George S. Kaufman once said that satire is what closes Saturday night, but Capitol Steps has proved the exception to the rule. The comedy troupe, whose politically-based songs wickedly parody the high and the mighty on a regular basis, celebrates its 24th birthday this month, with no end in sight. The group performs at the Trenton Marriott Hotel on Wednesday, December 28, as part of the Patriots Week celebration.
Capitol Steps began in 1981 when three staff members for Senator Charles Percy of Illinois put together some material for a Christmas party, using twists on standard songs to tweak some political noses. Elaina Newport, one of those staffers, says, "We thought someone would tell us to stop, or maybe even fire us. Much to our surprise, nobody said to stop – so we didn’t. And then the next week someone had another party and another party the week after that. I think it was two years before we realized that people would give us enough money to reimburse us for parking."
For a long while, the group was made up exclusively of Capitol Hill workers. "For the first few years, we would take anyone who would join us – if you were willing to do it, you were in," Newport says. "Then, after we got known a bit, we did start auditioning people. There’s about 10,000 people who work on Capitol Hill, so you’ve got a pretty good pool to pick from. They need to have no embarrassment whatsoever; of course, if you work on the Hill, you probably have that to start with."
The Steps have been featured regularly on NPR and perform around the country. In addition, they do a regular show every Friday and Saturday at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. That venue is ironic, because the Reagan years gave the group some of their best material when they started out.
"It was a fun time for satire. Reagan had just come in with the new Reagan revolution, and there were a lot of clear-cut issues," Newport says. "There was James Watt and Ed Meese and all those characters. We did a song with Watt called "Mine Every Mountain", which we brought back when Gale Norton came in (as Secretary of the Interior)."
Many of the group’s songs, available on Capitol Steps’ 26 CDs, bring a nostalgic chuckle to political junkies. There’s "I Want a Man with a Slow Mind" for Dan Quayle, "Unzippin’ My Doodah" (guess which president that’s about), "Newt Newt Newt Goin’ Out My Back Door," "Papa’s Got a Brand New Baghdad" – the list, and the satiric beat, goes on. The latest CD, "Four More Years in the Bush Leagues," includes "Wouldn’t It Be Hillary?," "Fakey Purple Hearts," and the Dick Cheney rap classic, "I Like Big Cuts and I Cannot Lie." Newport acknowledges that there is no immediate shortage of material.
"There’s always something going on. One thing we try to figure out is if some scandal’s big enough, if it’s in the public consciousness," says Newport. "When we initially came out with our Tom DeLay song, ‘What a Difference DeLay Makes,’ it was April of this year, when he was first getting into trouble. There wasn’t a whole lot of public attention on it. Then when the indictments came down, that song just took off. You are always trying to figure out who and what people know."
Some of the more ridiculous aspects of politics are not the ripe harvest one might think. Newport says: "Comedy is based on exaggeration. So, for example, you take the Clinton scandals; some of the things that happened were really hard to exaggerate. People always say, ‘Hey, you must have been having a field day during the Clinton years.’ Well, yes and no, because we were almost redundant, unnecessary. Today, things are more serious, which makes it harder, but more necessary."
Some issues are tougher to tackle than others, particularly when human tragedy is involved. "Some things aren’t funny at all, like Katrina, but you’ve still got Michael Brown, and we do a song to the tune of the old Coasters hit, "Charlie Brown (Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me?)." We did a show recently, which was a Katrina fundraiser, and they asked us not to do that song, which was fine."
The Steps have run into very little opposition from the seats of power, however. "We have performed for five presidents," says Newport. "George W. Bush Sr. had us to the White House several times. What was funny about it was that his staff was very nervous and said, ‘Don’t do anything about the president.’ So we tried to do a show about Congress and international issues, and after the show Bush Sr. got up and said, ‘Wait a minute. Where’s the stuff about me?’ He wanted it."
It seems to be almost de rigueur these days for politicians to be good-natured about the gibes handed down on television and in the comedy venues. It goes back at least as far as Gerald Ford taking in stride the Chevy Chase imitation on "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1970s. Newport says: "I think there is a certain perception on the part of the voters that if someone doesn’t have a sense of humor, you can’t really trust them. They have to seem human. I guess politicians realize that."
