It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time in Washington, DC when Republicans and Democrats not only tolerated each other, but actually had fun together. Perhaps the greatest example of this bipartisan camaraderie was found at a December 1981 meeting to plan entertainment for then-Sen. Charles Percy’s Christmas party.
The initial idea was to stage a nativity play, but that idea was scrapped in favor of a sketch comedy show riffing on the year’s political news when the staffers realized they “couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin in the entire city.” And so it was that the staffers teamed up with other comically minded Capitol Hill staffers to establish the Capitol Steps comedy troupe, and their show proved to be so popular it has become a national phenomenon for nearly 40 years.
One of the Steps’ most popular annual tour stops is Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, where they will be performing shows at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday in their “Make America Grin Again” tour. The title is shared with their 35th album of song parodies, continuing a tradition that has successfully managed to make fun of both parties and their followers laughing with every fresh update on the insane political climate we live in.
“A fair number of people were coming to our shows asking if politics were funny anymore, and can we really laugh at this?” says Elaina Newport, who has performed with the Steps since their founding. “They wind up saying, ‘I wasn’t sure I could still laugh after arguing on FB, but I came here, laughed and feel better.’ That was the initial reaction after the election, but now they see this really is absurd.”
Newport has seen plenty of changes in her 37 years with the troupe, but the group has always strived to aim their satire at leaders of both parties while using a nonstop array of ridiculously bad wigs to portray dozens of newsmakers in each show. All told, the Steps have counted staffers from 18 different congressional offices among their ranks and represent 62 years of House and Senate staff experience.
Featured on NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS, they can also be heard twice a year on National Public Radio stations nationwide during their “Politics Takes a Holiday” radio specials. Newport herself worked for seven years as a legislative assistant to the Republican lawmaker Percy as well as the iconic former Republican US Sen. Alfonse d’Amato, but considers herself a moderate and is married to a former appointee of President Bill Clinton.
“We performed at that first party and thought we might get fired or someone would tell us to stop. As neither happened, we just kept going and doing events here and there,” explains Newport, who notes that the Steps perform shows on Fridays and Saturdays year-round at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington.
“About four years into performing, someone offered us money to play a law firm dinner. “We thought it would be nice to finally be able to reimburse performers for parking, so we did it,” she adds. “From there, we started getting offered more jobs to play banquets and dinners that needed entertainment. We never had that moment of sitting and deciding to form a business. The Capitol Steps just grew over time.”
The current show opens by taking on the ridiculously large Democratic presidential candidate pool with a spoof of the song from “The Music Man,” “76 Trombones,” with “76 Unknowns.” Former Vice President Joe Biden’s controversial love of being “handsy” with women and children is noted in “Can You Feel the Rub Tonight,” while fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg is called “Mayor Joe” in a song “because nothing rhymes with Buttigieg.”
Newport also notes that the Steps also do songs and sketches about non-political figures and issues, such as “dating in the age of swiping left and right on Tinder,” airport security (tackled by the tune “Pack the Knife”) and environmentalism. She hopes they can think of a song for Rick Perry, the often-clueless former Texas governor turned Secretary of Energy, because of the fact he’s in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal, and of the way that President Trump hated the Mueller Report until it appeared to largely clear him.
“We definitely have something for everyone, not just Trump-bashing like so many shows,” says Newport. “If you’re sick of seeing Trump, you’ll see him for five songs and then it’s on to other things. Of course we do Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and double use our Ruth Bader Ginsberg wig for her hair.
“The real star of the show is the person who pulls the props,” adds Newport. “You can’t buy a Bernie Sanders or an AOC/RBG wig — you have to adapt a perfectly good wig. And how do we keep Donald Jr’s hair wet all the time? And while this is a family-friendly show for those kids who love politics, be warned that Vladimir Putin still appears shirtless in our shows and our actors do not work out. So that’s a whole other kind of nudity warning.”
The Capitol Steps perform at 3 and 8 p.m. Sat. at Beckman Auditorium ” on the Caltech Campus, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $39 to $49, with $10 tickets for youth. Call (626) 395-4652 or visit Caltech.edu.