Grand Ole Texas Lege
Stephanie Chiarello might be out of a job if the wrong person reads this. Not to alarm you, reader; this chief of staff to a state representative has been putting on her satirical play about the Texas legislature for seven years now, and she’s been thinking a lot about risk lately. She’s decided it’s worth it, just in time for the new season September 16 through 18 at the Long Center.
“If I get fired from my state job for a theater show that I consider as freedom of speech, that's a pretty good badge of honor,” says Chiarello. “I don't want that to happen at all, but maybe I could fundraise off that.”
The live sketch comedy show Over the Lege exists to keep the legislature in check, even if the legislative body at large doesn't know about it. Chariello and her team spin scenes off of actual events at the Capitol to help staffers blow off some steam, and to make sure Texans have an accessible shot at understanding the decisions being made.
2022 is an interim year, meaning that legislation is not being passed, but the committees are “homework,” as Chiarello explains. Over the Lege runs in the fall to coincide with election season, and she points out this is an especially important year due to redistricting, which placed every statewide office, senator, and representative on the ballot. The next legislature starts in January of 2023.
Chiarello first pitched the show to the Institution Theater in 2015, the year of the 84th legislative session, while working for then-Senator and former Austin mayor Kirk Watson. Even besides watching overtly distressing lawmaking decisions at council meetings and floor debates, she was witnessing more than her fair share of “juvenile” behavior.
One member asked an Asian-American speaker to change his name so she could pronounce it better; another member teased a heavy legislator with a cookie. Chiarello wondered why it seemed that no one was paying attention to these, or even more egregious offenses.
“Senators represent about a million people in Texas and representatives are, like, 220,000 people. You mean so much more here on this level than you do to the President of the United States,” says Chiarello. “People can tell you who the president is — and bless Ted Cruz’s heart, people seem to know who he is now — but no one right now, who's not involved in the Texas lege, could tell you who their state senator or their state rep are. And that's what I wanted to change.”
Unlike the legislative members Chiarello skewers, she and her writers try to keep their ribbing to what individuals have earned. She tries to stick to policy, unless certain members have consistently transgressed on the side of bad policy. State Representative Briscoe Cain bought his ticket from relative protection to a children of the corn comparison with sensationally hardline policy goals, public name-calling, and, in fairness, a lot of pictures in fields.
Over the Lege is a nonpartisan show, at least in theory, but Chiarello finds it harder to make fun of Democrats — not for lack of material, but weakness of punchlines. “I try,” she says. “I promise I try so hard, but the show is really about punching up to power, and Democrats have no power.”
One sketch from 2019 takes the form of a game show called “How Red Is It?” The first contestant is a handsy Pisces from Austin who cannot name any gubernatorial candidates besides Greg Abbott, but pledges “100 percent” of her support to whoever his opponent is. She snaps at a “white male” on her way offstage.
Games shows are the basis for the Over the Lege podcast, which is active in between live shows, much more frequently, and returning for its fourth season in October. Episodes contain radio-style game shows (like Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!) with local comedians as contestants and interviews with “legislative celebrities.” The most recent episode, released on June 2, 2022, features comedians Aaron Salinas and Shana Merlin, plus Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant.
The Long Center show for the 2022 season features one special guest per showing: Senator Sarah Eckhardt, State Representative Gina Hinojosa, and Democratic campaign consultant James Aldrete, in order.
Aside from guests, the show keeps multiple writers busy, especially head writer Amy Knopp, who does advocacy work and Chiarello calls “Capitol-adjacent.” Other writers and actors affiliated with Over the Lege were either invited in an open call early in the show’s life, or have since joined through word of mouth.
Chiarello is also responsible for all the administrative work, booking shows, and buying costumes — basically, anything that comes up. As much as the sketch show is an outlet, it is financial baggage. She hopes that the show will one day support itself, so it at least breaks even. For now, she considers it her “civic duty.”
“I justify [the personal risk] by saying … 80 percent of what's in the show is real. It's really happened. It's a real policy. It's a real conversation. It's [really] something in someone's past,” says Chiarello. “So if a legislator is proud of the work they do, they should fear not of this show. And if they're not proud, then that's the whole point.”