There's something wrong with the Les Paul. I fumble with the knobs that control the guitar's volume and tone; I switch between the pickups; I try like mad to coax a discernible sound from the instrument. But it's no use -- as I plod through the chords of "The Streets of Laredo" for a ballroom full of Denver dignitaries, the sounds coming out the amplifier are weak at best.
Happily, no one in the crowd at the Denver Mariott City Center seems focused on my technical woes. The audience's attention is fixed instead on Denver Mayor and would-be Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
He's decked in a Western shirt, boots and a cowboy hat, crooning about jumping out of airplanes and showering with his clothes on. He pauses for a guest appearance from the Flobots' Johnny 5.
Hickenlooper was the only one of the three big-name candidates to accept the invitation to appear in this year's Gridiron show, which took place Friday night. The mayor's performance was one of many sendups, spoofs and parodies in this year's Gridiron, the Denver Press Club's annual showcase of political and pop culture satire.
The core troupe, led by the Denver Business Journal's Bruce Goldberg, included Fred Brown, Sari Padorr, Edie Sonn, Ruth Darling-Goldberg, Steve Koenigsberg and Tom Corona. The roster of guest performers and presenters included former and current Colorado governors, news anchors and print journalists. Targets of derision this year ranged from the crowded race for governor to the state's marijuana policy.
At $90 a pop for dinner and a show, the event tends to draw notables from the local media and business community. Business leaders share tables with TV anchors and columnists to take in the annual follies.
I've been a cast member in the show's core troupe for the past four years, but the effect is still surreal. I've played Mark Udall singing a modified version of Al Jolson's "If You Knew Susie," I've donned Hawaiian shirts for a musical commentary on the 2008 presidential election, I've dressed as Frontier Airline mascots and belted out "Dr. Doolittle" parodies.
It's always been a bizarre process, and this year was no different. Singing a critique of tea party politics to the tune of Tom Petty's "Free Falling," for example, would feel odd enough for a small group of friends; knowing that my audience comprises ex-governors, CEOs and former correspondents for CBS news adds another dimension of oddness to the performance.
Still, every year there's a comfort in the shared silliness of it all, a communal commitment to ridiculousness that goes beyond the core cast. Dick Lamm, Bill Owens, Bill Ritter and Roy Romer taking turns singing about state budget woes to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," for example, eased the pressure of performing this year. The fact that Romer had to deliver his solo via a videotaped message didn't take away from the total effect.
The storied tradition of the Gridiron also helps put the silliness in perspective. The revue has deep historical roots -- started in 1946 by Rocky Mountain News staffers Sam Lusky and Pocky Marranzino, the Gridiron still retains the whiff of the era when journalists wore fedoras and received breaking news via telegraph.
Nevertheless, I've realized that no amount of experience or historical perspective can fully prepare me for the special pressure a Gridiron.
Apparently, I'm not alone.
Hickenlooper has appeared in the show for several years, but he admitted he still gets antsy every time he steps on to the Gridiron stage.
Before stepping onto the stage in his jokey cowboy getup, the Denver mayor said he was more nervous than he'd been for the gubernatorial debate with Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes he'd taped at the CBS 4 building earlier that night.
Page down for the the lyrics to Hick's parody of "Streets of Laredo," written by Tom Clark.
"Streets of Laredo," a John Hickenlooper Parody
I like to take showers with all of my clothes on I work hard each day at saving the earth I've jumped out of airplanes and drove Vespa scooters How many votes is all this "stuff" worth? ("profanity" may be substituted here; but it wasn't)
I wonder about What my opponents are up to Conspiring to make a deal on the sly "If you should drop out" Tancredo tells Dan Maes "I'll make you director of my CBI"
CHORUS He's running for Gov'nor to keep the State from going under Hoping to earn your vote, if you please But given the fumbles, all must be humble You don't get elected Governor with ease
Campaigns aren't for sissies It's long days and speeches I can't tell when night ends and morning begins But nobody told me The others would love me So if I keep my mouth shut they'll both let me win
Folks are a'wonderin how I'll balance the budget. Good ole Dean Singleton asks every day. But I won't be prodded into talkin 'bout taxes. There just ain't no reason to make Vince Carroll's day.
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