MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o supported independence from Britain for his country, but when he felt it necessary, he criticized the new government's human rights abuses. For that he was arrested, jailed and hounded into exile, but never silent. He joins us for a Wisdom Watch conversation, a special rebroadcast, as we settle into our new headquarters. And that's in just a few minutes.
But first, you probably have noticed today is tax day. We know how most Americans feel about taxes, so we decided we wanted to try to have some fun. Here's a little bit of tax humor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN IRS GUYS ARE SMILING")
MICHAEL FOREST: (Singing) When IRS guys are smiling, watch your taxes multiply. If they say you missed a filing, kiss your blarney house good-bye.
MARTIN: That takeoff on "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," of course, was called "When IRS Guys Are Smiling." It was written and performed by the political satire troupe Capitol Steps. The Capitol Steps started in 1981 as a group of Senate staffers who just wanted to have some fun talking about their jobs and their employers, presumably. Since then, they have recorded more than 30 albums, with their latest titled "Fiscal Shades of Grey."
We decided to call troupe members Elaina Newton and Matt Eaton to joins us now to have some fun, hopefully, on tax day. They're here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
ELAINA NEWTON: Yeah. So we're going to attempt to be funnier than tax accountants are.
MARTIN: Elaina, you're one of the cofounders, right? You're one of the originals, aren't you?
NEWTON: I am. I am. We've been doing this for, like, over 30 years. And I started - actually, I started working for Senator Percy from Illinois. You know, he was one of those Republican moderates you read about in the history books. You don't find them in the wild anymore.
MARTIN: Yeah, I've heard of those. I've heard they used to have them.
NEWTON: They don't exist anymore.
NEWTON: And we started this as a lark, as a Senate office Christmas party.
MARTIN: As a Christmas party.
NEWTON: Right. Right.
NEWTON: So we thought somebody would tell us to stop or fire us or both, but it's been more than 30 years, and we're still at it.
MATT EATON: Capitol Steps, like everything else in Washington, spun painfully out of control.
EATON: We do this quite a bit these days.
MARTIN: Earlier, we heard a little bit of the song "When IRS Guys Are Smiling." Since it's tax day, we wanted to play a little bit more. It's about a minute long, and the singer here is Michael Forest. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN IRS GUYS ARE SMILING")
FOREST: (Singing) Though you pay off your tax with the shirt off your backs, you don't know what the government's planned. They will send you a bill for a cool 50 mil, though your income be just 20 grand. When IRS guys are smiling, watch your taxes multiply. If they say you missed a filing, kiss your blarney house good-bye. Their audits gave me an Ulster, and my taxes are Dublin, they say. You didn't know it was going to be that bad tonight, did you? So I'll give the address of the IRS to my friends at the IRA.
EATON: Nothing punches up a laugh like a big groan right in front of it.
MARTIN: Exactly. Exactly. So where did this idea come from, Elaina? Do you remember?
NEWTON: We have - a guy in our group has dual Scottish-American citizenship, and he suggested it. So I guess he loves his heritage, or something. But, yeah, we had a surprising number of tax songs over the years. We really have. I looked it up, because we were coming here.
NEWTON: And we've had "If I Tax a Rich Man." We've had "Tax Your Children Well" to "Teach Your Children Well," and we've had "50 Ways to Raise Your Taxes" to "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." So we've got - you know, we're doing the fiscal humor.
MARTIN: You know what? I - Mark, I understand - does the IRS actually ever give you material, I mean, beyond, you know, the meta aspect of it? Because I understand that they actually post funny tax quotes on their website. Do you ever crib from those?
EATON: No. But I thank you...
EATON: ...for hipping me to that, because I'll have to go do that now.
MARTIN: Yeah. Do you want to read them? I think you - I bet you'll be funnier than I would be.
NEWTON: Top 10.
EATON: Let's see. The yearly Top 10. Next to being shot at and missed, nothing is really quite as satisfying as an income tax refund. Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.
MARTIN: Well, that I get...
EATON: Ah, Will Rogers. A very famous one. Yes.
MARTIN: Will Rogers, yeah, yeah. Can you do better?
NEWTON: And now we have sequestration without representation here in the district.
MARTIN: How about that? How about that?
EATON: But it is the one day when you really appreciate your kids when you fill out your taxes. You've got to admit, you know, you've got to admit that. The more the better.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are trying to find some humor in tax day with Elaina Newton and Mark Eaton, two members of the political satire troupe Capitol Steps. They're based in Washington, D.C. They are actually people who worked on Capitol Hill who do political satire. And is it your spare time? Are you still...
