In a month when Capitol Hill was at its dramatic peak — insurrection, impeachment, inauguration — the group that had poked fun at Washington politics for 39 years announced it was shutting down and saying goodbye.
Four decades is a long stretch of political history to satirize and survive. The Capitol Steps did it as a bipartisan group, and with roots as congressional staffers.
The comedy sketch and musical group originated at a Christmas party in 1981, when staffers working for Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy wrote songs to perform. As word spread about their show, they put on more performances, until about four years in they got an offer to bring a show to the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
That’s when the performers decided to make it official, recording albums and selling tickets, said Elaina Newport, who was part of the original Christmas party crew and stayed with the group until it closed up shop.
When the group was still in its early stages, it expanded across the aisle. “We started adding some Democrats and some House members. We said maybe this is a little safer, we’ll spread the blame around,” she said.
For the first 15 years or so, you needed a Capitol Hill background to audition.
“It gave us kind of a gimmick, like the tap-dancing cat,” Newport said. But it could also be a blind spot when it came to picking material, as the performers learned they needed to write for an off-Hill audience. A song on John McCain’s amendment on regulatory reform, for example, didn’t have a wide enough reach.
“We had to realize, OK, it’s got to be on the front pages. It’s got to be something everybody’s talking about around the water cooler,” Newport said.
That changed during Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1996, a busy time for the group, when it decided to hire Washington-area performers. The ensemble ended up being about half from Capitol Hill and half professional performers.
Mark Eaton, who was working as a staffer for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, joined the group in 1993 after seeing an ad to audition in Roll Call. He transitioned to full-time work for the Capitol Steps in 1999 and has stuck with the group ever since.
Pulling performers from the Hill made for a politically diverse cast, he said. “You had some people who had worked on the left, some people who had worked on the right, some people firmly in the middle. Some people, like me, who are zealously apathetic,” he said.
The Capitol Steps’ comedy struck at both sides of the aisle, a purposeful choice. “We’re very proud that we’re equal opportunity offenders. We’re never out to burn anyone, we’re out to sear them slightly,” Eaton said.
The show’s set list updated with the news, making for dozens of albums produced over the years. In recent years, there was the Wham!-inspired “Wake Me Up in Mar-a-Lago.”
The 44th president got the ABBA-reminiscent hit “Obama Mia”; the younger President Bush got “Don’t Go Fakin’ You’re Smart”; and in the first Bush presidency, the group sang “Stand By Your Dan,” poking fun at Vice President Dan Quayle.
The group performed across the country, sometimes putting on as many as 500 shows a year with different casts. They also entertained the many associations and conferences that came through D.C. every year — some of them very niche groups.
“In Washington there’s an association for everything, even an association of associations, which we did one time,” Newport said.
In the past few years, the group brought its both-sides humor to crowds that were feeling the partisan divide. Their brand of political comedy almost survived the Trump era.
“It became a little bit harder after the ’16 election because there were a lot of people who came to our show, and they did so reluctantly,” Newport said. “The best compliment:” the attendees who came unsure, maybe scarred from Thanksgiving dinner conversations, and left laughing.
But recent audiences also demanded up-to-the-minute material, which Donald Trump’s presidency provided to a sometimes unusable degree. “We pride ourselves on being up to date, but you can only be so up to date with him,” Eaton said.
The Capitol Steps paused performances last March, sidelined like other live shows by the pandemic. That halt took its toll, and the group announced this month that it would shut down.
“We originally thought someone would tell us to stop or fire us or both. But nobody did, and the rest is history,” Newport said. “Thirty-nine years later, we’re just winding down.”