Mirth of a Nation

Talk about a job that performs itself: Elana Newport is paid to make politicians look stupid. With the comedy troupe Capitol Steps, which performs Saturday, May 23, at the Orpheum, she and a group of her cronies paste politicos in song and dance.

"We like to think we're doing a public service by deflating some political egos," Newport says. "Believe me, this is something that needs to be done."

If Newport and company are the solution to inflated political egos, they were once part of the problem. Most Steppers are former Congressional staffers; in some cases, they're still working on the Hill. The troupe was formed in 1981 when assistants for Senator Charles Percy were asked to create an entertainment for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holiday party.

Failing to locate a single wise man or virgin anywhere in Congress, Percy's people put together a risky send-up of Capitol Hill that was so well received that they took their show on the road. The troupe has since made a living pestering public servants, touring the country and occasionally recording their act for posterity. (Their latest CD, Unzippin' My Doodah, is just out.)

The construct of the show isn't exactly groundbreaking: Lyrics culled from headlines and hot political topics of the day are sung to familiar pop tunes, which are interspersed with not entirely loving impersonations of presidents past and present. "We just sort of wait for the next national political screw-up and then write some song lyrics about it," Newport admits.

If there's no shortage of material, that's not because politicians are any more crooked than they've ever been. "Not much has changed in terms of how honest or smart politicians tend to be," says Stepper Mike Tilford, a former employee of the Republican National Committee. "What's different is that reporters have become more willing to write about what's really going on. But the people in office aren't necessarily worse today than they were a hundred years ago. The things they're doing are the same things Lincoln was accused of."

The only complaints lodged by the sitting ducks they roast have come from those who feel they're not getting enough coverage. "President Bush was forever asking when we were going to add new jokes about him," says Newport, who's been with the troupe since its inception. "A politician is like any other celebrity--any coverage is good coverage."

With the advent of more political opprobrium, Newport's job is getting trickier. "The threshold for what we consider scandalous keeps getting higher," she says.

"When Gary Hart was caught, he was with only one woman. By today's standards, we would just yawn over that one. To make headlines today, he would have to have done it with a sheep in the Lincoln bedroom. No, make that a sheep of the same sex. A dead sheep of the same sex."

We get your point.

--Robrt L. Pela

The Capitol Steps perform at 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 23, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams. Tickets are $24 and $28. The show is presented by Scottsdale Center for the Arts; call 994-2787 (SCA) or 784-4444 (Ticketmaster).

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela