Political satire at its steppiest
Elaina Newport is the producer and a co-founder of The Capitol Steps, a troupe of political satirists that has entertained the nation for more than three decades. The group, whose motto is “We put the MOCK in democracy,” will appear this coming Thursday at The Traffic Club of Pittsburgh's annual dinner at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.
Q: Did the Steps really have their origin at a D.C. Christmas party?
A: Oh yes. It was 1981 and we were working for Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois. He was one of those moderate Republicans you read about in the history books. We were wondering what we were going to do for the office Christmas party.
You might have heard that we were going to do a traditional Nativity play but in all of Congress we couldn't find three wise men or a virgin. So we just decided to make fun of our bosses, make fun of the president. These were the early Reagan years and he was known for not working super hard. So we had a song (about him) called “Working 9 to 10.” It was a very fun time; we thought we'd do it once at a Christmas party and then never speak of it again.
Q: But the performance bug had bitten?
A: We actually did this for a couple of years in the basement, and you had to know a password and (secret) knock on the door because we really were afraid of losing our day jobs.
Q: Which presidents have provided you with the best material?
A: It's a close call between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton was like the golden age of satire. There was a time during the '90s when you could have just stood up and read actual newspaper stories and gotten laughs — Monica (Lewinsky) kept the dress, Linda Tripp wired her bra. So Clinton was a lot of fun. But on the other hand, he almost made comedians unnecessary.
George W. Bush was probably my personal favorite because you were always kind of thinking, “Well, how would he mangle the language on this one?” Barack Obama is not nearly as funny as Bush. But he did pick Joe Biden as his vice president. It's almost like he was thinking, “OK, I need to do something for the comedians.”
Q: When the Steps started, there was no “Daily Show,” no (Stephen) Colbert. How has having political satire on TV every day impacted the Steps?
A: I think it makes our job harder in one way, easier in another. It's harder because people's expectations now are very high. When a story breaks, they know about it right away; they want something on it. So the day that (former U.S. Rep.) Anthony Weiner tweets (pictures of) his underwear, you've got to have something because you know Jon Stewart is going to have something. On the other hand, the stories get around faster, so everybody knows that Anthony Weiner tweeted his underwear and so they'll get the song we do about it.
There were times in the old days we might have (debated) doing a song on the McCain amendment on regulatory reform. Now we have a little better indicator that they actually do know the story because Jon Stewart is (mentioning) it.
Q: There's never a shortage of situations to satirize in Washington. Do you see the group continuing after you and some of the other Steps vets retire?
A: This line of work is a little like being a funeral director or a car repossessor. You know that bad things are always going to happen to somebody. (The Steps) will always be in business.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org).