In fact, seeing yourself lampooned in public could be taken as a sign that you have made it. Newport says: "You can’t really make a joke about something people don’t know about. We had to learn that the hard way. Because we worked on the Hill, the McCain amendment on regulatory reform was very funny to us, but you can’t get up and do a song about it. So we had to decide to go after the front pages of the paper. And sometimes you think something is going to get huge and it doesn’t. The summer before last, Sandy Berger was accused of smuggling classified papers – in his pants! – out of a security briefing. We thought it was going to be a great story. We did "I Stuffed My Pants All Night." And it dropped out of the news in about a week. This coming primary will be good for comedy, especially if Hillary runs, with the possibility of Bill as First Spouse. I urge people to think of the comedians when they vote."
Newport writes most of the material, along with fellow Step-er Mark Eaton. "We change about a song a week," she says. "The party in power is always funnier, so it can be a little difficult to be bi-partisan, because right now the Republicans have it all. We have enough performers now so that we can do four groups. We have five performers per show. For the first 15 years, we were very strict that you had to be a staffer, but in 1996 we got so busy that we added some Washington area performers. We actually have a pretty good mixture of political stripes."
By the way, the show during Patriots Week will have no Hessian jokes, or Washington’s wooden teeth quips. "The fact that we can do this show, in this country, is perhaps the best commentary," Newport says.
The inevitable question is how long the Capitol Steps can keep doing this? Newport is ready with the answer. "As long as the politicians continue to mess up, we’ll keep doing this."
The Capitol Steps, Wednesday, December 28, 8 p.m., Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street, Trenton. Register. $25. 877-PAT-WEEK or www.patriotsweek.com.
For all Patriots Week events call 877-PAT-WEEK or visit www.patriotsweek.com. Most events are free.
Monday, December 26
Public Reading of "The American Crisis", Old Barracks Courtyard, Front and Barracks streets. The musical quartet Spiced Punch presents Colonial-era songs of love and holiday cheer. Free. 1 p.m.
When Washington Crossed the Delaware, Old Barracks Museum, Barrack and Front streets. Ongoing display features works of Peter Fiore including 10 large scale paintings, sketches, photographic studies, and historic artifacts, creating a visual history for modern audiences. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $6 admission. 10 a.m.
My America, Old Barracks Museum, Barrack and Front streets. Ongoing display features a juried contemporary multi-media exhibit that responds to "What is your vision of America?" includes pastoral landscapes and political commentary. Open Tuesday to Fridays noon to 6 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Trenton’s Revolutionary History, Trenton Visitors Center, Front and Barrack streets. "10 Crucial Days," relates the critical events of the rebels’ military campaign in Central New Jersey. "Caught in the Crossfire: Churches, Taverns, and Revolution in New Jersey" highlights the role of churches and taverns for socializing, disseminating information, and organizing for civic action. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during Patriots’ Week.
Revolution 101, Thomas Edison College, 101 West State Street. Richard Patterson, director of the Old Barracks Museum, discusses the key points of the war from its origins to the 10 Crucial Days campaign through Trenton and Princeton. Free. 2 p.m.
Punch & Judy, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. 18th century puppet show combining music, mayhem, and humor. For ages five and up. Free. 2:30 p.m.
Meet the Press: Generals Roundtable, Thomas Edison College, 101 West State Street. Generals Washington, Howe, Cornwallis, and Knyphausen explain their motivations and take questions from the press and the public. Free. 4 p.m.
Diorama Model of the Second Battle of Trenton, NJ State Museum, 205 West State Street. Scale model on loan from the Daughters of the American Revolution. In the auditorium as the main building is under renovation. On view Mondays to Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tuesday, December 27
New Citizens Swearing-In Ceremony, Trenton City Hall, 319 East State Street. Dozens of New Jerseyans become newly-naturalized citizens. 10 a.m.
Washington’s Letter to the Ladies of Trenton, Wachovia Financial Center, 1 West State Street. On April 21, 1789, George Washington passed through Trenton en route to New York to be inaugurated as the first president. He was greeted by a triumphal arch at the bridge over the Assunpink Creek decorated by the matrons of Trenton. His famous letter will be on public display. Free. 10 a.m.
