It was the Senate office Christmas party in 1981 when Elaina Newport and her fellow staffers first lampooned their political contemporaries in song. Performing a parody of your workplace in front of the boss who also happens to hold a public office is a bold move. Newport waited for the fallout that never came.
“We worked up a few songs and we really thought we’d do it once and be told to stop, get fired or both,” she says. “And we were sort of surprised when someone said ‘hey,we have our party next week. Will you do our party, too?’ No one ever told us to stop so we kept going.”
The production Capitol Steps is all about “what to expect when you’re electing.” It also may be the only place for audiences to hear Joe Biden sing a rock song or see New Jersey Governor Chris Christie perform a classical ballet. The political satire group has released over 40 albums including the classics “Take the Money and Run for President”, “When Bush Comes to Shove,” “Baracking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Liberal Shop of Horrors” and “I’m So Indicted.”
“This is quite an exciting time for political satire as you might imagine. It’s almost hard to be funnier than the actual candidates this year. It’s a challenge, especially in this new cycle because it’s so fast. Everyone knows things instantly,” says Newport, one of the group’s original co-founders and co-author of all of the material.
“But it’s fun, too, because if you can put something in the show that just happened, they will cut you a lot of slack. Even if you forget the words. We’ve had a performer one night forget the words and she said ‘you think this is easy? I just got this’. The audience loved it because the event had just happened.”
The Washington-based group of former congressional staffers tows the party line and remains unwavering in its bipartisanship. The willingness to mine material from both the Republican and Democratic camps results in a double dose of comedy gold.
“I am an extreme moderate. I worked for two Republicans actually but I worked for them back in the day when there were moderate Republicans back in the 80’s. You don’t see them in the wild anymore,” says Newport. “I actually think both sides get ridiculous when they get to extremes. From the day we started “Capitol Steps”, we decided we’d get everybody. Yes, it gives us twice the jokes but I think both sides get funny when they get to extremes. We’ve had a bipartisan tradition since we started and we hope to keep that tradition going as long as we’re around.”
Early in this election cycle, Newport says she wrote a joke about Trump’s refusing to kiss any infants on the campaign trail because ‘babies are losers’. There was no way to predict Trump would later publicly shame an actual baby for crying during a rally.
“It was a joke when I wrote it but then of course, he did insult a baby so then it’s like what’s a more ridiculous joke we can make?” she said. “You can just repeat actual lines that he says. But we love Hilary, too. She gives us all sorts of jokes. And it lets us bring Bill back. We’ve always loved Bill for comedy purposes. But one of the things people love about our show is they know we’re getting everybody.”
When Capitol Steps was just a fledgling company, Newport says she was still clinging to her day job, ready to give up the act at any time. She left her position with Senator Charles Percy of Illinois after he lost the 1984 election – “it was not my fault,” she says – and went to work for another senator for a while. In 1988, Newport left her day job for good against all advice and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I thought ‘hey, I think we can make a living at this’,” she says. “We were already traveling around and not showing up a lot of days at our day jobs and they were starting to notice. It wasn’t that risky at that point because we were doing a lot of shows. It took seven years for me to really run off and join the circus.”
The response, says Newport, has always been overwhelming. Only once did she incur the ire of a politician unhappy with the show. Former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato expressed his displeasure because he wasn’t featured in a song. “We said get in a scandal and you will. And shortly after that, I think he did get investigated for something,” she says.
Even when there was not any political fallout, Newport says she expected some resistance from the other players when making fun of the job became a full time job. But the “Capitol Steps” proved to be the political parody version of “A Field of Dreams”. If we write it, they will come.
“Senator Percy invited us to perform for his parties and his events. He loved it. Reagan had just taken office and there was a little bit of a climate that it wasn’t that hard to go from politics to acting,” says Newport. “Reagan had a good sense of honor and he sort of set a tone and people seemed ready for this. We performed at Regan’s final congressional picnic and he was great. At the end, he came up and said ‘thank you very much. Now you’re all under arrest’. His timing was perfect.”