ONSTAGE : Steps to success – D.C. satirists return to Lobero for an evening of song and sketches

The Governator gets a makeover when The Capitol Steps come to town.

By Ted Mills, News-Press Correspondent
April 25, 2008 11:14 AM
The Capitol Steps, that beltway bunch of musical satirists returning to the Lobero for their 11th year, run on a fuel that consists of 30 percent parody and 70 percent puns — really groan-worthy puns. For an example, check a slew of song titles: “Help Me Fake It to the Right” (about Mitt Romney), “What Kind of Fuel Am I?” (about bio-fuels), “Electile Dysfunction,” and the title of their latest CD collection, “Campaign and Suffering.”
“I am the culprit behind most of those,” admits co-founder Elaina Newport.
The story of how the Capitol Steps went on to become one of Washington, D.C.’s most reliable institutions and exports — aside from scandals, their bread and butter — has been thoroughly documented. Former Republican staff members on the Senate Subcommittee on Energy, Nuclear Proliferation, and Government Processes, Elaina Newport and Bill Strauss started writing satirical ditties, which led to a performance at a Christmas show in 1981. The success earned them requests, new members (both Republican and Democrat) and a side-career that they eventually made full-time and open to the public.
“It was a fun time for satire,” says Newport about those early years. “Reagan had just come in. He was going from acting to politics and we went from politics to performing.” Bill Strauss has a career in law ahead of him, but chose comedy instead. “I think Bill was also wondering if he’d be in front of a committee one day, being asked, ‘Did you write a song against the President in 1981?”
Strauss passed away late last year at the end of a long illness, but the group, which has seen some 30 odd members in its lifetime, continues on.
As a topical-humor group, the Steps find it the hardest when a politician does not offer obvious traits to puncture. Newport said former candidate Fred Thompson wasn’t too funny until they latched onto his Beverly Hills connection (resulting in a Beverly Hillbillies parody). Or they may be ahead of the audience’s perceptions — when Rudy Giuliani looked to be the obvious GOP nominee, the Steps were making fun of his constant reference to 9/11. The routine “wasn’t quite connecting” until Joe Biden pointed out, in his now famous quote from the debates, “there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.” Then the routine worked ? and Rudy dropped out.
“We had a song called ‘McCain’s Campaign Is Clearly Down the Drain,’ when we didn’t know who was going to be the main candidate,” she adds. But then, nobody looks to a comedy troupe for prognostication. For the most part, songs about the economy, scandals, and other countries remain popular. A skit about airport security also does well, and springs from the group’s own experience. “The TSA has seized some of our props on tour,” Newport says. “We do skits on terrorism, so we have plastic grenades and guns. We had a skit with a gas-mask, that never made it through either.” No wonder the Steps dress up their TSA security guard as an axe-wielding barbarian.
The Steps remain fiercely bipartisan, but unlike Congress, they all get along well. Newport, like all the others, has to bite her tongue even when a politician she likes is the subject of derision. “I was upset when they tried to swift-boat John Kerry,” she says. “I mean, he did serve in Vietnam.” The group still went ahead with their parody “Fakey Purple Heart,” set to the Billy-Ray Cyrus song.
Still, their targets take it all in stride. Most even request their songs, like former presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. Others are disappointed when there isn’t a song about them. And for those politicians who don’t have any sense of humor at all?
“I can’t name them,” Newport says, sounding protective. “Because they don’t turn up.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $25 to $35
Information: 963-0761, www.lobero.com
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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