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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012

The Capitol Steps’ Bipartisan Humor

Political comedy troupe mocks all sides

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For more than 30 years, the Capitol Steps have dutifully held politicians accountable, managed to make audiences laugh at the state of our union, and kept Capitol Hill on its toes. The troupe, which George H.W. Bush once said made “it easier to leave public life,” was founded in 1981 during an attempt to liven up the festivities at an office Christmas party. In hopes of providing a polished performance and a memorable set, Senate staffers Elaina Newport, Bill Strauss and Jim Aidala collaborated and composed political song parodies and skits. Encouraged by the positive reception of their friends and colleagues, the trio continued to appear at parties and functions around Capitol Hill. But the level of popularity and success the group has achieved performing their special brand of humor was unexpected.

“When we started doing this, I don’t think any of us thought all of this was going to happen,” Newport recalls. “We didn’t expect to be performing in front of such big (audiences) or making albums…or the cast growing so much. We were kind of along for the ride.”

The Capitol Steps have recorded more than 30 albums. The group’s latest, Take the Money and Run for President, is a classic. Intelligent and eclectic, the album expertly skewers Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Biden and Rick Perry, as well as Newt Gingrich and his “three little wives.”

Even after decades of writing, producing and performing with the Capitol Steps, Newport maintains that the process of writing material remains the same. “You’re always looking for a good rhyme or a good pun. You’re looking for what’s funny about a person,” she explains. “Mitt Romney, for example: One of the things I think is kind of funny about him is he’s a little stiff, so I thought it would be really funny for him to break loose and do a rap like ‘I Like Big Bucks and I Cannot Lie’…We’ve been calling him the Plain White Rapper.”

The troupe of self-proclaimed “Equal Opportunity Offenders” is also confronted with the constant challenge of parodying dull or serious topics. Yet despite penning songs about the sea burial of Osama bin Laden and the Greek government debt crisis, Newport insists that the most challenging aspect of being a political comedian is battling the often-unforgiving 24-hour news cycle.

“When we first started, we might have rehearsed a song for a week,” Newport explains. “Now we might get an afternoon. Sometimes we’ll have moments on stages, and I think the audience appreciates it, where we’ll have just started a project, and we’ll say, ‘Can we start this again?’ It’s kind of a funny moment because the audience knows that the issue is so new and that they’re seeing something for the first time.”

In addition to the group’s headline-inspired songs and skits, audience members can also appreciate the troupe’s political background and expertise. Newport worked on Capitol Hill for seven years before leaving to put the “mock in democracy” full-time with the Capitol Steps. Since Newport has experience as both a Senate staffer and political satirist, I ask her about the increased incivility and divisiveness among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“It feels meaner to me,” she replies. “In the ’80s, I remember doing bills with both parties. We would actually get together with the two different parties and co-sponsor a bill. Now you almost never see that happening. Now everything is a party-line vote.

“It feels more divisive to me, which is why the choice of Paul Ryan is kind of strange. He is kind of one of the more combative leaders, but I don’t care so much what is good for the country than I do what’s funny,” she adds with a laugh.

Though satirizing our nation’s leaders remains her No. 1 concern, Newport and her fellow cast mates also hope to provide some much-needed election season reprieve. “You’re in a swing state like I am here in Virginia—the ads here are horrible,” she says. “So one of the things I would say to (someone) reading this article is (that) you have to come out and take a break from all of these ads and laugh at both sides.”

The Capitol Steps perform at the Pabst Theater on Friday, Sept. 21.


Emily Patti writes about food and culture for the
Shepherd Express.
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