Capitol Steps’ performance falls short of a ‘comedy nerd’s’ expectations

September 29, 2017

Political comedy group “The Capitol Steps” came to Brandeis to perform on Thursday, Sept. 29. The troupe, consisting of former Senate staffers turned comedians, sang a variety of parody songs aimed at making fun of various politicians and current events. Some of the jokes, however, fell a little flat.

We live in an interesting political moment: Politics are already so ridiculous that standard exaggeration and mockery that would have been fine a few years ago no longer apply. Unfortunately, this was the Capitol Steps’ M.O. Add in generally weak performances, a weird, outdated vibe and some portrayals of political leaders verging on racial stereotypes, and you had something perplexing and uninspired.

Trump impersonator at the Capitol Steps ‘Orange is the new Barack’ performance

I really like comedy shows and attend around 10 shows a year, so I have pretty high standards for what’s funny. I’m particularly interested in how we respond to the outsized politics of our day through comedy. In a democracy, how can the jokes we make about our leaders affect our system of government?

That said, I was disappointed by “Orange is the New Barack.” I had hoped for something insightful, relevant and inventive, but it was instead conventional and banal. There were a few bright spots: spot-on Obama and Trump impersonations, and an adeptly-delivered final monologue from Brandeis alum Brian Ash ’87. Ash gave a speech where he switched around the first letters of words so the audience was constantly on their toes.

But overall, the Capitol Steps performance was a little uninspired: An actor would walk onto the stage, usually dressed up as a familiar politician (though not always immediately recognizable) and then crack a few bland jokes before singing a parody song.

The show started, of course, with Donald Trump, and I first began to feel that something was wrong. Though the accent and demeanor of the comedian portraying Trump were on point, the jokes fell really flat—and felt kind of odd, too. There were a few jokes, such as comments about Trump grabbing women by the “crotch,” as the performers said, which some of the audience didn’t really respond to either—except for the gaggle of white guys behind me (full disclosure: I too am I a white guy, but was not part of this group).

Many members of the audience did genuinely enjoy the show, though, because it can be fun to laugh at the crazy mess of a political world we live in. And the jokes they were making are not unlike those that have been circulating on political talk shows and social media. I realized that the Capitol Steps, like a lot of American comedians, are still operating in the old mode.

Standard political comedy is ineffective against Donald Trump. It bounces off him harmlessly—because he’s already a parody of himself. His larger than life persona, his ridiculous flip-flopping on issues, the statements on Twitter, etc.—at face value, they’re already ridiculous, which is why singing a song about how tiny his hands are is wholly unproductive. Old means of political comedy don’t really work on him.

The troupe’s sense of humor was, in this way, toothless. The puns and wordplay made me feel like I was watching different era—which makes sense, the group was formed in the mid-eighties, and there’s an evident generational gap. Although the content of the jokes might have been up to the minute, they couldn’t have felt more out of date.

The music as well was a parade of twists on songs that might have felt clever in 1985—plays on “Hotel California,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” that made fun of immigration policy, Vladimir Putin and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, respectively. Throughout all, the crowd seemed to respond uncertainly, clapping half-heartedly and laughing feebly. The comedians’ attempt to get us all to sing along to a parody of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” ended weakly.

To me, “Orange is the New Barack” spoke to a problem on the American center-left as a whole: a lack of new ideas for how to fix the problems of the day.

If you’re looking for incisive, innovative political comedy, try looking at some other groups as well. I’d recommend the surreal yet hyper-relevant web videos of Vic Berger (available on Super Deluxe’s YouTube channel). Berger’s videos don’t exaggerate characteristics, they really just highlight what’s already there, such as his election coverage of the Republican debates—which immortalized Trump’s off the cuff remark, “Jeb is a mess”—or any of his videos with Trump (the Pat Robertson one is hilariously atrocious).

The Capitol Steps’ show “Orange is the New Barack” made it abundantly clear that we can’t respond to today’s politics in the same way we have for the last three decades. In terms of comedy as political activism, musical parodies may no longer be the answer (I doubt they ever were). Instead, we need to use the media of the day instead of songs from 30 years ago.

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