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November 3, 2005

Stepping out with the Steps


My first day on the job, and my assignment is to laugh. I'm listening to the Capitol Step's latest CD, Four More Years in the Bush League. The Iraqi Minister of Tourism is singing "The Sunny Side of Tikrit." President Bush assures us that in the event that Dick Cheney is too ill to serve, he's ready to step in and take over. But Cheney seems pretty spry, as he rips into a rap praising tax cuts for the rich.charicature of the Capitol Steps

A conglomerate of political comedy, the Capitol Steps consists of about 30 performers who in various combinations do two live shows every weekend in Washington, four NPR radio shows a year (heard hereabouts on KHSU) in addition to recordings (24 albums so far). They also send troupes of five to perform on the road, and they'll be here Friday, Nov. 4, at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus, for CenterArts.

Right: The Capitol Steps

One of the group making the trip to Humboldt is Elaina Newport, the last of the founding members: The junior staffers in Senator Charles Percy's office in 1981 who crossed Alan Sherman's song parodies with Tom Lehrer's political tunes for the office Christmas party, and the rest, as they say, is ridiculous.

She is also one of the two chief writers, so when I talked with her on the phone last Wednesday -- as the special prosecutor investigating several senior White House aides neared his decisions -- she was hard at work on the lyrics to "I'm So Indicted." Chances are we'll hear it here, although the news may have put the kibosh on the Harriet Miers plea to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, "Crony Crony," which is posted for your dining and dancing pleasure on the Capitol Steps' website (

But the art of crowd-pleasing parody can be a delicate one. Is the subject familiar enough to the audience? Is the song?

"We had a song in the show called `What A Difference DeLay Makes' in the spring," Newport said, "but it was too early, it wasn't a story people were focused on. So we took it out. Then his indictments came in and we brought it back. You kind of put it out there until the audience doesn't seem to care anymore, then you move on to the next issue. And there's always something."

Capitol Steps adds a tune or two every week to keep up -- their show includes 30 to 35 songs, which means that the writing is almost constant. Newport admits it affects how she judges news stories.

"You don't listen to the news like a normal person. You don't think, is this good for the country, bad for the country? You think, is this funny -- and what rhymes with it?"

Getting a good mix of music is also part of the selection for a show.

"At one point we had Dick Cheney rapping, John Kerry line dancing, an opera about Ralph Nader, George Bush singing rhythm and blues and John Edwards doing rock and roll. I was very happy about that."

The road cast of five plus pianist is always different, which helps add spontaneity. Some adlibs get into the script. "One guy playing G.W. Bush said, `I'm not like Bill Clinton, I would never cheat on my wife, we've always had a truly monotonous relationship.' We kept that one."

Does Capitol Steps have a political bias? Newport hopes Newt Gingrich runs again, because he was such a rich subject in the '90s. (His comment featured in their publicity is striking for its honesty: "I like it better when you make fun of Clinton.") She admits they were hoping Kerry won the last election. "`Kerry' has so many rhymes," she sighed admiringly.

Political song parodies in America predate the national anthem, and were often easier to sing. Occupying British soldiers sang an old drinking song with new lyrics about Yank-ee (a derogatory term for the Dutch) Doodles (or fools) to make fun of colonial hicks. The Yanks sang it back to them at Lexington, and so ever since we proudly croon about our national symbol who sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni. Foolishness is part of our national heritage.

The early '60s saw a homegrown revival of political parody performance with Tom Lehrer and Stan Freeberg, and the more subtle and original English imports: That Was the Week That Was on television and Beyond the Fringe on Broadway (both by the Oxbridge elders of Monty Python and Douglas "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Adams.)

Saturday Night Live carried the banner for a long time, and today The Daily Show is the standard for daring in form and content. "It's my Bible," Newport said. "If we can be a little bit of The Daily Show set to music, we'd be really happy about that."

Because it depends on familiarity, Capitol Steps humor sometimes leans on the same simple stereotypes exploited in every late night comedian's monologues. (Bush is genial and dumb, Kerry is a dull flip-flopper.) But they can also be sneakily audacious, and the energetic songs, together with sight gags and the impersonations of Washington figures, and maybe even a comic dissertation in a unique form of backwards wordplay, should all combine for a rousing good time. Given the political situation it may be laughter through tears, but at least it's laughter.

For the Capitol Steps' Friday performance at the Van Duzer Theater ($35 adults, $33 seniors/children, $25 HSU students) are available at the HSU Ticket Office or by calling 826-3928.


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