NEWTON: No, we're full-time.
MARTIN: Full-time. Yeah.
NEWTON: We travel all over the country. We have a show here every weekend in Washington at the Reagan building, every Friday and Saturday. So anybody coming to Washington, you know, coming to visit your NPR studio, and then come to the Capitol Steps at the Reagan building.
MARTIN: Let me play another one of the songs. You actually mentioned this one, "If I Tax a Rich Man." That's a take-on, of course, of "If I Were a Rich Man" from the "Fiddler on the Roof." And this one is Matt Pearson. He's pretending to be President Obama talking about raising taxes on the wealthy. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I TAX A RICH MAN")
MATT PEARSON: (Singing) If I tax each rich man, oh, Solyndra I could lend you all the cash you'd ever want. All day long I'd piddle tidy sums, if I tax each wealthy man. Oh, who cares if they work hard? Warren Buffett says to stuff it, they can tough it out. And then I would have so many, many fans, if I tax salons where Boehner tans.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
NEWTON: That's not a bad idea. A tax on Botox, too. That would be half the Congress, right?
MARTIN: That was Elaina saying that. I didn't say that. That was Elaina saying that. I'm trying to come back tomorrow.
NEWTON: Oh, no. You don't get funding from the Congress, do you?
MARTIN: You know what, though? I've got to ask about this, though. Do people ever feel that, you know, that it's so easy to make fun of taxes, but there is another perspective on it, which is this is kind of the way we take care of our shared responsibilities. And I know, like, the easy thing is like no matter what it is, it's too much. And that's kind of how we're supposed to feel about it.
Does anybody ever say, actually, it's the other way? It's, like, we aren't taxed enough. Or that this is how you pay...
MARTIN: You know, that was the argument during the campaign, excuse me, so you can...
NEWTON: You're allowed to voluntarily send in more if you want, you know.
NEWTON: And then Barack Obama just said he's going to give 5 percent of his salary, right? So you're allowed to write a check to the government.
EATON: Yeah. I mean, I think if people really thought that every dime was being spent judiciously, they wouldn't mind sending in a little more. But I don't think the facts necessarily point that direction.
MARTIN: Do people give you stuff? Do people send you material?
MARTIN: Do they offer stuff up?
EATON: ...they used to, and we actually, on our website, put up we really can't accept, you know, outside submissions. We write it all in-house. We don't have any hired guns. So Elaina and I and the cast pretty much crank it all out.
NEWTON: I looked up weird tax laws. I Googled, like, funny tax laws, right? And there are actually states - like, Tennessee has a tax on the possession of illegal drugs. You're supposed to let them if you have illegal drugs and pay a tax on it. Like, there's really a law.
MARTIN: That's good. What's another one?
NEWTON: Germany had a tax on bribes. If you bribe a public official, you're supposed to report it on your taxes.
MARTIN: Who's supposed to - the recipient or the giver?
NEWTON: I don't know.
MARTIN: That's pretty good. Have your jokes about taxes changed over time? Do they change from administration to administration? Well, they kind of have to, depending in the news. But has the overall opinion of taxes changed over the time that you've been talking about this?
EATON: I think people have always disliked paying taxes.
NEWTON: Yeah. I mean, even back during the Bush and Cheney years, we had Cheney do a rap called "I Like Big Cuts and I Cannot Lie."
NEWTON: Even then they were talking about tax cuts. Yeah.
MARTIN: Do you remember any of it?
NEWTON: Do you remember it?
EATON: (Rapping) I like big cuts and I cannot lie, but Democrats can't deny when Bush walks in with a plan you can't embrace and waves cash in your face, you get sprung to go buy more stuff. With cash, you never can get enough. The Dow Jones now is flying, more bling-bling I am buying. Oh, baby. Do I have to draw a picture? I want to make you richer. That's basically it.
MARTIN: OK. We'll leave it at that.
NEWTON: That's good.
MARTIN: That was awesome. That was Mark Eaton. He is a long-time member of Capitol Steps. That's a political satire troupe in Washington D.C. Elaina Newton is the cofounder and producer of Capitol Steps. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.
NEWTON: Oh, thanks.
MARTIN: Happy tax day.
NEWTON: Thanks, Michel.
EATON: Oh, happy tax day to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.