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Stepping Out

Capitol Steps
Here Come the Highsteppers: Washington, D.C.'s favorite musical comedians invade San Francisco.

D.C.'s Capitol Steps bring their political satire to S.F.

By Zack Stentz

Operating as they do in Washington, D.C., the political/musical satire troupe known as the Capitol Steps works in what the Pentagon likes to call a "target-rich environment."

So it's only appropriate that they should come to unveil their new touring show in San Francisco, one of the few cities on the planet which can reasonably compete with the nation's capital in the political absurdity department. "We've got the most local material that we've ever done in a show outside of Washington," says Bill Strauss, a Steps performer since the group's 1981 founding. "S.F.'s a very hip, smart city, and of course the political scene gives us a lot of opportunities for comedy. In anticipation of the show, we've been subscribing to the Chronicle and reading Matier and Ross back in D.C. and logging on to the Gate [the Chronicle and Examiner's Web site]."

"But we might have to call ourselves the 3Com Steps while we're here," interjects fellow Stepper Elaina Newport. Like Strauss, she's in San Francisco to prepare for and promote the show. "We've got stuff about Willie Brown, tourists, computer nerds, the Summer of Love anniversary--all sorts of things."

Er, and what about a certain birthday party for a local politico, so heavily covered in the local press a couple months back? "I'm not sure if we want to touch that particular Jack Daniel's bottle," Newport replies. "Some things are just too difficult to improve on."

Political humor is often the province of intensely angry comedians like Bob Goldthwait or the late Bill Hicks, but the Capitol Steps prefer to take a gentler approach, skewering the follies of both parties with pointed but seldom vicious wit. "We have been accused of not being mean enough," Newport says, "but it's mainly been by people who want us to make a point that we don't have. We're not angry comedians. To me, a great pun is the best humor, and comedy based on word play generally isn't angry.

"Our test for whether we're being too mean or not is to ask whether we could perform the song in front of the person it's about," she adds. "And with a few exceptions, the answer is yes."

"About six months after the Gulf War, we played an event for then-President Bush," Strauss recalls. "And his aides asked us not to do any songs about him, so we didn't. And after the show, Bush asked us if someone had told us to censor ourselves, and when he found out that they did, he made us perform all of our songs about him on the spot. He had a pretty good sense of humor about himself."

"And we helped him pick his vice president," adds Newport.

Wait. The Capitol Steps were responsible for unleashing J. Danforth Quayle upon an unsuspecting populace? "Oh, sure," she says, with only the hint of a sly smile. "When we did a function at the Reagan White House back in 1988, while he was running, he asked who he should name as his running mate. And I said 'I don't care, as long as he's funny.' "

And thus were born a thousand jokes, songs and Jay Leno monologues. The Quayle potato jokes may have been retired for now ("but I'll bet he'll run in 2000," Newport says hopefully), but the Steps look at the current fragmented political landscape with undisguised relish. "We get twice the jokes out of a divided government," Newport says. "From 1992 to 1994, it was hard to find a funny Republican. But then Newt came along and we had no shortage of material."


At Theatre on the Square from July 10, Tue.-Thu. 8pm, Fri. 8:30pm, Sat. 6 and 9pm, Sun. 3 and 7pm; $20­$35. Call 415/433-9500.

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From the July 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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