What’s funny about the shutdown? If you’re a pro, you start with the obvious.
“The first thing I thought of was, ‘nonessential personnel’? So why is Congress still here?” said Elaina Newport, a writer with the venerable Washington comedy group the Capitol Steps. “Is Joe Biden leaving town? No, Bo still needs to be walked every day.”
Or maybe: “Joe Biden was really bummed that the White House tours were canceled; now he’ll never get into the West Wing.”
She ponders. “We’re still working on that one.”
These are harried — and happy — days in the Capitol Steps’ cluttered headquarters in Old Town Alexandria. As Washington ground to an official halt Tuesday, the satirical mill wheels of the 32-year-old troupe kicked into overdrive, racing to squeeze parody from headlines already dripping with absurdity. Before the performers’ next show Friday, they must sharpen new punch lines, rehearse new songs and rush to make up stuff about a week that has the world saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
“This is one of those weeks for sure,” said Newport. “It doesn’t compare to Monica [Lewinsky], say, but it’s big. I think all the job creation they’re doing is for political comedians.”
Newport, one of the former Senate staffers who founded the group in 1981, directs the creative mayhem from her office overlooking Washington Street. On the couch is the buff foam abdomen worn by their shirtless Vladimir Putin impersonator and the orange “Phantom of the Opera” mask used to portray House Speaker John A. Boehner. (“We have problems with Boehner’s skin color,” she said. “We don’t have time between songs to do that much makeup, so we use the mask.”)
By e-mail, phone and, frequently, shouting up and down the stairs of the converted rowhouse, Newport and her collaborators hashed out jokes and lyrics. They had already made progress on “Blame” (sung to the tune of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame”) and rejected “Hooked on Repealing” (to — remember it? — “Hooked on a Feeling”).
Writer Mark Eaton, who had been a staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms and a onetime tobacco lobbyist, leaned against Newport’s door to talk about converting the Beach Boys classic “Fun, Fun, Fun” into the tea party obsessive “De-fund, Fund, Fund.”
“If they resolve everything on Thursday, I’ll have to rewrite everything in past tense,” Eaton said as they ran down the lyrics.
As always, they sought the right mix of word play, wit and Broadway musicality. (You haven’t appreciated the full operatic scope of a budget dispute until you’ve heard their faux Boehner belt out “Loonies of the Right,” Newport’s reworking of the “Phantom” ode “Music of the Night.”)
“I’m going to find a key for this song,” Newport called through the house as she walked to the piano in a back office, past a life-size cutout of Sen. John McCain.
“How about C, the people’s key?” shouted Brian Ash, a performer and production coordinator, as he galloped down the stairs in shorts and a Capitals jersey, ready to rehearse.
Many of the 30 Capitol Steps performers will get the new lyrics by e-mail and have no chance to rehearse before showtime. The troupe does about 400 gigs a year — more during an election year — with four traveling casts on the road at any time and shows each Friday and Saturday at the 600-seat amphitheater in the Ronald Reagan Building.
On a fast-moving week like this, performers may have to cheat to be current onstage, with hot-off-the-printer lyrics hidden behind newspapers or written on palms. (The news about then-New York congressman Anthony Weiner’s naughty tweet broke so close to curtain that the actor had to read jokes off her cellphone, as if goggling at Weiner’s actual, uh, tweet.)
“We don’t have the choice to skip anything — people expect it,” said Newport. “We get a big reaction when we can get the very latest news into the show.”
Over the decades, the Steps have staked out space for themselves at the side of every big Washington blowup. Merging a wide interest in politics, even policy, with a deep love for musical theater, they form a wonky-tonk geek chorus at the wings of our political theater.
“It never stops,” said Newport. She noted that the early rule restricting membership to congressional staffers had to be waived in the 1990s. “We were just so busy with Clinton.”
The latest saga began to elbow its way into the script last week when Sen. Ted Cruz seized the Senate floor in a 21-hour anti-Obamacare screed that included references to Ashton Kutcher and Dr. Seuss. Newport’s antennae shot up.
She dashed off a “Green Eggs and Ham” parody and zapped it to the cast just before the Friday show.
“It didn’t work,” she said. “I don’t think enough people knew that he’d read ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ ” she said, noting that tourists make up 80 percent of their audience. “We can’t write for insiders.”
They scrapped “Green Eggs” and monitored C-SPAN, and Newport launched her team on some shutdown ideas. When things can go either way, they have to plan for both, as in the 2000 election, when they had alternate Gore-won and Bush-won shows on paper (and then had to scramble when nobody won for several weeks).
At midnight Monday, Newport was sending here-we-go e-mails to the cast.
By Tuesday, they had a page of jokes finished and others in the air. “How about ‘Breaking Bad?’ ” Newport mused. “Federal employees pushing barrels of meth down the National Mall?”
On Wednesday, several cast members crowded around the second-floor piano to rehearse the four new songs (out of about 25 — others zinging the NSA and Putin will stay in rotation for now). Newport headed downstairs to look for props, in particular a sign reading “Honk if I Paid for Your Healthcare.”
The basement prop and costume shop is an archive of scandal, hubris and tragedy: There’s a pig outfit (swine flu); cheesehead hats (Wisconsin recall); baby dolls (Octomom); blue U.N. helmets (Hans Blix); yellow, orange and red T-shirts (homeland-security threat levels); and lots and lots of “Romney for President” shirts.
“You can get these cheap,” said Newport.
“We loved Romney,” Eaton said wistfully. “Oh, what a beautiful Mormon.”
Romney was the subject of one song that flopped, however. It was “Up on the Rooftop,” a version of “Under the Boardwalk” sung by the Romney family dog.
“Animal lovers,” she said, shaking her head. “You can’t get away with much about animals.”
There would not, she promised, be any shutdown jokes about the National Zoo’s pandas.