Back when Saturday Night Live was in the opening innings of its still-floundering attempt to land a funny Barack Obama parody, Chicago's venerable Second City troop was hitting it out of the park.
"I can't kill Barack Obama," a would-be assassin pouted. "I'm in love with him."
"You're the 11th assassin I've talked to and they've all said the same thing. What is it with this guy?"
"He's just the right amount of black."
But Second City's latest stab at politics, Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, is a great huffing swing and a miss. I was willing to give it a chance at the witless announcement that "the liberal media machine" demands the audience turn off its cell phones, and that smoking was not allowed "unless you're burning a copy of The Audacity of Hope." But I knew we were in trouble from the opening lyrics, sung appropriately enough to "Spirit of the Radio" by, yes, Rush: "Begin the day with a friendly voice..."
Making fun of conservatism only looks easy, which is why we have among us no liberal Christopher Buckleys. To do it right requires a certain strange respect and, hard as that can be to imagine, affection for the quarry.
Call me a Limbaugh pedant, but Rush is on in the afternoon; has been for 22 years.
There are songs, taken from Broadway hits like Wicked and Rent, and there is a plot. Teenage DJ Rush is helping "Reverend Rightwing" get ready for a sock hop, Grease-style: "It's 1968/ But I'm holding on to the '50s!...Screw those Commie-faggy Beatles/ Give me Pat Boone." Two hippies—identified as Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank—return to town after a spell spent "overseas using your tax dollars to teach Africans to masturbate." They see a banner reading "Welcome Boys and Girls"; Barney lisps sanctimoniously, "What about our transgender children?" Annoyed, young Rush sends out a pouting "who will rid me of these meddlesome hippies?" message over his nascent radio show.
Back at the commune, Barney Frank "wasn't sure which way things were going when that guy threatened to shove a baseball bat up my ass." Barney and Hillary pledge to enter politics and get even. The preacher sees great things for Rush, and turns him into a talk-show host. This Rush, like the real one, then goes to work as a low-level exec for the Kansas City Royals, and writers Ed Furman and T.J. Shanoff can't let you forget that George Brett once suffered from hemorrhoids, because that gives them a chance to venture more anal violation jokes. Rush announces his inspiration to get back on the radio and fulfill his destiny as a "royal pain in the ass." He gets his national show, staffs up with a crew that sings proudly of not being "Mexican, gay, or black." Can I be excused for observing that you can't listen to Limbaugh's show for more than a day without learning that Limbaugh's long-time call screener is black?
Yes, because making fun of conservatism only looks easy, which is why we have among us no liberal Christopher Buckleys. To do it right requires a certain strange respect and, hard as that can be to imagine, affection for the quarry. One thing you get here for the price of admission is a renewed reverence for the nightly accomplishments of Stephen Colbert. (And Colbert is free.) Of course Colbert is a Second City alum, and the first thing he might lecture his errant colleagues about is that conservative talkers' success is a multilayered thing.
The anxieties they play off of are vertiginous and complex; plucking them, David Foster Wallace once wrote, requires "skills so specialized that many of them don't have names." It is only the amour propre of liberals that reduces the discipline to broadly shunning gays, blacks, and Mexicans, and fleecing the pious (another thing they get wrong: Rush is not really religious). This kind of glib, arrogant attitude is not a good foundation upon which to build sturdy comedy. Though that same glib liberal arrogance is much easier itself to turn into broad comedy. And, in fact, the most successful jokes in the show take on the hilarity to be mined at the spectacle of liberals who assume their inerrant rectitude is all it takes to win: In the show, the Fairness Doctrine is reinstated in 2012, but then is struck down by the Supreme Court in the case of Fox News v. A Bunch of Whiny Bitches.
But not before the 2000 election (Barney Frank has "had it up to here with poorly hung chads"), 9/11 (Rush roars back from George Bush's failures by convincing listeners it's Bill "Allah Akbar" Clinton's fault), and Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld in an actually quite funny Abbott and Costello routine (much, much better than Mark Sutton's Limbaugh; he can't sing in tune, and, worse, isn't fat). Karia Beard excels in a vocal turn based on Jennifer Hudson's signature number from Dream Girls. There's the de rigeur calypso number (the subject is Oxycontin, though the show's weak comic instincts are demonstrated by the fact that it misses the time Rush was arrested at the airport on the way home from a Viagra-fueled sex tourism binge).
Then comes the trauma that is Barack Obama, which the show's Limbaugh, like the real one, overcomes by "saying bullshit with a straight face." At that comes a brief moment toward the end that shows their only Swiftian kick. It is 2014. Obama has won reelection by 112 electoral votes over Ted Nugent and, Rush says, ruins health care by making it affordable for everyone. How long, Rush bellows, before he puts all the undertakers out of business? Ah, but that, he insists, is BHO's intention all along. Unattended corpses turn black. And Barack Obama's dastardly conspiracy is that he wants a nation of black people.
I thought it was the only funny joke. Maybe they called in Colbert as a ringer to write it. The show lacks a tenth of the fizz the malignant but gifted Limbaugh decants every single afternoon.
Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.