Famous for their claim of putting the “mock” in “democracy,” The Capitol Steps musical comedy troupe performs satiric political commentary set to the tunes of well-known songs. On Tuesday, the troupe performed at Pomona College and had the community-wide audience thundering with laughter.
Notable numbers included “I’m Just A Pill,” which changed the lyrics of the Schoolhouse Rock! classic to address congressional debates over birth control, and “You Can’t Hide that Biden Guy,” to the tune of “Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles.
The Capitol Steps originated at a Christmas party for the U.S. Senate staff in 1981. A group of staffers provided entertainment by poking gentle fun at their senators and other coworkers. After enthusiastic reception, they took their act on the road. Thirty years later, The Capitol Steps have performed for everyone from PBS, CNN and The Today Show to the last five presidents.
Elaina Newport, a producer and founding member of The Capitol Steps, sat down with TSL to discuss the history and success of the group. Before answering our questions, she said, “Thank you to the voters of California, who have provided us with so much material over the years.”
TSL: What are the biggest similarities and differences between working in politics and performing as a comedy troupe?
Elaina Newport: I think that working in politics has a lot in common with doing comedy. When I worked on Capitol Hill, we were always thinking about how to get the quick quote on the evening news, or write the “one-liner” for the Senator. And many politicians are unintentionally funny. The Capitol Steps actually intend to make jokes.
TSL: Do you have any particular politicians or events that you really like to lampoon in your pieces?
EN: My favorite politician to lampoon was Bill Clinton—he gave us so much material. When he left office, we thought, “How can George Bush be nearly as funny?” but he was. I really enjoyed writing the malapropisms. In our show, he had a “self-defecating” sense of humor. Barack Obama is not as funny as George Bush, but he gave us Joe Biden. It was almost like he was thinking of the comedians when he did that!
TSL: Is anything off-limits when it comes to satire, or does every headline fall under fair game?
EN: Some things are not inherently funny, but we try to find a funny angle in them. For example, Greece is having a financial crisis—it’s hard to make that funny! But we took the musical “Grease” and changed it to the musical “Greece” and basically found that even fiscal issues can be funny if you have a good parody and make your performers look ridiculous.
TSL: Could you describe the typical process of creating a parody song?
EN: When creating a parody, you need something that everyone knows about the politician. So, for Mitt Romney, since we all know he is rich, we have him do a rap called “I Like Big Bucks and I Cannot Lie” and we call him the Plain White Rapper. It works because not only is he rich, but seeing someone as stiff as Mitt attempt to do a rap is part of the comedy. For Barack, since he keeps talking about capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden, we have him sing a song about that, to “Under the Sea.” Which is where Osama is. I think our show is the only place where you can see Barack Obama sing a Disney song and Mitt Romney do a rap. You can’t find that anywhere else.
The performers’ uncanny impressions of both 2012 presidential candidates were definite highlights of the show. The show stayed true to the headlines, addressing relevant issues like TSA security and Romney’s leaked “47 percent” commentary, but also referenced America’s favorite political laughingstocks, including Sarah Palin, Al Gore and Herman Cain. The Capitol Steps pushed the limits and kept up the energy all night, much to the entertainment of their audience.