Capitol Steps leave hilarious legacy after four decades of clever political comedy

WTOP's Jason Fraley bids farewell to the Capitol Steps (Part 1)

After four decades, the Capitol Steps political comedy troupe is finally hanging it up.

The group announced its retirement with an official statement on Twitter last week.

“We almost made it to our 40th anniversary,” co-founder Elaina Newport told WTOP. “The Capitol Steps, like many performing groups, haven’t performed since last March. … I don’t think anybody’s set up to think they can go more than a year without any income. … To have this go 39 years and travel the country has just been fantastic.”

The group was founded in 1981 by Bill Strauss, Jim Aidala and Newport , all staffers for Republican Congressman Charles Percy of Illinois. They were soon joined by Republican Senate staffers Nancy Baskin, Barbie Granzow and Dave Nichols to put on their first show at Christmas party for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We started it as a lark,” Newport said. “We had no thought that we would go beyond that show, that week, that month. We thought that we’d get fired or told to stop. … Bill had written lyrics, I was a piano major in college, so we threw this show together.”

The following year, the group expanded into a bipartisan team of Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate. They began performing monthly at the Shoreham Hotel in 1983 and regularly at Chelsea’s Cabaret near Georgetown in 1986. It was so successful that members eventually quit their day jobs to spoof full time.

“We didn’t do any shows that were on the record for many months, maybe three years, then in 1984, we got this invitation from the Shoreham,” Newport said. “We realized we could make a living at this and some of us quit our day jobs, like they say you shouldn’t do. … I decided to go full time with the Steps. I don’t think they would hire me back.”

The group released five albums during the Reagan Administration, including “Thank God I’m A Contra Boy” and “We Arm the World.” In 1988, the Capitol Steps performed at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.

“He came up to the stage at the end of the show and with his perfect actor’s timing said, ‘I’d like to thank the Capitol Steps. Now you’re all under arrest,'” Newport said. “Reagan was the kind of president who would sit with [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill and have beers at the end of the day. … We could do shows about both sides of the aisle.”

Next, the Capitol Steps released six albums about President George H.W. Bush, spoofing the president’s gaffe that Pearl Harbor Day was Sept. 7 and Vice President Dan Quayle correcting a child to insist that “potato” was spelled with an “e” at the end.

“The staff said don’t do anything about the president,” Newport said. “At the end of that show, George Bush Sr. came up on stage and said, ‘OK, I think this show has been censored. I want to see everything you have about me.’ … I think he loved it.”

In 1994, the Capitol Steps performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton.

“Once was Al Gore’s 49th birthday party,” Newport said. “We did mostly songs about Al Gore being stiff, that sort of thing, or Bill Clinton jogging in shorts and playing the sax, but it was before Monica [Lewinsky]. We never performed for him after the scandal.”

She said George W. Bush was a blast to roast before 9/11 changed everything.

“He was super fun, because as a writer, I love the mangled language stuff,” Newport said. “He would go, ‘I’m gonna make a joke about myself because I have good self-defacating humor.’ … Then of course after 9/11, we had to take it easy on him because nobody knew what to do after 9/11. But pretty soon, the jokes came back.”

In 2007, Strauss died of cancer, so Mark Eaton stepped in to satirize President Barack Obama with such catchy spoofs as “Obama Mia” and “Desperate Housemembers.”

“‘Obama Mia’ was a fun opener,” Newport said. “What we did with Barack Obama was more what circumstances he’s in and the people he surrounds himself with. … We never did get to perform for him, which I’m sorry about. I think he would’ve liked it.”

In 2017, they spoofed President Donald Trump with “Orange is the New Barack.”

“Our album was ‘Make American Grin Again,'” Newport said. “The 2016 election was so divisive. People would come up to us and say, ‘I wasn’t sure I could laugh, but I came to the show and I feel better.’ That was exactly what we were looking for.”

Today, the Capitol Steps have lived to see an insurrection on the Capitol steps.

“I’m an extreme moderate,” Newport said. “I’m hoping for the future for a more moderate course. You would think that if anything could bring the country together, a pandemic could. … It’s an enemy from outside the two parties. … You’d hope that everybody would say, ‘We’ve got a common enemy. We’ve got this worldwide virus.'”

Either way, we’ll miss their laughter as an antidote to the chaos.

“We’ve hit all 50 states,” Newport said. “In some years, we did 500 shows. We had a couple troupes, one on the road, one down at Chelsea’s or the Reagan Building in recent years. We’d have shows going on every day, some days more than one. If you add that up over 39 years, hundreds of shows a year, I’m exhausted thinking about it.”

Is this officially the end? Or could we ever see a comeback?

“The company as it exists now is shutting down, but I would never rule out a reunion tour someday,” Newport said. “There’s no plans for that, but we’ll never say never.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley bids farewell to the Capitol Steps (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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