Political Comedy troupe Capitol Steps will be performing their new show Orange is the New Barack at Symphony Space in the New York City area for two performances only on June 18th at 3:30 and 7:30pm. In advance of this gig, our writer, Donna Herman, had the opportunity to put a few questions to Capitol Steps writer and performer Elaina Newport recently.
FRC: You’re a founding member of Capitol Steps. What was your career path?
EN: When we started the group, I was working for Senator Charles Percy, who was one of those moderate Republicans you don’t see in the wild anymore. One of my fellow staffers, Bill Strauss, had fiddled with some song parodies, and I had been a…wait for it…piano major in college, so I offered to provide the accompaniment. We signed up to entertain at the Senate Foreign Relations Christmas party. I had grown up listening to the songs of Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer, and stealing my brother’s Mad Magazines. But even so, I don’t think if you had asked me in third grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “political satirist.”
Anyway, 1981 was a fun time for comedy…Ronald Reagan had just come into office and he brought with him a whole slew of characters, and a clear-cut conservative agenda. So, in that first show we did a song about his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt (“Mine Every Mountain”) and a song about the President’s short work day, “Working Nine to Ten.” We thought we would do that one show, and that would be it. We figured someone would fire us, or tell us to stop, or both. But no one did.
FRC: At what point did you realize you wanted to ditch the Hill for the hell of comedy?
EN: By 1988, we had started traveling so much that they started to notice I wasn’t showing up at my day job! So, I basically ran away and joined the circus, and I’ve never looked back.
FRC: You help write the shows and perform. Which do you prefer? Do you have a favorite character?
EN: These days, I mostly write, but occasionally perform. My favorite characters would vary based on who’s in the news, but I’ve always loved doing Nancy Pelosi. You freeze your face and blink a lot!
FRC: Do you respond to unfolding news and political events? How often do the live shows change?
EN: We come out with a new album every year, and on average we add a new song to the show every week or two. As your questions imply, this is a weird way to make a living. I don’t wake up in the morning and listen to the news like a normal person. I don’t think, “Is this good for the country, or bad for the country?” I think, “Is it funny? And what rhymes with it?”
FRC: How has politics and the political comedy landscape changed since you’ve started? Are the audiences the same? The politicians?
EN: The political climate is definitely more divided. We sometimes do shows for business groups, and I remember at a show last fall, someone heckled our guy who was playing Obama. So our performer just looked out in the crowd and said “I see Mitt Romney is here tonight.” And that got a good laugh and the show went well!
Social media has made our job harder in some ways, and easier in others. The hardest thing is that the news cycle is so fast. Almost as soon as a story happens, people know. Once, I texted a joke backstage to a performer while he was waiting to go on! Because I knew the audience would love a topical reference to something that had just happened. But it does mean that our performers have to be fearless!
Like Bill Clinton before him, Donald Trump is a great parody subject, but there’s one thing that we realized during the Clinton years that we’re also facing today. Comedy is based on exaggeration, and how do you exaggerate these guys? They’re constantly getting out in front of you. For example, during the 2016 campaign, I wrote a line for the guy who plays Trump in our show. I had him go out and say “I never kiss babies. Babies are LOSERS.” Which I thought was an exaggeration of something Trump might say. But then, at a campaign rally, Trump did actually get into it with a baby and kicked the baby out of the rally. So, we had to get even more ridiculous!
Trump’s tweets are the subject of one of our songs, so we are constantly updating that song based on the latest tweets. As a writer, it’s fun to parody not only the tweets themselves, but the style. They’re punctuated with words like SAD! And WRONG! When we were writing for Obama, the style was also fun: The long… pauses…. between…. words. As a writer, you’re always listening for that kind of thing.
The tweet(s) during the campaign when he talked about Miss Universe putting on some weight gave us material. It inspired a few jokes where we had him talking about how patriotic he was. “For example, I love the Statue of Liberty, although she is tremendously overweight and a three at best.”
FRC: Are you conscious of trying to keep it bi-partisan? There have been some comments on-line recently that Orange is the New Barack is mostly Trump/Conservative bashing. What’s your response to those comments?
EN: We try very hard to keep our show bi-partisan. That isn’t always easy, because the party in power is always funnier. If anyone thinks our show leans left, they should have seen it during the Bill Clinton years! So, right now, with Republicans controlling the House, Senate, and White House, we have to actively look for ways to balance the show. Thank goodness Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren are still making noise. Bernie Sanders sings “If There Were No Rich Men,” Nancy Pelosi sings “All About the Base” and Elizabeth Warren reads “Angry Progressive Nursery Rhymes.” We also have Chuck Schumer in a duet with Mitch McConnell. Maybe if they sang together in real life, it would help things along!
FRC: Any subjects off-limits? Anyone off-limits?
EN: When situations and headlines are serious, even frightening, our job is harder but perhaps more important. Some of the trickiest times, as a writer, are when you’re trying to address an issue like the Middle East or North Korea. But America has a tradition, which goes back to Bob Hope entertaining on the deck of an aircraft carrier during World War II, or even earlier, of finding humor during dangerous times. In the case of North Korea, we have a song called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?” (based on the song “Maria” from “The Sound of Music”), and we have a performer sing it as Kim Jong Un. It wasn’t easy to find a wig that looked like his hair! But, we like to think the song finds levity in a serious situation.
FRC: Do you still have friends on the Hill?
RN: I do still go to the occasional Capitol Hill party, but not as much as way back. When we first started the Capitol Steps, we had a strict rule that in order to join you had to be a congressional staffer. We kept that rule for the first fifteen years, until in 1996, when we were so busy (the height of the Clinton scandals!) that we relaxed the rule and added some local performers. Now, it’s about half-and-half (former staffers and local performers). We have only one performer, Anne Hill, who still hangs on to her day job on Capitol Hill.
FRC: You’ve performed for every president since 1981. Do you expect an invitation from the current administration?
EN: That’s been one of the great surprises of doing this show over the years – that the politicians have liked the show, and have invited us to perform. As far as I know, Trump hasn’t seen our show, but I like to think he’d enjoy it bigly! And he wouldn’t even have to buy a ticket – we could get the Mexicans to pay for it.
FRC: Is there a question no one has asked that you always wanted to answer?
EN: That would have to be “Is there nudity?” So I would tell them, if you’ve ever wanted to see Donald Trump sing a rock song, Bernie Sanders sing a show tune, and Vladimir Putin dance SHIRTLESS, this is the show for you. That’s right…partial nudity! Our performers totally commit.
For tickets to the NYC performances on June 18th at Symphony Space visit: http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/9670/Comedy/the-capitol-steps; www.capsteps.com
Symphony Space is located at 2537 Broadway, NYC (corner of 95th Street)