Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
If you’re like me, or, alternately, the venerable musical comedy troupe Capitol Steps, when something dramatic or important happens, you find yourself thinking, “Huh, I wonder how venerable musical comedy theater troupe Capitol Steps is going to cover this?” If you’re venerable musical comedy theater troupe Capitol Steps you do this because it very directly relates to yourself, your career and your livelihood. If you’re me, however, and I sincerely hope you’re not, because that would pose all manner of existential dilemmas, then you think about things like that because you’re a weirdo who is way too emotionally invested in the actions of venerable musical comedy troupe Capitol Steps, to the point where you have a Fred Allen/Jack Benny-style fake feud with them on social media.
Capitol Steps was born to be mild. In a bitter and wild political landscape, where emotions are running feverishly high and the worst person in the world is the presumptive Republican nominee, Capitol Steps can be counted upon to transform the political world into a cozily familiar world of harmless goofs and familiar songs.
So I was fascinated to see how this most milquetoast of American comedy institutions (now that that edgy bastard Jay Leno’s reign of depravity has finally ended) would deal with the incredibly heated and explosive political environment. I was not surprised to see that Capitol Steps have succeeded wildly in crafting an hour of comedy about politics and politicians that is every bit as tame and ingratiatingly hokey as previous installments. I had to check my podcast app intermittently and see that this was, indeed, the podcast’s July 4th, 2016 edition (they podcast twice a year, on New Year’s Eve and on our nation’s birthday) and not a much earlier edition, as the Al Gore and Edward Snowden jokes might suggest.
There’s something strangely reassuring about Capitol Steps’ purposeful inoffensiveness, in their ability to find the dad joke in even the most divisive, complicated, and fraught issue. The emergence of transsexuals as a major cultural force is a tricky issue, with strong emotions on both sides and a lot of pain and trauma. This is particularly true of the issue of bathroom access, which really should not be a major debate but is because it plays to the anti-trans’ folks obsession with the genitalia of trans people, the straight world’s confusion and anxiety about the blurring of gender and sexual lines and long-standing, deep-seated fears about the LGBT community being a haven for pedophiles and sexual predators.
Yet Capitol Steps, God bless them, take this live hand grenade of an issue and somehow locate something deeply banal and hokey deep within its core by transforming it into an exquisitely toothless and almost offensively inoffensive little ditty about how frustrating endless lines for women’s bathrooms can be.
Capitol Steps aren’t just soothingly familiar because they tell old-fashioned jokes, in an old-fashioned way, for an old audience of old-fashioned types. They’re also soothingly familiar because they have been making the exact same jokes for three decades, with different names and faces plugged into the slots. Honestly, it’s a little strange that Capitol Steps even has a podcast. That seems like an awfully newfangled medium for such an old-fashioned group.
So while the podcast comes perilously close to some moderately edgy jokes, like describing Bernie Sanders as a fossilized socialist muppet, it also feels the need to use him to deliver what might be the first “Old people don’t know how to set the clock on their VCR” joke since around 2013. Hell, at this point, that old groaner might actually be older than Bernie Sanders, and he’s so old the clock on his VCR has been flashing “12:00” since 1986! Dammit, those subversive bastards are getting under my skin and influencing not just my sense of humor but also how I see the world. Damn you and your infernal comic sorcery!
And Capitol Steps’ take on music is just as unmistakably rooted in the comforting, comfortable past as its comedy is. Where else are you going to hear Al Gore lead a global warming-themed “We Are The World” parody entitled “We Warm The World” that also tackles the fresh satirical subject of Bob Dylan’s incomprehensibility?
You’d imagine a musical comedy troupe tied to constantly changing current events would never run out of new material, particularly during a presidential race that is as terrifying for humanity’s future as it is rich territory for satire. Yet Capitol Steps recycles so much from previous years and previous podcasts that you’d think they were Al Gore. Dammit! I must resist the urge to fill my article on Capitol Steps with Capitol Steps-style humor.
Granted, if you came up with a gag like Donald Trump wanting to rename the presidential plane “Hair Farce One”, you’d want to use it for years and years and years, if not whole decades. But some of the holdovers here were a little obscure and strained when they were first released, and now seem bizarrely dated, like a Grease-themed medley about Germany and Greece’s relationship and Vladimir Putin crooning, “Putin on a Blitz.”
For me Capitol Steps has always been a guilty pleasure, strange comedy comfort food. Listening to this weird cultural institution, I found myself alternating between laughing at Capitol Steps’ cornball self-parody and laughing with them during some of their sharper bits. Hell, I’m not afraid to admit that I chuckled a few times, and didn’t always feel deeply ashamed of myself afterwards.
The Republic may be burning but that predictably doesn’t keep Capitol Steps from fiddling a goofy satirical ditty implicitly letting everyone know everything’s going to be alright, as long as we hold onto an almost perversely mild sense of humor.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.