Civics Tour, State House, 125 West State Street. Tour through the restored state house, an historic structure with arts and crafts celebrating the symbols of New Jersey. Free. Noon.
Historic Reproduction Furniture, 1719 William Trenton House Museum, 15 Market Street. "Multi-Culturalism in 18th Century Trenton" features a tour of the restored house created by William Trent, a wealthy merchant who exported tobacco, flour, and furs, and imported wine, rum, molasses, and dry goods. He also imported African and West Indian slaves and indentured servants from the British Isles. Open Tuesday to Friday, 12:30 to 4 p.m.
The Challenge of Researching African-American Genealogy, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. Jack Washington, author of "In Search of a Community’s Past: The Black Community in Trenton, NJ" and "The Long Journey Home: A Bicentennial History of the Black Community in Princeton, NJ 1776-1976," speaks about the challenge of researching regional African-American history and genealogy. Free. 12:30 p.m.
History of Tea, Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street. Stacy Roth presents the history and lore of the controversial 18th century potable. Roth, a living history interpreter, presents a sampler of Revolutionary era sweets, brews, music, and poetry. Tea, pastries, and other delicacies. Register. $15. 2:30 p.m.
Fireside Chat, First Presbyterian Church, 120 East State Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Reverend John Allen recreates the role of Dr. Elihu Spencer, a trustee of the College of New Jersey and the pastor of First Presbyterian during the Revolution. 4 p.m.
Double Feature, NJ State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Screenings of American propaganda films from the AV Geeks Educational Archives Series and "The Times of Their Lives," a feature presentation starring New Jersey natives Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Free. 7 p.m.
Wednesday, December 28
Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets. Author Terry Golway tells the story of Greene who presided over Continental troops during the Battles of Trenton. Free.
18th Century Trials: Judged by History, State House, 125 West State Street. A jury of audience members decide the fate of three colonial defendants. Free. 2 p.m.
Peter Fiore, Old Barracks Museum, Front and Barracks streets. Meet the illustrator of "When Washington Crossed the Delaware" by Lynne Cheney. Fiore’s work will be on exhibit through Patriots’ week. Free. 4 p.m.
Traditions Coffee House, Old Barracks Museum, Front and Barracks streets. Storytellers and live period music. $10. 6 p.m.
The Capitol Steps, Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street. A troupe of current and former Congressional staffers who take a satiric look at serious issues on Capitol Hill, in the oval office, and around the world. Register. $25. 8 p.m. See story page 29.
18th Century Houses of Worship, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 140 North Warren, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Walk through the religious history of Trenton after a talk about 18th century religion in Trenton by Martin Paulsson, a professor of history at the College of New Jersey. Free. 9:30 a.m.
The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife of Thomas Paine, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets. Author Paul Collins presents the search for Paine’s remains after he was dug up from a field in New York. Free. 1 p.m.
Thursday, December 29
Trenton Battlefield Walking Tour, Cafe Ole, 126 South Warren Street. Ralph Siegel leads the 10-block interpretive walk and battle narrative on the events of the two Battles of Trenton. Pre-tour chat and coffee with Siegel at 9 a.m. Free. 10 a.m.
Hidden Treasures, State House, 125 West State Street. Take a peek behind the scenes to see a mural of downtown Trenton by Hiroshi Murata; "The Dawn of Law," a bas-relief marble installation by artist John Goodyear. Register. Free. 10:30 a.m.
Deborah’s Pantry and Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts, Classics, 117 South Warren Street. Deborah Peterson and Clarissa Dillon speak about the 18th century pantry, ingredients, colonial food, medicine, and gardening. Register. Free. 11 a.m.
Molly Pitcher, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. Molly Pitcher presents highlights of the women who belonged to the army during the American Revolution. Noon.
18th Century Trials: Judged by History, State House, 125 West State Street. A jury of audience members decides the fate of three colonial defendants. Free. 2 p.m.
18th Century Musick, NJ State Museum, 205 West State Street. The Practitoners of Musick highlight music from the collection of the Washington family with commentary. Free. 4 p.m.
Colonial Dinner Theater: An Evening with George and Martha, Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street. Dine with President Washington and his wife in the grand ballroom complete with period music and dining. Mingle with guests including artist Charles Willson Peale and Washington’s chef Hercules. Register. $33. 6:30 p.m.
