A 'Capitol' Idea

To politically savvy people across America, the Capitol Steps are more than just an architectural feature.

The performance group, a band of (mostly) erstwhile congressional staffers who combine comic wit with current events, has created a hilarious new breed of political commentary. The group's belly-laugh-inducing ditties are sure to perk up even those disillusioned Americans who believe the funniest aspect of political commentary is the current state of Larry King's hair. Reminiscent of The Daily Show set to song, the irreverent Capitol Steps are the perfect antidote to the political boredom and apathy that plague our nation.

Appropriately, the group's beginnings lie in one mischievous evening on Capitol Hill. Elaina Newport, the group's producer and "Alpha Female," chuckles as she describes the fateful night. It was December 1981.

"We are an odd group," says Newport. "We started at a Senate office Christmas party. We were going to stage the traditional Nativity play, but we couldn't find three wise men or a virgin! So we decided to make fun of our bosses. We thought of course we'd get fired, or at least somebody would ask us to stop, but nobody did; it was strange. We've never had a shortage of material since."

Indeed, the president at the time, entertainer-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, was an inspiration to the group, and they set out to accomplish the reverse goal for themselves.

"We all thought we had serious political jobs, so for the first couple of years, we didn't record or anything," says Newport.

In 1984, they finally gave in and released their first album. In the years since, the prolific group has grown to include 22 cast members and has recorded 23 albums of song parodies and skits, many of them annual retrospectives of the silly things politicians did in the previous 12 months.

One of the most endearing and clever things about the Capitol Steps' songs is that they are parodies of popular songs of today and yesterday. This isn't down to the level of Weird Al singing about lasagna or Star Wars; the performers skillfully imitate the voices and foibles of politicians, celebrities, criminals and other persons of note, while cleverly crafting an entirely new song around the tunes of existing songs.

The group's most recent album, Between Iraq and a Hard Place, gleefully mocks the state of the United States, from weapons inspectors to ailing 401(k)s, wartime attitudes to the ever-feckless SUV. Last but not certainly not least ridiculed, George W. Bush and his famous flaws make several appearances. A personal favorite of City Week is "Talk 'Bout Saddam," a skit to the tune of Frankie Valli's "Walk Like a Man," in which George Bush Sr. instructs his son on the best way to deflect criticism: Talk 'bout Saddam--and nothing else. A choice line: "Talk 'bout Saddam, much as you can, talk 'bout Saddam my son / If you act now, they'll forget the Dow, so talk 'bout Saddam, my son."

Nobody is safe from the group's watchful, irreverent gaze.

"Right now," says Newport, "my favorite song to perform is one where Cher goes to perform in Iraq, picks a partner, and the show becomes 'Sunni and Cher.'"

Some of the most influential political figures of recent years have registered their opinions of the Capitol Steps. Past president George Bush Sr. said, "The Capitol Steps make it easier to leave public life." Former Vice President Al Gore noted, "Some people in Washington are confused, but the Capitol Steps are not." Former Surgeon General Everett C. Koop even warned, "The Capitol Steps will cause your sides to split."

"We expected people to get upset," says Newport. "(Former New York Sen.) Alfonse D'Amato was mad because we hadn't made a song about him. The worst thing you can do to a politician is to ignore him."

Newport insists that, despite the prevalence of Bush mockeries, the group is neither liberal nor conservative in identity.

"What happens," says Newport, "is that whoever is in office is funny. ... It's hard to find funny Democrats these days. We're looking forward to Bill Clinton's autobiography, though, because we're sure it will give us a lot of material."

Still, the group's newest material puts a certain gleam in the eyes of liberals. A line from "Sound of Moose-Sick": "Strip mines on hillsides and derricks on beaches / clear-cutting forests and spotted-owl quiches / so many smokestacks it makes your eyes sting / these are some things favored by the right wing."

When asked for other examples of how the group's satire has influenced those mocked, Newport admits, "I am personally responsible for Dan Quayle being vice president, because we were doing a show in the summer of '88, and after the show, we were talking to George Bush Sr. He asked who he should pick as a running mate, and I said, 'Pick someone funny.'"

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