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Crosscut Tout: Capitol Steps in Seattle

Making fun of the Tea Party election should be a snap, compared with a tense earlier performance right after 9-11.

Looking for humor in the election of 2010? Well, the Capitol Steps are in Seattle Oct. 26, for a 7:30 show at the Paramount and you can bet that the Tea Party wrote the script — or at least inspired a lot of the gags.

But don't expect the Tea Party to be the entire target of the Washington, D.C. troupe; they take on any and all, even the most popular politicians of the day. The year provides so much buffoonery that it should be an easy night for the Steps. It hasn't always been that way, and I remember what might have been their toughest challenge. Think 9-11 and humor in the immediate aftermath.

I chanced to be in Washington (the other one) a few days after 9-11, working on an academic monograph on the early years of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization in which I had once been active. Washington was in shock; the Metro was half-empty and riders were silent; we parked a block from the Mall; rumors were rampant and someone had put anthrax into the mail.

Each year the Reporters Committee has a fundraising party, and traditionally the Steps have performed, gratis, to help the committee's work. We all wondered what to expect while the Pentagon had walls still open to the air just a short distance from the rooftop of the Gannett building, where the event was held.

Reporters and friends always enjoy a chance to have a drink and tell stories, but the night was tense, almost surrealistic. A friend was pointing out the Pentagon's gash as we stood overlooking the traumatized city. The ban on flying over the Capital area had been lifted just that day; suddenly all conversation ceased, as a huge jet lumbered toward us on its way to Reagan Airport. Sophisticated and traveled reporters, including some of the big names of the city, instinctively sucked in their breath, then nervously resumed conversation after the jetliner passed.

Minutes later, the Capitol Steps unveiled for the first time their post-9-11 repertoire, admitting that it was good to have a friendly audience because they had no idea how the show would play. To present a characterized Osama bin Laden singing about the joys of hiding in Afghanistan or White House brass dressed in fatigue uniforms and parading about took about as much courage as anyone could muster on that day.

Once again, we sucked in our breath, then let it out in a prolonged ovation. The Steps had reminded us once again that even in the worst of times, a nation that keeps a sense of humor keeps much more as well.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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