The Capitol Steps: Wakka. Wakka. Wakka.
When it came to the Capitol Steps’ Saturday night performance at the State Theatre, I didn’t entirely know what to expect. I would consider myself a fan of both musical and political comedy, yet I had never heard of the group, despite the fact they’ve been performing since 1981. So, for the uninitiated, I did my best to summarize the group’s act.
Imagine America as a summer camp. Government officials are the camp counselors. The Capitol Steps are the kids that put on the skits to lampoon said counselors. That description doesn’t necessarily do their show justice – it’s not comparable to the insipid J.C. Penney gag – but there are distinct stylistic parallels.
The first thing that sticks out is the Steps’ ability as performers. Saturday’s show featured five performers, four microphones, and a keyboardist. Aside from the single-panel featuring the group’s logo, there was no set. When five people are charged with entertaining an audience for about an hour and a half, the less they have to work with, the more impressive the performance is. Add to the fact that these former Senate staffers impersonate a wide variety of people – from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Bob Dylan – while belting out song parodies, and you find yourself having a hard time not to respect their ability. A bit called “Lirty Dies,” in which a member summarized the events of 2009 in words with flipped letters (for example, he would put it as emmarizing the sumvents of 2009 in flords with lipped fetters), was particularly remarkable. The Capitol Steps can command a stage without using anything more than their natural ability.
Their comedy is another story. I found it to be somewhat uneven. At its best, their material was on par with a well-executed SNL sketch. At its worst, it’s comedy that is almost vaudevillian in nature. For example, during their parody of Survivor’s “Eye of The Tiger” that had some fun at a certain promiscuous golfer’s expense, this exchange occurred:
Phil Mickelson: Say, Tiger, weren’t you worried that one of those women would get pregnant?
Tiger Woods: No, I practice safe sex. I always used a condom.
Phil Mickelson: But what if you got a hole in one?
Now, as somewhat of a comedy snob, my eyes rolled at this one. Though a majority of the crowd seemed to enjoy the show, a few jokes were corny to the point of inducing groans from the audience. But, as evidenced by the dissonance in the comment thread of Chase’s review of Jeff Dunham, different people find different things funny. While the Steps had moments of brilliance – “Here’s to you, Reverend Robertson, Jesus doesn’t even watch your show” set to the Simon and Garfunkel classic comes to mind – several times I expected a “Wakka, Wakka, Wakka!” at the end of a joke. It was just that kind of style. The majority of the group enjoyed it – it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
The State Theatre’s Executive Director, Mike Negra, described the group as “Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert set to music.” That’s incredibly misleading. While the Capitol Steps, Stewart, and Colbert cover similar material, their approaches differ. Some people may prefer Stewart’s pointed cross-examination of political discourse. Some may favor Colbert’s hyperbolic satire of political pundits. And I’m sure there are people who think the Steps’ impersonations and song parodies reign supreme. The fact is, I would compare the Capitol Steps to Weird Al Yankovic before I mention them in the same breath with Stewart and Colbert. And I loved Weird Al. In eighth grade.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Actually, I know I’m being too harsh. I was in the minority in checking my watch during the show; the rest of the audience – which was overwhelmingly populated by baby boomers (probably because of the $40 ticket price) – seemed to enjoy their style. Chase, who attended the event as our photographer, called the show “hilarious.” On paper, the show was a success – a storied comedy group performed to a packed house of people willing to pay $40 for 90 minutes of entertainment. I just wasn’t laughing enough to compare it to the genius of, say, Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondence Dinner.
[Photo Credit: Chase Tralka]