After mockingly gyrating and rubbing her torso up against comedian Hal Sparks, the lithe and spunky left-wing radio talk-show host Stephanie Miller takes center stage at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wis.
“Hal Sparks and I will now demonstrate what tea-bagging actually means,” she says.
Miller then lies down on her back. Somewhat awkwardly, and with a similar twist of self-parody, Sparks squats over Miller in such a position so that his “tea bags” start to descend toward her head.
Before the sketch descends any further into raunchiness, Miller bounces to her feet, bows with poise and blows kisses to the crowd, now screeching with laughter and applause.
That was in April of this year, in the first in a series of somewhat improvised shows called Stephanie Miller's Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour, which Miller, Sparks and comedian John Fugelsang are bringing to the Wadsworth Theatre on Oct. 21-22, before moving on to San Francisco, Austin, Phoenix and points beyond, through June of next year.
The tour is part of a tradition of progressive political comedy that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe, along with the Latino sketch-comedy company Culture Clash, which has turned to more serious dramatic works after starting out in Bay Area comedy clubs. Add to that list filmmaker Michael Moore, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and HBO's Bill Maher, and a two-decade pattern of left-leaning humor emerges that's virtually unmatched by the right.
Yet there's been a conservative political drift in those same years, fueled not so much by humor but by the rage and indignation propelled by the earnest megaphones of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and CNN and the Fox News syndicate — a steamroller of tendentiousness that Comedy Central and even MSNBC have been only modestly effective in countering, if one uses recent election results as evidence.
This raises the question: Is anger a more potent political tool than comedy?
Speaking to the Weekly in a conference call with Fugelsang and the show's producer, Roland Scahill, Miller says she stands behind comedy. “I think humor is always more effective,” she says, adding that social media also helped generate a kind of subterranean interest in the show.
She says the name of the show annoyed presenting venues around the country, even though the name was a joke, and proved an effective tool given the sellout performances in venues holding up to 2,000 people around the country.
Adds Fugelsang, “Florida is a good example. People were putting up Facebook pages to request us. In Florida there was resistance because of the lack of radio support. Facebook and Twitter have been a large part of the show's support.”
Fugelsang differentiates between anger and outrage, saying the show capitalizes on the latter. “It's really hard to be angry and funny,” he says, “but outrage works in comedy.”
Not all of the show is about politics — much is devoted to pop culture. But the show's reason for being is the current events that generate outrage: unemployment, the dismantling of employee protections, Social Security under siege, school budget and library cuts, gaping holes where financial opportunity used to be for coming generations. Fugelsang's line between outrage and anger is as thin as cotton.
Producer Scahill sounds almost stunned that the show has been selling out months in advance. “When you have a sold-out house,” he explains, “you have people asking for the money back because of sound issues or whatever, and you hold back money for that. But we have not had a single refund request for this, because the audience is so grateful and accommodating.”
STEPHANIE MILLER'S SEXY LIBERAL COMEDY TOUR | Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., W.L.A. | Fri.-Sat., Oct. 21-22, 8 p.m. | ticketmaster.com/Wadsworth-Theatre- tickets-Los-Angeles/venue/90203