to make an original joke about anything.”

Political comic Jimmy Tingle said most presidents don’t experience a national disaster in their first year in office. That handcuffed comedians who otherwise would have teed off on any commander in chief.

“After 9/11, he was out of bounds. People were so traumatized,” he said. “People didn’t want to be reminded that this wasn’t a guy with a lot of foreign policy experience.”

Mr. Tingle still lobbed a few jokes after the attacks, riffing that the president shouldn’t say “crusades” again in public.

“That would get a laugh,” he said.

The comedic turning point, as Mr. Tingle sees it, came when Mr. Colbert was invited to perform at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, where he used his right-wing alter ego to skewer the administration. After that, comics returned to Bush bashing with new zest.

“[Mr. Colbert] was there with all the insiders. [Mr. Bush] became fair game again,” he said.

Maz Jobrani, part of the Axis of Evil comedy tour, recalls cool reaction to his Bush jokes at the start of the Iraq war.

“I found the crowd getting more sensitive. They weren’t laughing. I had to remind them that’s the beauty of this country. We’re allowed to make fun of the president,” Mr. Jobrani said.

“I couldn’t make fun of the president of Iran in Iran,” said Mr. Jobrani, an Iranian-American.

Doug Williams, host of “Martin Lawrence Presents First Amendment Stand Up” on Starz, said it wasn’t just Mr. Bush who supplied comics with material. Vice President Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of a hunting buddy in 2006 was the gift that kept on giving.

“When Cheney went back to work as if nothing had happened … that was pure comedy,” Mr. Williams said, adding that some of his show’s comics riffed on Mr. Bush being “a gangster in the White House … the ‘OG’ president.”

But while comedians like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock let loose on the president on and off for eight years, impressionist Frank Caliendo said he made sure to respect the man - and the office.

Mr. Caliendo, star of TBS’ “Frank TV,” said some comics would simply rip the president “without a joke” attached.

“I think he’s kind of a regular guy in a lot of ways. He was put in one of the most difficult positions anyone’s ever been put in,” Mr. Caliendo said. “That’s pretty jarring. I always looked at it like that.”

While some comics fed off their hatred for the president or his policies, Mr. Caliendo said, he focused more on the silly moments, the mannerisms that set him apart from his predecessors.

President-elect Barack Obama hasn’t taken office yet, but Mr. Caliendo already is ramping down the Bush material in his act.

“I’m in my own transition phase,” he said.

Veteran stand-up comic and actor Bobby Slayton said presidents often don’t leave comic legacies. Comics once riffed on Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Jimmy Carter’s eccentric brother and Ronald Reagan’s B-movie past. But only for a while.

“After they were gone, all that stuff disappears,” Mr. Slayton said. “There’s always someone new to make fun of.”

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