Putting the “mock” in Democracy: Capitol Steps troupe brings political laughs to WCU
By Michael Beadle
Along with death and taxes, one of the most predictable things in life seems to be political scandal, and for the past quarter century few comedy groups in America have done a better job of poking fun at our elected officials than the Capitol Steps.
Singing parodies, impersonating U.S. presidents, and cleverly crooning over the latest news stories, the Capitol Steps have produced 27 albums while spotlighting the bizarre, the ludicrous and the silly side of democracy at work.
When the Capitol Steps troupe takes the stage in Cullowhee at the Fine and Performing Arts Center on Western Carolina University’s campus at 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, it will debut some of its most recent material on its just-released album, Springtime for Liberals (a parody of The Producers hit Springtime for Hitler and a reference to the Democrats’ new majority in Congress).
Among the parodies in this latest album are “A Leader Like Barack” (a take-off on the ‘60s hit “Leader of the Pack”) and “Congress it is A-Changin’” (a nod to the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’).
Other hilarious parodies from this group have included “Osama Come Out Tomorrow,” “When IRS Guys are Smilin’,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if Your State’s Not a Swing” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Baghdad.”
Elaina Newport, one of the founding members of the Capitol Steps who also writes about half the songs for the group, said she’s looking forward to the upcoming election year of 2008. Sometimes it’s the names — like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — and sometimes it’s the gaffs — like the million and one Malapropisms of President George W. Bush — that lend themselves to great comedy skits and parodies. But it can be hard to find the right balance between joking about a public figure and coming across as offensive or partisan.
Since the Capitol Steps include people from all kinds of political persuasions — Newport herself was a former staffer for two Republican senators and married a former Clinton appointee — the shows they do take fair jabs across the political spectrum. They’re equal opportunity pundits.
“We’re really quite diverse,” she said. “We do have lively debates.”
When Newport and a handful of Senate staffers started the group back in December 1981 as a Christmas party gag, the joke was they tried to do a Nativity play but they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin in all of Congress. But they did get some laughs when they took famous songs or Broadway musical tunes and infused them with political stories of the day.
“I really expected we’d be told to stop,” Newport recalled.
Or that they’d get fired.
But Sen. Charles Percy, the Republican from Illinois that Newport was working for at the time, invited the Capitol Steps to come perform again. Later on, when Newport went to work as a staffer for Sen. Alphonse D’Amato of New York, the only time he seemed to get upset was when they didn’t have a song about him. Newport even wrote some material for a roast about the senator.
D’Amato, who was known for his off-handed comments and colorful commentary (he once did a mock Japanese impersonation of Lance Ito, the judge of the O.J. Simpson trial), seemed to lack such comedic timing.
“Comedy is based on exaggeration,” Newport explained.
And sometimes the truth is funnier than fiction. During the scandal-plagued Clinton years, for example, the Capitol Steps had to keep ahead of the news.
“It was almost hard to be funnier than the headlines,” she said.
Just recently, Republican Presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain got into the news for parodying a line from a Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann,” singing instead “Bomb Iran.” (The tune was actually a 1980 hit single by Vince Vance and the Valiants and was updated last year as an Internet video.)
Thanks to 24-hour news networks, talk radio, blogs, and satirical TV news skits on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report,” there’s plenty of news to go around, but some are only getting their news from sources like “The Daily Show” with its mock-news format and satirical stories. But that doesn’t bother Newport.
“These shows question the statements that our leaders are making,” she said. And if that makes people more informed about the political process, so be it.
Since the Capitol Steps formed in 1981, they’ve been featured on “Good Morning America,” “20/20,” and “Entertainment Tonight.” With about 25 current members — no longer with day jobs on Capitol Hill — they split into groups of five and put on shows all over the country. On the same night Capitol Steps takes the stage at Western Carolina, for example, two other shows will be running — one in California and one in Washington, D.C. In fact, the Capitol Steps perform regularly in the nation’s capital on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year at the Ronald Reagan Building. The satirical team can also been seen in the Tar Heel state on April 28 on Center Stage at N.C. State University in Raleigh. Four times a year — New Year’s Day, April Fools’ Day, Fourth of July and Halloween — the Capitol Steps can also be heard on National Public Radio stations for their “Politics Takes a Holiday” radio specials.
Over the years, Newport has had her share of favorite public figures to write about. One of her favorites was big-eared billionaire and Reform Party Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who was especially amusing for his folksy candor and Texas accent. These days, grim news about Iraq and terrorism threats can prove difficult for comedians, but even in the most serious subject like Hurricane Katrina, there are still politicians or public figures that are fair game, Newport says.
The “Lirty Dies” segment — a feature which includes Spoonerisms that “spew up your screech” and flip initial letters of words around — has also proven to be a clever way to play with irony, innuendo and satire when dealing with issues like steroid abuse in baseball, political campaigns, and media darlings.
Every now and then, a song doesn’t work with audiences — and it gets quickly shelved — still, a typical show has 30 songs mixed in with monologues and skits, so there’s going to be something in there that resonates with people. Sometimes it may not be the reaction you’d expect, Newport admits. After some jokes about the French not supporting the U.S. in the lead-up to the War in Iraq, Newport remembers getting a couple of complaints from pro-French listeners.
“It’s very unpredictable,” she says.
In an age of high profile personalities like Don Imus, who recently had to apologize for insensitive remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, the Capitol Steps face the tricky task of lampooning without lambasting.
Newport finds herself watching comics like Jay Leno to see what audiences respond to and what material is worth doing. The best songs, she says, are the ones that turn on both sides of an issue and expose the irony and contradiction.
The joy of it all is hearing something in the news, finding an issue that appears odd or funny and then turning it into a song that connects with an audience. Then you realize a lot of other people feel the same way you do.
Tickets for the Friday night show at Western Carolina University range from $5 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 828.227.2479 or going to the Web site www.wcu.edu/fapac/box_office.html.