Friday, December 30
Women’s Clothing in the Late 18th Century, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. Civilian re-enactor Jean Bickal presents a hands-on talk. Free. 1 p.m.
The First Battle of Trenton, Battle Monument and at West and Calhoun streets, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Re-enactment begins simultaneously at both locales. Follow the actions from the symbolic first cannon shot fired at the current site of the Battle Monument to a final skirmish in Mill Hill Park. Free. 11 a.m.
10 Crucial Days Bus Tours, Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street. Skirting the Enemy: The Backroads from Trenton to Princeton. Register. $10. 11:30 a.m.
Historical Geography and Archaeology of Trenton in the Revolutionary War, Trenton Visitors Center, Lafayette and Barrack streets, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Archaeologist Richard Hunter presents talk about cast iron cannonballs, ceramic shards in the shape of a human face, and layers of history embedded in the city’s strata. Free. 11:30 a.m.
Civics Tour, State House, 125 West State Street. Tour through the restored state house, an historic structure with arts and crafts celebrating the symbols of New Jersey. Free. Noon.
New Jersey’s Revolutionary War Trail, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. Mark DiIonno, author of "New Jersey’s Revolutionary War Trail," talks about battlefields, churches, cemeteries, taverns, liberty poles, bridges, creeks, and walk trails. DiIonno is the managing editor of the Newark Star-Ledger and author of"New Jersey’s Coastal Heritage: A Guide" and "Driving at the Speed of Life: A Guide to the Backroads of NJ." Free. 2:15 p.m.
Revolutionary War Games, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets. Richard Kane of the Swan Historical Foundation guides players through the objectives, terrain, and unpredictability using scale miniatures and the roll of the dice. Free. 4 p.m.
Hollywood Versus History: National Treasure, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets. Screening of "National Treasure," starring Nicholas Cage, a man obsessed with finding a treasure hidden by the country’s founding fathers. Masons talk about the accuracy of the film and how it differs from reality. Free. 7 p.m.
10 Crucial Days Bus Tours, Marriott Hotel, 1 West Lafayette Street. Washington’s March: From the Icy Crossing to the Streets of Trenton. Register. $10. 9 a.m.
Saturday, December 31
The Life and Clothes of a Reenactor, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street. Author and historian Mike Cecere presents an insiders’ view of the life of a reenactor. Free. 1 p.m.
First Battle of Trenton, The Battle Monument, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Follow the action from the symbolic first cannon shot fired at the monument down Warren Street, to a final skirmish in Mill Hill Park. The rebel forces accomplished the impossible on the day after Christmas. If you arrive early, head to the Old Barracks as troops muster and prepare for battle. Free. 11 a.m.
Veterans’ and Reenactors’ Lunch, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets. New Jersey veterans, current military service personnel, and reenactors are invited for lunch. Register. Noon.
Punch & Judy, Old Barracks Museum, Front and Barracks streets. An 18th century puppet show. Free. Noon.
Fireside Chat, First Presbyterian Church, 120 East State Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Reverend John Allen recreates the role of Dr. Elihu Spencer, a trustee of the College of New Jersey and the pastor of First Presbyterian during the Revolution. Organ concert follows at 1:30 p.m. 12:30 p.m.
Memorial Service for the Fallen, First Presbyterian Church, 120 East State Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Reenactors salute the fallen of the British, Hessian, and Rebel armies that fought in the Battles of Trenton. A granite monument beside the church marks the site where Hessian Commander Johann Rali is believed to be buried. He was mortally wounded during the First Battle of Trenton. 2:30 p.m.
Second Battle of Trenton, First Presbyterian Church, 120 East State Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. Reenactor begins at the church as it is the scene of much of the action in the battle. 3 p.m.
Flag Retirement Ceremony, Old Barracks Courtyard, Front and Barracks streets. Give your faded flag a proper send off in a patriotic ceremony led by Boy Scout Troop 1776, Central New Jersey Council. Free. 4 p.m.
Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, Patriots’ Theater, War Memorial. 14th annual New Year’s Eve Concert. $25 to $65. Call 609-984-8400. 8 p.m.