Capitol Steps comedy troupe could not survive covid — and the bitter political divide

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I felt a special sadness when the Capitol Steps announced their retirement last year. The D.C.-based musical political comedy troupe came into my life when I was a kid; my dad took me to see them long before I was old enough to understand elections, much less vote in them. By the time I was a teenager in the years after 9/11 — eagerly returning to their shows and listening to albums like “When Bush Comes to Shove” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Baghdad” — I was a devoted fan. This silly, pun-loving group had helped cultivate the early interest in politics that sent me to American University, one of the hyper-political Washington campuses where it regularly performed.

Founded by U.S. Senate staffers in the early ’80s, the Steps were a Washington institution with an only-in-Washington story. As on “Saturday Night Live,” the group impersonated politicians in sketches based on the headlines. Like “Weird Al” Yankovic, they did original song parodies, inspired not just by classic rock and pop hits but also show tunes, Christmas carols and Disney musicals. They’d have Laura Bush borrowing from Elton John to tell George W. Bush, “Don’t Go Faking You’re Smart” — and the president quickly reassuring her, “I couldn’t if I tried.” John Kerry would channel Joni Mitchell to confess his flip-flopping on the issues, explaining how he’d “taken stands on both sides now.”

It was corny. Gen Z might call it “cringe.” But it was also clever and creative. The troupe members hit their notes, did some great presidential impressions and had enough showmanship to sell it. The Steps reveled not just in puns but also in spoonerism routines with audience-pleasing innuendo: “It’s the American lay of wife.” They prided themselves on being able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to laugh at their leaders and themselves.

Over the years, the Steps attracted a substantial following outside the Beltway. In addition to weekly shows in D.C., they turned out regular “Politics Takes a Holiday” specials heard on public radio and traveled the country, sometimes delivering 500 performances a year. By the end, they’d performed in all 50 states and for five presidents — Ford, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes — plus a number of Cabinet officials and members of Congress, who typically were offended only if they weren’t parodied in the show.

Yet in January 2021, after more than 40 albums, the Steps announced that they “simply weren’t built to survive going a year or more without live performances” during the pandemic. That got me thinking about the Steps’ unlikely origins and their considerable success, and about how growing political polarization made their middle-of-the-road approach to comedy harder to sustain — especially in the Trump era.

Political humor had changed. It was less lighthearted, more snarky and sarcastic. Washington had changed, no longer a place where Democrats and Republicans would rib one another without too many hurt feelings. Moreover, America had changed, probably forever.

In the summer, I went to see the group’s co-founder, performer and writer Elaina Newport, at “Capitol Steps World Headquarters” in Old Town Alexandria, Va., where she was sorting through years of old props and costumes — deciding what to do with all those Hillary Clinton blazers and Donald Trump wigs. We talked about the dawn of the Ronald Reagan era, when it all started.

In 1981, Newport and her boss, Bill Strauss, were staffers for Illinois’ moderate Republican senator, Charles Percy, on the Subcommittee on Energy, Nuclear Proliferation and Government Processes for the Committee of Government Affairs — a panel whose name, they would later recall, “took three lines of 10-point type on our business cards.” Newport was a 25-year-old legislative assistant — a University of Maryland graduate who had studied music and played piano. Strauss was a 34-year-old committee counsel and staff director — a published author with three degrees from Harvard who had started writing song parodies in his spare time. In “Sixteen Scandals,” the pair’s 2002 book recounting the Steps’ first two decades, they explained how their day jobs allowed them to hone a flair for the theatrical:

“Our subcommittee swiftly became notorious for energetic use of oversized props — charts, photos, giant Treasury checks — anything to create buzz, urgency, and TV appeal. … What we did in those hearings — as anyone actually present could surmise — was provide political entertainment — what Jay Leno once called ‘show biz for ugly people,’ ” they wrote. “Gradually, we came upon a discovery: if B-grade actors (like Reagan) could become politicians, then B-grade politicians (like us) could become actors.”

They decided to put on a show that year at their office Christmas party. Newport and Strauss spent months rehearsing their numbers along with four other Percy staffers, including another co-founder, Jim Aidala. At Newport’s suggestion, they named their group after a salacious scandal in Washington that year: Rep. John Jenrette’s wife’s claim, since recanted, that she and her husband had, well, congress on the steps of the Capitol.

The party was held on Dec. 11 in the hearing room of the Foreign Relations Committee, which Percy also chaired. The Steps entertained their audience with nine songs, including one about Reagan’s reputation for avoiding long hours at work (“Workin’ 9 to 10,” inspired by Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”) and one about Interior Secretary James Watt’s perceived hostility to the environment (“Mine Every Mountain,” reimagining “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”). “At first, we thought about putting on a traditional Nativity play,” Newport and Strauss would say for years afterward, “but throughout the Congress we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin.” (Ba dum tsh.) What they did find — in Congress and beyond — were more opportunities to perform.

