Surprisingly for a nation with profound political interests, America lacks much in the way of true political satire.
For dryness and wit, we turn to Gore Vidal's peerless essays. But the Sage of Ravello is, for all his gifts as a polemicist, less satirist than amused observer of the scene. Vaughan Meader and David Fry are mere memories now, and Norman Lear has more or less hung up his TV producer hat for good. Satire — some of it brilliant — reigns on the Internet, but is by the very nature of the medium, largely hidden.
Larry Gelbart writes the most caustic and darkly hilarious satire around (Power Failure and Mastergate for the stage, Weapons of Mass Distraction for cable) but he's a minority of one. If not for Jon Stewart and the inspired gang of put-on artists who concoct "The Daily Show," trenchant political humor in this country would be, for all intents and purposes, as dead as Mort Sahl's career.
Potent musical satire is even rarer. Mark Russell's middlebrow musings, once a PBS mainstay, were never especially incisive. And our most gifted, biting purveyor of the form, Tom Lehrer, hasn't written a new song in years.
Which leads us to — or leaves us with — the Capitol Steps, which performed two sold-out shows Jan. 31st for N.C. State University Center Stage.
A quintet of former political staffers, the group (Kevin Corbett, Brian Ash, Brad Van Grack, Nancy Dollar, and Janet Gordon) has, rather astonishingly, cut 23 discs of lukewarm song parodies — one for each year of its existence — and the troupe's concerts are aired, with a certain numbing regularity, on NPR. While the material is occasionally amusing, most of it is drear: piddling send-ups of the most obvious targets. It certainly has its followers, though, many of whom packed Stewart Theatre last weekend — mainly, I would guess, to have their prejudices reinforced.
I'll elucidate. The Steps' introductory medley was a rapid series of takes on the Democratic candidates. Lieberman was represented by "The Candy Man" ("The Lieberman Can"), John Kerry with "Kerry Baby," and Wesley Clark with a Gilbert and Sullivan parody ("I am the very model of positions that are general"). If this is your notion of stinging political wit, you might also have enjoyed John Edwards being skewered via an "I Feel Pretty" knock-off, for which I can see no logical point. I'm not aware that Edwards has made an issue of his own good looks. And if not, why parody them?
The capper was "Cheer Up, Howard Dean," a thigh-slapper performed by a pair of Steps masquerading as two of the Queer Eye squad. As the number devolved into a shameless series of limp-wristed faggot jokes and the audience hooted its approval, I felt myself sinking into my seat. It was going to be that kind of an evening.
A shame, too, because this ugly bit was immediately followed by one of the evening's few truly inspired moments; as the cast bulled its way through a parody of "Shout," the sleeves of Dean's shirt unrolled themselves into a handy straight-jacket in which the manic candidate was quickly enwrapped. That is pointed, specific, and funny. But the number's impact — on me at least — was diminished by the residual loathing I felt for its predecessor.
There were a few other good moments. Saddam Hussein, talking via cell-phone with the President, asked that ubiquitously annoying question, "Can you hear me now?" George W. Bush was cited watching "what he called an Al Passino movie." Intrusive telemarketers were roasted to the tune of "Some Enchanted Evening" ("Ev'ry single evening/MCI will call you"), John Ashcroft morphed into the Phantom of the Opera ("The loonies of the right") and Dick Cheney made his appearance in a hilariously opaque baldhead wig.
But what were we to make of an extended Bill and Hillary duet explicating Mrs. Clinton's exasperation with her husband's philandering when it ended with the line "She'll see that I'm spayed"? Males aren't spayed, they're neutered — or aren't the Steps aware of the difference? Similarly, a knee-jerk skit on the perceived cowardice and anti-Americanism of the French ignored the truth of the matter for the sake of cheap laughs at the expense of one of our most generous and longest-standing allies. First "Freedom Fries," and now this. And can the most scathing possible satire of Donald Rumsfeld really be no more than a toothless re-setting of an old Beach Boys song ("Help Rwanda")?
The Steps' funniest bit was, interestingly, its least overtly political: Brad Van Grack's marvelously loopy backwards-talking ramble on celebrity scandal, "Lirty Dies." Much of it was silly, some of it merely clever, and good parts of it were utterly without a point, but all of it made us laugh. And we laughed, I think, not so much at any particular, pointed wit as at the sheer, intoxicating daffiness of the sounds. It's a schtick, but at least it provided genuine amusement. The Capitol Steps could use more of that.
Second Opinion: Classical Voice of North Carolina critic Jeffrey Rossman's review: http://www.cvnc.org/Archives022004.html#CS.
N.C. State University Center Stage: http://www.ncsu.edu/centerstage. Capitol Steps: http://www.capsteps.com/. Lirty Dies (samples of backwards talking routines by the Capitol Steps): http://www.capsteps.com/lirty/.