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Scandals Elevate Capitol Steps

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page D01

Having taken their name from former congressional wife Rita Jenrette's favorite trysting spot, the Capitol Steps should have been ready for Monica Lewinsky.

"But the pace of that first week was pretty wild," said Elaina Newport, the comedy group's co-founder and producer. "One day the prop man was racing out to get a black beret, the next it was the ponytail of her old drama teacher in Oregon, the next it was 'presidential' knee pads . . .

"Still, we managed to come up with a song rhyming 'What's on this dress I'm in' with 'DNA specimen.' I'm kind of proud of that."

Washington scandal has become so reliable that the Capitol Steps have become the most successful theatrical production ever exported from Washington. Since their birth at a congressional Christmas Party in 1981, they've grown from a moonlighting gaggle of Capitol Hill staffers with an occasional nightclub gig to a $3 million-a-year industry of 40 employees, operating as many as four casts at a time at theaters and conventions from Puerto Rico to Palo Alto.

They've appeared in Bermuda and the Virgin Islands and on cruise ships and been twice to Alaska, and "played in every state in the Union but Wyoming and North Dakota," says Newport's partner and Steps Director Bill Strauss. "Actually we had a date scheduled in Minot one year. But that was in the middle of January and got canceled."

Last year they played 20 weeks off-Broadway at the 300-seat Houseman Theater in Manhattan and eight weeks at a 750-seat theater in San Francisco. Operating out of a King Street town house in Alexandria, they handle all their own bookings as well as four half-hour National Public Radio specials annually and a mail-order business that last year peddled more than 35,000 CDs and tapes.

They even performed for the sequestered O.J. Simpson jury in Los Angeles.

And all that before Lewinsky gave them a reason to write "My Mama Told Me: You'd Better Sleep Around."

The current presidential scandals, Strauss says, "certainly appear to have rejuvenated Americans' interest in political humor," which he says normally cycles around election years.

Last week, in addition to staging its regular Friday and Saturday shows at Chelsea's in Georgetown, the company had a secondary cast performing in Columbia, S.C., and another doing shows in Las Vegas, Tucson and Beaver Creek, Colo., at fees of up to $14,000.

Monica Lewinsky, says Newport, is the best thing to happen to the group since "one week in 1987 when, in the span of a few days, we had Gary Hart get caught [with a mistress], Oliver North testifying before Congress and Tammy Faye Bakker announce that she had an air-conditioned doghouse."

With any luck at all, Lewinsky will drive the Steps to top their best month so far -- October 1996, the month before the last election -- when they performed 89 shows in 26 states.

Clearly, the market for political humor is no longer an inside-the-Beltway commodity, if it ever was.

In fact, Strauss theorizes, it's become one of the checks and balances of government: "When a scandal or a candidate gets outrageous enough to prompt a storm of jokes from Jay Leno or David Letterman, that's a signal it's exceeded some sort of tolerance level in the public mind," he says. "We have to laugh at it to deal with it."

Less encouraging, says Newport, is that "the public tolerance level keeps getting higher or the limbo bar lower or something, regardless of party. Remember Gary Hart? His career was blown out of the water by fooling with just one woman! The more different women crop up with Clinton, the more I feel left out he never called me."

However remote Washington may feel from the rest of the country at times, the Steps learned long ago that audiences here and elsewhere really aren't that far apart.

"Most of the people who come to see us at Chelsea's are from out of town anyway, so we learned long ago that what works there will generally work anywhere," Newport says. "Like, Marion Barry was funny for a while, but we don't do him on the road. And jokes about Dick Gephardt fall flat because, even though he's run for president, people don't feel like they know him. Actually, that's a pretty good litmus test for a presidential candidate: If jokes about you fall flat, the voters don't know you're there. People laugh about what they know."

The beauty about the Lewinsky scandal, she says, is that everybody knows about it. The bad news, Strauss says, is that while it's one of the funniest political scandals ever, "it's also the coarsest. The challenge is to play off its ironies and absurdities without dragging the level down even further."

Nothing's easier than shock humor. "Much harder is to present a really funny show about all this that we can also take before the IBM annual dinner. Or do before high school groups like Close Up [Foundation] and Presidential Classroom."

At this point in the Lewinsky capers it's not a question of avoiding subject matter because, fortunately or unfortunately, "even the kids are very hip and know exactly what the subject is. But there is a way of playing off that without getting more specific."

For example, Newport says, "You can say Lewinsky is just like O.J. Simpson: She has a house in Brentwood, she can't keep her stories straight, she can't get the stains off her clothes, and she has bad knees."

Or, says Strauss, you can have an upbeat, optimistic Clinton character sending up that old, upbeat Walt Disney tune with "I'm Unzip ping My Doo-Dah."

Walking that line was harder the first week, Newport says, "because the thing was just white hot and nobody wanted jokes about anything that wouldn't rhyme with Lewinsky."

Now, she says, the scandal's still hot, but you can squeeze in jokes about the pope in Cuba or the Steps' prime ditty about the Middle East, "Sheik to Sheik": ("Hebron, I'm in Hebron . . .")

Is there any sign l'affaire Lewinsky is fading as comedy fodder?

"No way!" Strauss and Newport say.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandals, they insist, haven't begun to peak in the nation's funny bone. Part of the reason is the ever enlarging cast of characters -- Lewinsky's mother, her high school drama teacher, Lucianne Goldberg -- each more eccentric than the last.

"But I believe, too, that there'll be second and third levels of comedy in this thing," Strauss says. "For example, can you imagine someone writing an eighth-grade civics book about all this? Can you imagine educators in Richmond testing high schoolers on current events to meet state standards? It's just gonna go on and on. If Clinton's in office 36 more months" -- "And we hope he will be," Newport interjects. "We like him. He's a gold mine" -- "we'll be doing Lewinsky jokes for 35 of them."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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