PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 10, 2006

Finding Humor in the Headlines

by Jim Newsom

The Capitol Steps are celebrating their 25th anniversary as a performing ensemble working in a niche that is virtually their own—a musical comedy troupe based in Washington, DC, specializing in political satire. What is now a 30-member full-time touring cast started out in 1981 as a one-time party spoof by a bunch of U. S. Senate staffers.

“It was really just, ‘who’s gonna entertain at the office Christmas party?’” founding member Elaina Newport told me late last month. “It was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee office party. That’s a pretty big party because there are a lot of senators who are on the committee.

“We had thrown together some songs—we have this joke that we were gonna do a nativity play but we worked in the senate and we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin. We just thought we would do this once, but people liked the songs and they started saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a party next week’ and the week after, and…it’s our twenty-fifth anniversary now!”

They’ll bring their gently irreverent brand of humor to the Ferguson Center Thursday night.

“On the road,” she said, “we do the show with five performers and a pianist. We break up into groups, and it’s really interesting. With five people, we do about thirty songs in the shows, so you might find that the guy who’s playing George Bush has to come back later to play Mel Gibson or Vladimir Putin.

“We have certain people who do a good George Bush impression, so they’re almost always gonna do that, but we do mix it up some. It’s the same material, and it’s funny—different people bring slightly different things to the role. Some guys might play George Bush with maybe ten more IQ points than somebody else. One of our guys has that great trademark blink that he does, and other people have the body language real well, so everybody brings something different to the role.

“We kinda do cartoons—if you look enough like George Bush to play him, you don’t necessarily look like President Hugo Chavez. We’ll put on the dark wig and the red shirt and get out there with an accent. Thank goodness for Americans’ lack of interest in the rest of the world! Anybody can play the pope if you have the right outfit.”

In the early days, all of the performers worked on Capitol Hill. Newport herself was an aide to two senators.

“I worked for Senator [Charles] Percy [of Illinois] for four years, from ’81 to ’85,” she said. “He actually lost to Paul Simon, the senator not the singer. Then I went and worked for Senator D’Amato of New York. That was quite a difference because Percy was this real refined gentleman and D’Amato was like, ‘Get in here!’”

As the group began to achieve some notoriety and popularity, the side job became the real job.

“It was very gradual,” Newport recalled. “The first couple of years that we did this, we were actually afraid of getting fired from our day jobs so we were very careful. We didn’t put out any records, we didn’t do any public shows; we just did parties and things. Some people knew but we didn’t really go out of our way to get press or anything because we didn’t want to get the senators mad.

“Then we realized that they weren’t getting mad, they were inviting us to perform for their parties—they thought it was funny. And we got a little bolder. Then somebody offered to pay us about three years into it—Up until then we didn’t even reimburse people for parking. So it was a few years in that we started to get a little bit of cash and could buy props and sound equipment and things like that.

“Nobody works on the hill anymore, we travel so much. For the first fifteen years, we had a rule that you had to have a hill background. We relaxed that rule back in ’96 because we were getting so busy and traveling so much. Now, I’d say it’s about 50/50 in terms of who has worked on the hill and who hasn’t.

“I left the hill in 1988. It was a pretty easy choice at that point because we could see that this was going to be enough to make a living, and it was certainly more fun and more respectable than working on the hill!”

The key to political satire is keeping the material current. Newport and Mark Eaton are the principal songwriters, but ideas can spring up from impromptu asides in the shows themselves.

“The cast always has ideas,” she said. “I remember one time this guy was playing George Bush on stage and he said, ‘I would never cheat on Laura; we’ve always had a monotonous relationship.’ And I thought, that sounds like something George Bush would say, let’s keep that.

“We add about a song every week. Like this week we’ve got a duet between the pope and President Hugo Chavez. For some reason I thought that they should get together and talk about some of the things that they’ve said. The week before, we added a song about Pluto getting downsized, and the week before that was probably a song about Mel Gibson apologizing. So every week we add something and then we have to retire the things that are getting dated. It’s always painful to say goodbye to an old song.

“We have no idea how long they’ll last. We had a great song about Tom Delay that was really working well, but then he retired and we were just out of luck. But we had a song about Scooter Libby called ‘I’m So Indicted.’ Then he dropped out of the news but this morning I woke up and he was back in court! I don’t listen to the headlines the same way as anybody else; I’m thinking how does this affect what song we can do?”

The Capitol Steps are bipartisan offenders:

“The party in power is always funnier and our challenge is that we try to get everybody. When Republicans have the senate, the house and the White House, it’s kinda tough; you really have to look for the funny Democrats. Fortunately we have Al Gore trying to be a movie star and Hillary thinking about running in ’08, but it’s always a challenge to get the opposing party into the show.

“I worked for two Republicans but I consider myself an extreme moderate. I was a big fan of Bill Clinton but I probably voted for George Bush senior.

“As much as I liked Clinton, I laughed just as much as anybody at the jokes about him. And that’s what we hope people come to the shows thinking—I’m gonna laugh at the guy I like, I’m gonna laugh at the guy I don’t like, and they’re gonna get ‘em all!”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.