It’s hard to believe now, given their tame — a critic might say toothless — brand of comedy, but the Steps worried in their early days about losing their jobs or otherwise jeopardizing their professional careers. In the end, they were never a liability for their bosses. Still, they lay low initially, sticking mostly to private shows and charity events and asking reporters to keep it all off-the-record. They also decided their group would be bicameral as well as bipartisan.

Troupe members, from left, James A. Zemarel, Ann Johnson and Mike Carruthers in 2002. (Richard Termine)

Capitol Steps co-founder Elaina Newport. The troupe’s roots go back to 1981, when staffers for Charles Percy, Illinois’ moderate Republican senator, staged a show at an office Christmas party. (Lawrence Luk)

LEFT: Troupe members, from left, James A. Zemarel, Ann Johnson and Mike Carruthers in 2002. (Richard Termine) RIGHT: Capitol Steps co-founder Elaina Newport. The troupe’s roots go back to 1981, when staffers for Charles Percy, Illinois’ moderate Republican senator, staged a show at an office Christmas party. (Lawrence Luk)

“Everybody at that first show was a Percy staffer,” Newport recalled, “but quickly we thought that, if we were going to keep doing this, we wanted to spread out the blame. We started looking around for some House staffers and some Democrats.”

By 1984, the Steps had seized an opportunity to perform regularly at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood — previously the longtime venue for well-established musical political satirist Mark Russell. At that point, they realized they had to let the media in on their act. Roger Piantadosi called them Russell’s “spiritual kin” in a rave review in The Washington Post in 1985. That year Strauss decided to make the Steps his full-time gig; Newport followed suit in 1988. They called their group “the third longest-running party on Capitol Hill.”

The Steps also got another big break around that time when they received a call from NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The show began to invite them to come in and record songs to be broadcast on air. “Sometimes they’d call us and say, ‘Do you have a song about Ollie North?’ and we’d say, ‘Sure!’ ” Newport says. “They’d want us there by 4 p.m. to record it, so we’d have to write a song and get performers together. That’s kind of why I had to quit my day job.”

With national exposure, the Steps were able to take their act on the road. Some casts traveled, and other performers stayed behind for D.C. audiences. By the end of the ’80s, the NPR affiliate KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., offered to help the troupe produce radio shows that could be sent to affiliates across the country. Those specials ran — four times a year and later twice annually — for the rest of the Steps’ history, often on roughly 150 stations coast to coast.

Back in Washington, the Steps were regulars at Chelsea’s, where they’d do shows until the Georgetown club closed in 2000. Adding to a growing list of accomplishments, they finally achieved their longtime goal of performing for the president at the White House. After their show, at a congressional barbecue on Sept. 15, 1988, Reagan got up and thanked them “for showing such uncommon mercy.”

“Now,” he added with an actor’s perfect timing, “you’re all under arrest.”

The ’90s brought even more growth for the Steps — and a change to one of the group’s most distinctive features. “For the first 15 years,” Newport explained, “we had a rule that you couldn’t join unless you either had worked on the Hill or did work on the Hill, but Bill Clinton was so good for business — our shows grew exponentially — that in ’96 we decided to mix it up and get some Washington-area performers.” (By the end, the troupe had 30 performers, including five piano players.)

Bari Biern, who joined the group in 1993, says she realized it wasn’t a conventional gig the first time they gave her a new song: “I said, ‘Thanks. I’ll have this ready in two weeks.’ They said, ‘No. You’re doing it tomorrow.’ You had to be someone who could think on your feet, because the show was always changing. You had to be comfortable going onstage in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people and doing a number you’d never done before.”

After Chelsea’s closed, the Steps moved their D.C. shows, fittingly, to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then, in 2007, the same year I arrived in Washington from small-town Rhode Island with their songs in my head, the Steps suffered a major loss when Strauss died of pancreatic cancer at age 60. (He and Newport had been the group’s main writers; she would collaborate primarily with troupe member Mark Eaton going forward.)

I was moved to see the obituaries and remembrances of Strauss in major national outlets. They mentioned the serious books he’d written with co-author Neil Howe about the role of different generations in shaping history — and how he’d co-founded the Cappies, a writing and awards program that trains high school students as theater critics — but they all foregrounded his work for the Steps. In The Post, Ken Ringle wrote that Strauss “taught an entire generation of elected leaders to laugh at themselves,” noting that, in the end, “he died peacefully — in the season of the Christmas parties, when it all began.”

As I reviewed the Steps’ history for this article, I listened to virtually all of their albums and watched tapings of their performances going back to before I was born. It was a fun, nostalgic exercise, and it certainly helped me remember everything I’d loved about them as a teenager. I even developed a new appreciation for a theme in their work consistent with Strauss’s interest in generations — their ribbing of fellow baby boomers who were aging and moving to the right politically.

