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Capitol Steps: Getting digs in on both sides of the aisle

Posted: January 26, 2012 - 1:01am
A performer from the group Capitol Steps portrays former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in this undated photo.  Photo by Bari Biern
Photo by Bari Biern
A performer from the group Capitol Steps portrays former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in this undated photo.

“It’s the only place in the country where you can see Joe Biden sing a rock song and Barack Obama sing a show tune and Nancy Pelosi do stand up.”

That’s how producer and writer Elaina Newport described tonight’s production by the Capitol Steps, a song, dance and humor troupe rooted in political satire Newport helped found in 1981.

The group originally consisted of Capitol Hill staffers looking for a way to amuse themselves when Washington’s political battles became too gloomy, she said.

Eventually, the group grew to a point where many performers became full-time satirists.

“They sort of started to notice I wasn’t showing up at my day job, and I had to decide” between careers, Newport said.

A strict rule requiring players to be at least former staffers gave way in 1996, when “Bill Clinton had us so busy, that we hired some Washington-area performers to round out the cast,” Newport said.

Today, the group still has one current congressional staffer, and about half of the team has at least some Capitol Hill experience, she said.

“We’re kind of making fun of ourselves as we go around the country, poking at the politicians,” said Newport, who spent seven years working for Sens. Charles Percy and Alfonse D’Amato. “We certainly didn’t solve the problems ourselves while we were up there.”

Newport said the group needed extra help during the Clinton era, because “comedy is based on exaggeration, and you couldn’t exaggerate Bill Clinton, almost. It was almost like he was funnier than you could even be.”

Despite bringing in ringers to tackle Clinton’s larger-than-life presidency, the group makes efforts to get digs in at both sides of the aisle. That can be a challenge when one party dominates the political news, she said, such as the current landscape when coverage of Republican primary candidates fills the airwaves and column inches.

“Early in the Obama administration, everything was Democrat.” Newport said. “The Senate, The House and the White House. So, you were really scraping around, looking for John Boehner jokes or whatever. Now, with the primary season and with the Republican candidates dominating the news — Joe Biden’s been pretty quiet, so we kind of really have to look for the Democratic material. So were always looking for that.”

The Capitol Steps watch political races hoping for the best outcome for comedians, not necessarily what’s best for America, Newport said with a laugh. Many of her hopes for material in 2012 and beyond have already been dashed, with the ideal comedy ticket of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann both bowing out of the GOP presidential primaries, along with Rick Perry. The name Perry, Newport points out, “is a name that rhymes with a lot.”

““We have a love/hate relationship with primary season … you get very attached to these candidates,” she said. “We got very attached to Herman Cain, for example, as comedians, of course.”

So attached, in fact, that Cain’s on-stage doppelganger still performs a song titled “Love Potion No. 999.”

Anyone who’s heard the Steps perform on the radio (they do four shows a year for public radio) or on an album has only seen part of what the ensemble does. The show offers lots of visuals, she said, and performers are able to show off their ranges by playing multiple characters in short order.

“Someone described it as more changes than a Cher show,” Newport said.

Tonight’s show is one of six the troupe will put on in Alaska. Along with Juneau, the Steps will or have hit Homer, Petersburg, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Kodiak. This is the first time since 2009 the Steps have been in the 49th state, when they were blessed with material from a certain former governor who became a former vice-presidential candidate shortly before the last trip here.

“We’d like to thank Alaska for providing some material over the last four years,” Newport said.

While the show is national in scope, Newport said some topics will be hit a little closer to home for many Alaskans, such as parodies of airport security or environmental activism.

Newport said the show is kept on a PG-13 cleanliness level, sans four-letter words but with some references to scandals that might turn a pale shade of blue.

“We’re as clean as the politicians,” Newport quipped.

And at least as funny, though on purpose instead of unintentionally.

The group will take the Centennial Hall stage at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out, but the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council will begin signing people up to a wait list at 6:30 p.m. Any tickets that are unclaimed by ticketholders five minutes before showtime will go on sale in order of signups on the wait list.

For more information, contact the JAHC at 586-2787.

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