The Capitol Steps appeals to all age groups, political parties

by Madeline Ditzler | 11/1/16 12:48am

What do you do with years of congressional staffing experience and an appreciation for the finer absurdities of our political system? For the members of the Capitol Steps, the answer was obvious: start a political comedy group!

In 1981, three Senate staffers formed the Capitol Steps, who performed at the Hopkins Center last Thursday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. as part of a “Night of Political Pun,” after being asked to plan entertainment for a Christmas party. When no wise men or Virgin Mary’s could be found in all of Congress, the group delved into headlines to piece together a satirical skit. Although not all members are ex-Congress staffers, they have 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience and 18 offices between them. The family-friendly, bipartisan group has since recorded 30 albums, and has been featured on NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS, and can be heard twice a year on National Public Radio stations nationwide during their “Politics Takes a Holiday” radio specials, according to their website.

The Hop and the Rockefeller Center involved students in the performance by holding a contest for best political song parody, the winners of which performed at the Capitol Steps’ later show. Finalists had the opportunity to perform for a panel of judges. Jennifer West ’20, who performed with Iris Wang ’20 and Oliver Levy ’20, won the contest. West’s group performed her rewrite of Flo Rida’s “My House” with comedic variations which played on this fall’s greatest national anxiety: “Welcome to the White House / Trump is on his third spouse / Time to move abroad now / Auf wiedersehen, goodbye, ciao!” The audience enthusiastically received the trio, and after the performance cast members credited the trio for the Capitol Steps’ much warmer reception in the later performance.

“I was looking to put myself out there more in college, and try to do things that I thought were risky — in a sense, push myself out of my comfort zone. And I’d always written songs, but I had never really sung them in public,” West said of her decision to enter the contest.

Though West had never performed before, this was not her first exposure to comedy. West writes for Dartmouth’s humor magazine the Jack-O-Lantern, and her family are big fans of the Capitol Steps’ work.

After a three-day writing process inspired by SNL sketches and a YouTube binge on song parodies, West brought on two floormates involved in a cappella groups to help record her submission video. Unfortunately, the very a capella membership which made her floormates ideal performers also made them unavailable for a Thursday night performance. Mandatory a cappella rehearsals conflicted with the “Night of Political Pun,” so after winning the parody contest, West had to scramble for new performers.

At the last minute, West found two courageous friends to join her act, and the trio only started rehearsing the day-of. Wang said, “Literally, Jenny bumped into us in the library and was like, ‘Will you guys sing with me on stage tomorrow at the Hop?’ And we were like, ‘Sure!’”

Levy described his previous singing experience as “in the shower.” Levy and Wang both admitted that their singing abilities are not up to par with Dartmouth’s a cappella groups, but the audience’s reaction was enthusiastic nonetheless.

In a sentiment echoed by her fellow performers, Wang summed the night succinctly: “It felt like a dream.”

The main act of the night provided clean laughs for people on both sides of the political aisle. The Capitol Steps put on a show which left audience members agreeing that folly might be the only quality which our parties have in common. From immigration law, to Obamacare, to the absurdity of our current election, the Steps covered it all.

Part of being family-friendly also means avoiding partisan bias, or rather indulging in partisan bias equally with gibes directed at both major political parties.

Peter Schroen ’19, who identifies as conservative, felt that the show criticized Trump more than it criticized Hillary.

“That doesn’t surprise me or necessarily even bother me, because a lot of Trump’s gaffs and his whole political campaign is much more prone to these kinds of criticisms than is Hillary’s,” Schroen said. “I mean, criticisms of Hillary’s campaign are more depressing than they are funny.”

Although the fact that the Capitol Steps is a clean comedy group allows them to reach the dinner tables of families across the nation, the family-friendly nature of the show may have lost them some pull with students.

“It was definitely geared towards the older demographics,” Schroen said.

Mathematics professor Craig Sutton is familiar with the Capitol Steps’ brand of humor, having heard them perform on NPR.

“I think if you like this sort of nice little puns and things like that, and plays on words then, yeah it’s interesting,” Sutton said. “It’s not Chris Rock or anything like that, it’s a different land of humor, but yeah, I enjoyed it.”

However, Eman Morsi, of the Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures professor, had a lukewarm response to the performance.

“It had its moments,” Morsi said.

Some of these moments drew on more controversial topics, which despite drawing laughter from the audience, are really not humorous subjects.

“I mean, we laughed at the Arizona thing, but that’s actually a very sad situation,” Morsi said. “Arizona, and Texas as well, is one of the worst places to be an immigrant, from Mexico especially.”

In the act Morsi refers to, an armed border patrolman encounters an immigrant crossing the Arizona border. When asked to leave, the immigrant reveals that he is a Native American. The punchline is that, ironically, it is the European settlers who have been “illegals since 1492.”

The Capitol Steps uses humor to make many distressing situations, including treatment of immigrants in this country, the choice between our two presidential candidates and the economic situation in Greece, palatable for after-dinner conversation.

“There is a lot of anxiety about what might happen, but I think that is part of what humor helps people deal with,” Sutton said.

Though jokes about our candidates are perhaps more painful now that Nov. 8 is upon us, audience members found something to laugh about, and perhaps more importantly, something to take away for future discussion.