Other jokes, I realized, made me uncomfortable. I cringed at some of the Steps’ handling of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, which is now decidedly dated. I bristled when they’d play to hackneyed stereotypes or joke about public figures being fat, ugly or alcoholic. They were hardly alone in doing this sort of thing, but I’d like to think it’s becoming less acceptable.

Newport told me the Steps bumped up against changing cultural attitudes in at least one memorable instance in recent years. “I think we got unhired from George Washington University because of political correctness,” she says. “AU kept using us, but the last year we did the GW shows — they have five orientations, so we did five shows throughout the summer — they came to us after the first one and said, ‘You can’t do this song, this song and this song.’ ” (GW didn’t respond to a request for comment about this episode.)

In Newport’s recollection, one of the offending numbers was the “My Way” parody “My Gay,” based on the popularity of same-sex marriage, which featured Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell deciding to get hitched in a bid to address their unpopularity. (The joke was about political expediency, she says, not about being gay.) Another song that created controversy was “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea,” in which a White troupe member puts on a costume — and an accent — to portray North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Steps — who were mostly White but did have several Black performers — didn’t have an Asian troupe member, Newport noted, and she sounded conflicted about whether White performers ought to avoid playing non-White characters. Ultimately, she acknowledged there was plenty of old material the Steps might not do today, including the Kim song. “We usually tried to err on the side of caution, because we weren’t out to be controversial,” she told me. “We were out to be bipartisan, with a lot of wordplay, all in good fun.”

Of course, bipartisanship itself has become more controversial — the equal mocking of both sides a more fraught proposition. “It affected our bookings, because an association that might have hired us five years earlier might have been afraid its members would be divided — that if we made fun of one side or the other they’d get complaints,” Newport says.

As Trump entered the White House, they kept things light with jokes about his crowd size, hand size, tweets, narcissism and braggadocio. As Newport puts it, the troupe “still wanted somebody who liked the guy to come to the show and laugh.” But the effect of this, at least to me, was an inability to engage meaningfully with the most important stories in American politics: the danger of polarization, the radicalization of the Republican Party and genuine threats to the future of American democracy.

The Capitol Steps — including Michael Forrest as Al Gore, second from left — performing for Bill Clinton and Gore in 1995. (Capitol Steps)

Jamie Zemarel, Mike Tilford, Ann Johnson and Mike Carruthers perform off-Broadway in 2002. (Capitol Steps)

LEFT: The Capitol Steps — including Michael Forrest as Al Gore, second from left — performing for Bill Clinton and Gore in 1995. (Capitol Steps) RIGHT: Jamie Zemarel, Mike Tilford, Ann Johnson and Mike Carruthers perform off-Broadway in 2002. (Capitol Steps)

Newport told me she was grateful to be out of the joke-writing business during the tumultuous events of 2020 and the 2021 insurrection at the Capitol — an attack on the seat of American government where she and troupe members of both parties had toiled for years as public servants. She emphasized that the group had plenty of shows on the books when covid-19 hit — and would have kept going were it not for the virus — but ultimately concluded that “the pandemic may have been a sign from the universe that this was a natural time for us to stop.”

But the loss will be mourned. “Everyone enjoyed them because they were equal-opportunity bashers,” says Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which hired the Steps to perform at numerous events. “That was back when our politicians had a sense of humor and — occasionally — could be bipartisan. That’s gone.”

“Once upon a time, a big dose of good humor could actually help the situation,” he adds. “Now you can’t get people to stay in a room with one another, much less laugh at themselves.”

This gets to the final realization I had about the Steps. For all their lampooning of the failures of our politics, they had an underlying faith in America that’s been shaken today. Eric Schnure, a former speechwriter for Al Gore who specializes in humor writing and one of my favorite professors at AU, notes that you’d leave their shows feeling good about the country — and “even confident and optimistic that we’d all be okay, because we could recognize and laugh at the silliness. Now, with so much dysfunction and divisiveness, who really feels okay?” Sabato recalls that, after doing an equal number of songs making fun of Republicans and Democrats, the Steps would often “end with something patriotic and unifying — something that brought people back together.”

He even suggests that the Steps were playing an important civic role. “You need institutions like the Capitol Steps to stitch the other institutions together,” he says, “because politics is a divisive business even in good times, and there’s no better way to get people to tolerate the other side than through humor.”

The Steps haven’t ruled out a reunion tour someday — perhaps, as they joke, “under the Chelsea Clinton administration.” I’d be up for seeing them one last time — a proper send-off for these goofy government nerds who helped make me who I am. In the meantime, I’m left with a line from the “Sixteen Scandals” book that’s more resonant today than when the Steps’ founders wrote it: “A national sense of humor is always important, but it too must (and does) change with the times.”

Graham Vyse is a contributing writer for the magazine and an associate editor at the Signal.



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