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PERFORMANCE : In Tune With the President : There is little singing of praises in the Capitol Steps' witty musical revue. But the biting humor is nonpartisan.

April 29, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

According to Elaina Newport, the fledgling Clinton Administration has already been great for business.

Funny business, that is.

Newport is a founding member of the Capitol Steps, the Washington, D.C.-based satirical group made up of "current and recovering" congressional staffers who prey on the foibles of our national leaders--Republicans and Democrats alike--with bipartisan glee.

The group has been elected to bring its sharp-edged political humor to UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall on May 6.

And needless to say, the new Administration will draw its share of fire throughout the evening of skits and musical parodies. In one sequence that has become part of the troupe's repertoire, a somewhat befuddled Bill Clinton sings a stirring ballad set to the tune of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now:"

I've taken stands on both sides now

On pro and con, I've showed 'em how

My views I always rearrange

That's why I said I stand for change

Forget about a 100-day grace period.

"We started doing that song on Inauguration Day," Newport said proudly in a recent phone interview. "Bill Clinton never even got a honeymoon. People were laughing at his waffling before he even took office."

For the Capitol Steps, Clinton's inauguration was a watershed. "For a long time it was really hard to find a funny Democrat," Newport said, recalling the dry spell in '90 and '91 when the funny politicians--John Sununu, Dan Quayle and, of course, George Bush--were all Republicans.

"I think Ted Kennedy broke that streak. But now we're almost having trouble finding funny Republicans. Thank God for Bob Packwood."

But there's no sign of a Republican joke-drought in the show, with songs that include a post-mortem on the Bush years ("Fatal Inaction"), and a spoof on censorious Jesse Helms ("No Nudes Is Good Nudes") set to "Chattanooga Choo-Choo": "Pardon me boys, but give the statue here a tutu . . . . "

"And of course Ross Perot is still not going away," Newport said, with audible relief. So Perot also makes numerous appearances in the show. Like the pesky guest who won't go away, he keeps jumping in with his typical corn-pone homilies like "Dealin' with the deficit is kinda like findin' a rattlesnake in your pants--you know you gotta take out your gun and shoot it, but you don't want to hit anything important."

Culled from topical headlines, the Steps' musical numbers also take broad swipes at every imaginable issue, from "Fools on the Hill" to "PAC Man," from "High-Heeled Army Boots" to "Camel Lot." There's even an ode to political correctness, with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" revised to "You Don't Bring Me Floriculturally Diverse Polyfragrant Soilistically Challenged Victims of Pesticidal Food-Chain Chauvinism."

For the Capitol Steps, nothing is sacred. Newport claims its humor has been ideologically neutral since the group started in 1981 as an amateur Christmas party revue staged by office staffers of former Sen. Charles Percy. (R-Ill.) "He was kind of on both sides of every issue anyhow," she said of their early training in bipartisanship.

Requests for more performances led to recurring moonlighting gigs, and the adoption of a formal name--drawn, no doubt, from that hallowed symbol of our sacred national institution.

Well, not exactly. "We actually took our name from Rita and (convicted Abscam congressman) John Jenrette's bragging about the site of their passionate lovemaking," Newport admitted.

As their fame grew, the Steps recruited closet performers from both sides of the aisle, some of whom still maintain their day jobs on the Hill. The group now totals 17, from which five and a piano player are drawn for any one performance. "That way, the rest can go to work or do their laundry," Newport said.

The evolution from politics to comedy seems a natural enough progression, but given their connections, have other political comedians ever accused them of insider trading?

Newport laughed and said that, as a rule, the Steps keep their focus on high-profile news items. "We might amuse ourselves greatly with a song on some little-known burning issue like the Bumpers Amendment on Regulatory Reform, but I don't know how many other people would be amused. So we're very careful to stay with the national headlines."

Their broadly accessible approach has paid off. The group has appeared on network television, National Public Radio, and currently has a weekly spot on CNN's "Inside Politics" with Bernard Shaw. Since 1986, the Steps have performed regularly at Chelsea's, a Georgetown club, and their 12th album, "The Joy of Sax," has just been released.

Most of the Steps' material is written by Newport and co-founder Bill Strauss, usually in a flurry of cross-town faxing.

Among the Steps' biggest fans are the Clintons themselves. "They've seen us a couple of times, most recently about a month ago--they're great sports," Newport said.

A quick peek at each day's headlines is enough to allay any concerns about job security for the Capitol Steps.

"We used to be afraid there'd be some competent Congress or Administration that would solve all the problems and we'd be out of jokes," Newport said. "But we've stopped worrying about that."

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Capitol Steps, May 6 in Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara. Tickets are $16-$20. Call (805) 893-3535 for reservations or further information.

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