Satire in an Age of Absurdity
The Capitol Steps never run out of material. But that was the political satire troupe’s concern way back when.
“Our worst fear when we first started out was that politicians would get quietly competent and solve all the problems and we’d have no song material,” laughed founding member Elaina Newport.
Turns out, this fear was unfounded, and politics and politicians still make for good laughs. In fact, when it comes to political comedy fodder, we may well be currently living in a day of embarrassing bounty.
“This is almost too much,” Newport said. “It’s kind of terrifying because the news cycle is so fast that one day you write a song about, ‘OK, we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords; that’s a huge story,’ and then the next day, no one remembers that because the next tweet has gone out at midnight and we’re onto the next subject. So, it’s a little bit fast for the writers, terrifying for the performers, but it’s also a lot of good material.”
And because that news cycle never stops, the Capitol Steps’ show continually evolves. As the production tours the country—the local Pensacola engagement is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 17—material is updated and added to reflect any news of note.
“I’ve been known to text jokes to people while they’re waiting backstage,” Newport said. “If something huge happens, you have to mention it because the audience is going to know about it.”
The Capitol Steps first began parodying politics in song and skit in 1981.
Newport, along with two other congressional staffers, worked up some numbers pairing news-of-the-day with popular music for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Christmas party.
Receiving a positive reception, the Capitol Steps continued to perform, and by 1984 the group released its first album. In the decades since its Reagan-era inception, the satirical production has set its sights on everything from the Iran-Contra scandal to Bill Clinton’s sex scandal to Rwanda, performing songs with titles like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Baghdad” and “Barackin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Newport said it’d be difficult to choose her favorite politicians to lampoon over the course of the Capitol Steps’ long run.
“Clinton was a lot fun, because the scandals were pretty funny, you have to admit. You know, she kept the dress and things like that,” she said. “But then, of course, now that’s been pretty much equaled by the current administration in terms of the volume of material we’re getting.”
In the Capitol Steps’ current production, the group parodies the Trump administration, as well as the field of Democratic candidates looking to challenge him in the 2020 election.
Newport stressed that the group’s approach is partisan-neutral.
“I think it gives us twice the jokes,” she said.
Throughout the years, there’s been plenty to parody in politics, but Newport said that some territory can be tricky to navigate. For instance, 9/11 wasn’t easy for comedy.
“We struggled around 9/11. Nobody knew what to do. Even the late-night comedians didn’t know what to do,” Newport recalled. “Eventually, it was OK to start making jokes about, oh, you know, that color coded alert system that they came up with and things like that. But that was a hard time. But, really, truly, even in a month or so, people wanted to laugh. They wanted to laugh again.”
The Trump years have thus far provided a wealth of material for the political satirists. But so much has happened so fast that comedy gold can easily become lost in the sands of time.
Take Anthony Scaramucci, for example, whose brief tenure White House director of communications was objectively side-splitting. The Capitol Steps once had a bit about him but shelved the number as more and more material piled up.
“He was funny for a few months. People remembered him for a few months,” Newport laughed. “Anthony Weiner probably hung in the news a little bit longer.”
At the moment, the group’s hoping Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg stays in the race a while longer—“OK, Pete, hang in there for a while because we like the song!”—but there are also some staples, like a shirtless Vladimir Putin and screaming Bernie Sanders, that should stay relevant through at least the election season.
While recent years have been rife with comedic material, they have also been politically stressful, with the partisan divide becoming more bitter. Newport said that it’s been interesting performing political satire in such a climate.
“Right after the election in 2016, we had people, as you recall, ‘fighting at the Thanksgiving dinner table.’ Families were divided; people were really angry, on both sides,” she said, reflecting on the audience reactions at the time. “We had some people that came up to us after the show around that time and said, ‘You know, I wasn’t sure I could laugh, but I did and I feel better,’ and that was, like, the biggest compliment we could get. Because we were concerned that people would just say, ‘Oh, you know, I can’t even look at anything about politics.’”
Looking ahead, Newport said that she can’t say who she’d prefer win the 2020 election—“This administration has given us lots of material, but a new president is always good because it gives you a whole new slew of jokes”—as long as American politics continue to provide fodder for the Capitol Steps’ brand of musical satire.
“We don’t look at the news with a normal viewpoint, which is, ‘What’s good for the country or bad for the country?’” she said. “We care about what’s funny and what rhymes with it.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox