Being a political junkie lately has been a dreadful thing. The usually wonderful high has been wrecked by products cut and watered down by an inevitable (again) Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and a clown car of Rotarians and Elmer Gantrys on the Republican side. The only solace in this sorry situation is the mockery that it will produce.
The Capitol Steps are my personal favorites when it comes to this, blending biting non-partisan satire with genuine musical talent. I caught up to Elaina Newport, one of the founding members of the Capitol Steps, before the group arrives in New York for a one-night stand. Here’s what she had to say:
TheBlot: How did Capitol Steps come to be?
Elaina Newport: The Capitol Steps have an odd story — we began in 1981 as entertainment for a Senate office Christmas party. We were all working for Sen. Charles Percy [R-Ill.], and we decided to work up some song parodies to perform at the party. (The joke we’ve made over the years is that we wanted to do a traditional nativity play, but in all of the Congress, we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin!) We thought we would do the show just once — after all, we were making fun of the Congress that employed us, so we thought someone would ask us to stop or fire us or both. But no one did, so we’re still performing, 34 years later!
What makes for good political satire?
Well, in our case, we are doing song parodies, so we are looking for a good pun, a song that’s widely known and one that fits the issue. Then we have a well-known politician sing it! So, we sometimes pull from show tunes, like “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Crimea?” or country-western songs, like having John Kerry sing “Stand By Iran.” And we look for songs from current years, too. Right now we have Barack Obama pandering to his base in “All about the Base” and Hillary Clinton singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. I like to say that our show is the only place you can see Joe Biden sing a rock song, Chris Christie sing a show tune, and Vladimir Putin dancing, shirtless [to “Putin on a Blitz.”] Once you have the song, the trick is filling it with jokes. And the jokes need to have a grain of truth, but you’re halfway there if the song fits the character.
Who are your influences?
When I was growing up, I listened to Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer, and in recent years I’ve watched “The Daily Show” and [“Saturday Night Live].” I admire “The Daily Show” so much because they often find the irony in an issue, and they find great clips of politicians contradicting themselves — they have a great research team. “SNL” is fun to watch because they have such good impersonators.
Is it easier to work in a presidential election year?
Actually, it’s very tricky to do the year before the election, when it’s primary season. The candidates change so fast! In the last race, the frontrunner on the Republican side shifted from Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum to Herman Cain (he was actually ahead for a while!) before they settled on Mitt Romney. We were writing like crazy! But once the parties settle on their candidates, it’s much more straightforward. And then you get little gifts from the politicians like Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.”
What is it like leaving the D.C. area to perform? Are the audiences different?
Even when we perform in D.C., our audiences are largely from out of town. We have a regular spot in D.C. at the Reagan Building, Fridays and Saturdays, and we get a lot of tourists. So our show is always geared towards national headlines.
Who have been the best politicians to mock?
Well, Bill Clinton is probably the funniest politician we’ve had — but in some ways, he presented a challenge because the headlines were already so funny, and comedy is based on exaggeration. So, how do you exaggerate some of the things that happened during his term?
But over the years, the thing I’ve been struck by is that there are so many stories in the “you-could-not-have-made-this-up” category. Things like Anthony Weiner tweeting his private parts, Dick Cheney shooting a friend in the face, or Sen. Larry Craig in the airport bathroom. We have a song at the end of the show where we summarize our entire history in three minutes, and we include all of these stories. It was really fun to put that together.
What politicians have been the most receptive to your work?
Over the years, the thing we’ve been most surprised by is that the politicians are totally up for laughing at themselves. They’ve often invited us to perform. George Bush (Sr.) invited us to the White House several times, and we’ve also performed for presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Jr. No Obama yet, but there’s still time!
What your favorite story about the Capitol Steps?
Well, it kind of ties to your last question … once when President Bush (Sr.) invited us to the White House, it was during some controversies — Dan Quayle, John Sununu, etc., — and the staff was very nervous. They gave us a list of subjects to avoid! And one of the subjects they wanted us to avoid was the president himself. So, we did what we could — songs about Congress, etc., and when the show was over, the president came up on stage and said, “Hey, don’t you have any songs about me?” And of course we did! So, with his permission, we did them.
The Capitol Steps will be in New York Monday, May 4, at Town Hall on West 43rd Street. I can’t wait!
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.