Near the top of the list of things most of us didn’t think we needed: George W. Bush’s “41: A Portrait of My Father.” That tribute to George Bush Sr. got former Onion scribes Scott Dikkers and Peter Hilleren wondering: What if W. turned out a book about his little brother Jeb? How different would that one be?
The unauthorized parody, “45: A Portrait of My Knuckleheaded Brother Jeb,” due next week, is written in W.’s voice. (“Oh, and that reminds me. You may also remember me serving as the forty-third President of the United States. I was on TV during that time.”) It even includes some new (parody) art by W.
We spoke to Scott Dikkers – a founding editor of The Onion, who has won a Peabody and more than 30 Webby Awards – about the mystery of the Bush clan. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the most obvious place, the book’s origins. Did you see the publication of “41”—which almost seemed like comedy already – and think, “We’ve got to do one for Jeb”?
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Peter and I, my writing partner on this, after [George W. Bush] became president, we started doing weekly radio address, a parody – this was the early days of podcasting. It consistently ranked in the top 20 on iTunes, and on a lot of left-leaning blogs would link to it. We’d satirize whatever crazy thing Bush was doing at the time.
I wasn’t at The Onion at the time, but they reached out to me… and we started running it on The Onion. Which led to me getting a cease and desist order from the Bush White House. Which was awesome. You really can’t even dream of better marketing than that.
So we got some great publicity because of that, and a book deal from that for our first book – the unauthorized autobiography of George W. Bush, “Destined for Destiny.” Peter and I go way back – we’re high school buddies.
So when George W. Bush just barely craned his head back into the spotlight we thought, Ah! Another chance to get back into the George W. Bush parody business.
What seemed like the right tone to use while writing in the voice of W.? Did you look at his writing, for instance?
Sure – we read “41” and a lot of his other writing. We mostly model his voice on the way he speaks because that’s what most people are familiar with. So the tone with him is very dignified and reverent. A lot of gravitas. But saying the dumbest things in the most inarticulate way. It was that dichotomy that we liked.
How important is real research to this kind of satire?
You always want to do some, to know what’s going on and what they hell you’re talking about. But there’s always a danger to doing too much. Then you start doing too many in-jokes – jokes that only the most wonky people are gonna get. You want it to be accessible. I always endeavor to make sure any comedy I do is accessible to the widest possible audience. It doesn’t serve you to limit yourself.
How do you think W. really regards Jeb? It’s a complete mystery to me.
I think we’ve nailed it – I think we’ve totally nailed it. He was his younger brother of six or seven years – you know that dynamic. He thinks he’s a dweeb, he thinks he’s a knucklehead, he think he’s a dope, and he’s gonna makes fun of everything he does.
[W.] was a two-term president, he thinks he was an amazing president, and here comes his kid brother – ha! “He thinks he can do what I did – good luck!” So he thinks of him as a bumbler, a slob, a dope… But at the same time he loves him because he’s his brother – so there’s another great dichotomy. Whenever you can find a stark contrast, you know you’ve got irony there you can zero in on. That’s another place he’s funny – his deep love for his brother, but he was his victim, his merciless torture victim, because he was his kid brother.
I guess it was impossible to do this without including some of W.’s art.
You can’t forget that – it’s like his new calling!
Have you been surprised by Jeb’s fade from the polls? It’s hard to know for sure what’s going to happen, but when you started this book in January he looked a lot more formidable.
Oh yeah – he was inevitable when we started the book. Trump had not even announced, everybody was talking about Jeb.
He was going to do that unstoppable fundraising plan where he was just gonna be so well-funded he would scare everyone else out of the race – remember that? That was the strategy his brother used, so it made sense.
That fact that this fortunes have fallen is so funny – because that’s another dichotomy of the book: George W. sees him destined to be [President] 45, but also calling him a bumbler and a goof. And that’s kind of how he’s emerged over the last few months: He’s not very good at this.
Do you think that stumbling is the reason for his seeming collapse, or does it have to do with Trump, with the weirdness of the GOP…
You’re right. We don’t know what’s gonna happen at this point – anything could happen. But he did stumble a lot. But the major factors have been the tone of the Republican party – they are just so anti-establishment. It’s such a fractured party. And nobody predicted Trump’s meteoric rise and consistency – those things have been huge.