Former Senate staffers satirize their bosses through song
By Varun Bhuchar, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2012
In the midst of a close, brutal and never-ending election season, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be making more gaffes than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can keep up with. Luckily for them, the Washington, D.C.-based satirical musical group The Capitol Steps are there to pick up the slack. With nearly 30 years of experience and over 35 albums to its name, the group will bring its bipartisan lampooning of our political process to Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center tonight.
The troupe was founded in 1981 by a group of Senate staffers who were trying to figure out who would provide the entertainment at that year’s Christmas party, according to Elaina Newport, one of the co-founders of the group. After exhausting several ideas, including one for a Nativity play, the staffers came up with the idea to make fun of their own occupation.
“We decided to make fun of politics, you know, write songs, skits and make fun of our bosses, make fun of the president,” Newport said. “Nobody told us to stop. We thought somebody would, but nobody told us to stop, and 30 years later, we are still performing as The Capitol Steps.”
The troupe takes its name from a sex scandal that occurred in 1981 when then-Rep. John Jenrette, D-S.C., had sex with his wife during a late night session of Congress on the capitol steps, according to the group’s website.
At the time of their formation, The Capitol Steps were comprised of primarily Republicans, but the group determined early on, however, that The Capitol Steps would make fun of both parties equally, according to Newport.
“We thought we’d get into less trouble if we did that,” Newport said. “It was a way of spreading the blame around, sort of. It’s also served us well because it doubles your audience and doubles your jokes. We really do try to get both sides, and sometimes that’s hard because the party in power is always funnier.”
When some of the staffers suddenly found themselves out of a job when their bosses lost their elections, the group decided to become a full-time professional comedy troupe. Since then, the group has become a favorite of prominent figures in D.C., performing for various presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The Steps still perform in D.C. every weekend without fail, regardless of their touring schedule. Ironically, the very people that they lampoon are some of their biggest fans, according to Newport.
“We were surprised at how good a sense of humor all these politicians had,” Newport said. “You know, we didn’t expect to be invited by presidents to perform. But generally, I think they kind of liked it when we made fun of them. [George H.W. Bush] would get up on stage with us, and he would invite Dana Carvey, who impersonated him on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I think he liked being made fun of. It was a form of flattery.”
Despite having done this for such a long time, Newport and her cohorts still get nervous when they perform in front of the very figures they make fun of. As long as the jabs are spread around, she said, she feels fine.
“It is sort of funny to look out and see the person you’re doing this song about sitting out there watching you,” Newport said. “We’ve always kind of had the philosophy that if we got everybody, we could do the show right in front of the person we were making fun of and they would be fine.”
The Capitol Steps are unique in that they manage to fuse politics — a normally rigid and serious subject — with art. Because of this, the show might attract students who normally may not see shows at the Hopkins Center, according to Gray Zabel ’15.
“It combines two of my favorite things: comedy and politics,” Zabel said. “As a government major, it’s refreshing to see a government-related activity being brought to campus that isn’t a lecture or a forum.”
The Capitol Steps will perform tonight at both 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.