At the Wharton: Capitol Steps and the Politics of Parody

Oct 3, 2012

The 2012 election is just a month away, and the campaign rhetoric continues to fly.  All that talk is a rich source of material for the Capitol Steps, a group of political satirists who perform in vaudeville-style tours.  The group began in 1981, when a bunch of congressional staffers got together at a Washington D.C. Christmas party. 

The Capitol Steps will perform Thursday evening at the Wharton Center at Michigan State University.

ELAINA NEWPORT:  We decided to make fun of our bosses and thought somebody would tell us to stop or fire us or both, but they haven’t...and now 30 years later, the Capitol Steps are still performing all over the country. 

KEVIN LAVERY:  It seems to me, Elaina, that it’s a bit like a traveling road show-“Saturday Night Live”-type skit.

NEWPORT:  Yes; the show is very almost vaudeville fast.  I mean we have five performers and we do about 30 songs.  So, the woman who’s playing Nancy Pelosi is playing Hillary Clinton is playing Janet Napolitano and she’s changing her wigs and she’s running on and off and singing songs and doing skits.  I think it’s more costume changes than a Cher concert, somebody told us once.

LAVERY:  That’s quite a feat to accomplish!  Does that kind of insight into the inner workings of Washington really give you an advantage in writing your material?

NEWPORT:  Yeah, when we started we had to resist the temptation to be too “inside” Washington.  You know, we worked on Capitol Hill, so it would have tempting for us to say, OK, let’s write a song about the McCain amendment on regulatory reform!  You know, something we worked on.

Skits put politicians into ridiculous situations

"I do want to reassure people that if we get the guy you like in the first song, we're going to get the guy you don't like in the second song."

LAVERY:   So, I have to does that kind of inspiration strike you and the members of your troupe?

NEWPORT:  Well, one of the things that we do in the Capitol Steps shows is we put politicians into sort of situations that you would never really see in real life.  Like, we have Barack Obama starring in a show called “Fiddler With the Truth,” and “If I Tax a Rich Man” is from that show.  You know, we put Barack Obama in a show tune, we put Joe Biden in a rock song and we actually have Mitt Romney actually doing a rap these days.  So we put everybody into these unusual situations.  I think it’s the only place you can see that; maybe it’s the only place where you want to see that!  And it’s part of the fun of the Capitol Steps is that you can see these politicians in these music settings and doing the song parodies.

LAVERY:  The Capitol Steps, it seems to me, is kind of an “equal opportunity destroyer,” if you’ll pardon the pun.  Does this resonate more with Democrats or more with Republicans?  Is there a way to tell that?

NEWPORT:  We really do like to get everybody, so thanks for bringing that up.  I do want to reassure people that if we get the guy you like in the first song, we’re going to get the guy you don’t like in the second song, and you’re going to leave feeling that, OK...they got everybody, and it’s all in good fun.  Some people have asked us if we’re kind of like a good poll of, you know, how much people laugh at somebody whether they’re going to get elected.  I don’t really think we have any insight on that.  We’re just having fun.