Over the last few months, Bill Clinton has been doing his best to get back into the White House, albeit as the first husband. His actions on the campaign trail — stumping for his wife Hillary and attempting to stamp out her competition, Barack Obama — have been questioned and sometimes criticized by the media, but never ignored. Both puckish and personable, there's no doubt the larger-than-life former president continues to be a fascinating character still capable of capturing the public's interest.
Rick Cleveland, a writer for The West Wing and Six Feet Under, uses the intrigue surrounding the onetime chief exec to his advantage in the stage show My Buddy Bill, airing tonight on Comedy Central (12 am/ET). Part travelogue, part insight into the strange world of adult male friendship, Cleveland presents his relationship with Clinton in such imaginative detail that audiences who have seen the show have been left wondering what is fact and what is fiction. In fact, it's all fiction.
"I did a short version of it at the 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and John Podesta, Clinton's Chief of Staff, came to see it," recalls Cleveland. "We met backstage after the show and he said, 'We must have met before.' He thought it was true. He was shocked and delighted to find out it's fiction. That's absolutely the best kind of compliment."
The seed for My Buddy Bill was planted when Cleveland was working on The West Wing and its producers, writers and cast were invited to Washington for the final White House Correspondents Dinner of Clinton's second term. John McCain had recently ceded the Republican nomination to George W. Bush and thanks to some insider connections the West Wingers got to travel to the ceremony in McCain's Straight Talk Express bus. On the way to dinner, Martin Sheen, West Wing's fictional president, began waving out of a window to passersby. The sight struck Cleveland as very odd. Moments later the scene grew even more surreal.
"McCain comes up to find out who is in his bus when we pull up at the dinner, and he and Martin see each other and exchange a big bear hug," says Cleveland. "Photographers were everywhere snapping away at this senator and fictional president, so I started to think, "Who am I? Am I a fictional George Stephanopoulos?'"
It wasn't until 2005 that Cleveland's experience witnessing the cross-fertilization between real-life Washington and Hollywood's version of Washington would come to fruition. Filled out with stories of dogwalking with Clinton on the beach, jamming with Clinton and Billy Bob Thorton in Little Rock, and having lunch at a hash bar with Clinton in Amsterdam, the show enjoyed a successful run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Last June, Comedy Central arranged for a taping to take place at New York City's 92nd Street Y.
Not surprisingly, the network held off on airing the piece until now, in order to capitalize on the hotly contested race for the Democratic presidential nomination. With both Bill and Hillary in the news every night, the timing couldn't be better.
In My Buddy Bill, the former first lady is portrayed as calculating, driven and focused on keeping her husband out of mischief. And though she's not always shown in the most sympathetic light, Cleveland maintains that the piece is very much a love letter to the Clinton era, a time he looks back on with great nostalgia. But that does not mean he's necessarily voting for Hillary.
"I have a real soft spot for Bobby Kennedy types," says Cleveland. "I like Hillary, don't get me wrong, but Obama reminds me more of Bobby Kennedy than anyone who's come along since."
That sense of political history is well ingrained on the writer and monologuist. Cleveland believes that watching the Watergate hearings as a small child led him to be a bit of a political junkie.
"I was glued to the television set throughout the hearings and wouldn't go to the backyard to play," laughs Cleveland. "My mom said I kept asking, 'Why are they being so mean to that man?' That man being Richard Nixon. I think that early traumatic experience had a big effect on me."
It should come as no surprise then that Cleveland has already penned a follow-up to My Buddy Bill called My Pal George about a fictional relationship with the current commander-in-chief. In the meantime, though, he recently accepted an offer from executive producer Matthew Weiner to join the writing team of AMC's critically acclaimed Mad Men.
Find more on My Buddy Bill in our Online Video Guide.
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