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The Capitol Steps skewer Washington

WANT TO GO?

The Capitol Steps

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Clay Center

TICKETS: $15, $25, $35

INFO: 304-561-3570 or www.theclaycenter.orgCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The writers of the Capitol Steps, one of the best known political satire troupes in the country, sometimes torture themselves with worries that they might run out of material.

"We always think, what will happen if all the scandals dry up and all the politicians become quietly competent?" co-founder and lead writer Elaina Newport said.

She laughed. That's never going to happen.

Newport, whose group appears Sunday night at the Clay Center said politics and public life normally attract controversy, and that's without a Democratic congressman named Weiner tweeting pictures of himself in his underwear or a Republican lawmaker getting arrested for soliciting sex in an airport men's room from an undercover police officer.

You can't make this stuff up -- but you can make quite a bit of comedic hay out of it. For the last 30 years, the comedy song and skit troupe has taken the missteps of politicians and celebrities, as well as the headlines from the day's biggest stories and turned them into comedy gold.

Started in 1981 by three Republican Congressional staffers who wrote and sang parody songs to amuse themselves, the group has grown. Now there are approximately 25 or so rotating performers who sing, dance, joke and keep with a tour schedule that would make many rock bands envious.

"The first 15 years, all the performers had to come from Capitol Hill," Newport said. "We had a rule. But then in 1996, when we got so busy with Clinton, we expanded and hired some Washington-area performers."

Clinton's presidency, with its scandal-of-the-week culture and constant conflict with talk radio, gave the Steps lots of material and plenty of work.

Newport said she and another writer, Mark Eaton, handle most of the jokes and songs from their offices in Washington, D.C., where the group is still based. Most of the time, she said, they'll fire emails back and forth.

"I like to write a first draft and send it to him," she said. "He'll say, that's not funny or this is funny and that's not. He'll send back some suggestions.

"There's no smoke-filled room, but we do have a rhyming dictionary and do a lot of Googling."

Some comedy and satirical bits are easy than others. They love sex scandals (and so do the audience, she said), but lately, the big topics of the day have all been complicated economic issues: the budget sequester and the Greek bailout.

"Those are a real challenge for us," Newport said. "They're not inherently funny."

So they work around the subject matter.

"We've found that you can make even serious fiscal situations funny if you just make your performers looks stupid," she said.

If a story is more simmer than sizzle, if it seems like it's still developing, Newport said they can usually make adjustments for the biggest comedic impact.

Newport said most of the public figures and politicians they've skewered over the years have been OK with the joke being on them. So far, nobody in the Senate or the White House has sent the Secret Service or the IRS to hunt The Capitol Steps down.

"That was one of the great surprises," she said. "The politicians tended to like it more than we expected. George Bush Senior invited us to perform a lot -- and you know, he also invited Dana Carvey to the White House."

Carvey was famous for his devastating impersonation of Bush.

Newport said, "Politicians sort of realized that it kind of serves them to have a sense of humor."   

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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