Politics as Unusual
by Lory Hough
With November less than a month away, political pundits still argue which candidate makes better presidential material: Al Gore or George W. Bush. Election year debates on policy issues such as big oil and gun control fill the airwaves and the op-ed pages. But to some degree, Bill Strauss MPP 1971 doesnıt care who wins or what the candidates stand for. As he sees it, either George "Dubya" Bush or Al "two-by-four" Gore would make fine presidents. After eight years of the Clinton presidency, Strauss is itching for new material.
Strauss heads the Capitol Steps, a musical comedy troupe based in Washington, DC, that is known for its political spoofing. For him and his co-conspirators, elections arenıt just about issues: theyıre about personality. The more scandal ridden and stiffer, the better. Self-deprecation doesnıt hurt either.
"Gore and Bush have good senses of humor," Strauss says. "I think we could do our full material for both of them."
And for that matter, on both of them or any other person in government. Poking clean-cut, bipartisan fun at politicians is what Capitol Steps has been all about since the group was started as a joke in 1981. He and a few staff members working on Capitol Hill for then-Senator Charles Percy (R-IL) were put in charge of entertainment for Percyıs annual Christmas party. The standard line is that the group considered doing a Nativity play. But when they couldnıt find three wise men and a virgin (ba da bum!), they instead skewered the very people they worked for.
Instead of getting fired for their antics, they got hired to perform at friendsı parties and barbecues. When Paul Simon IOP 1973 unseated Percy three years later, Strauss and company voted to leave the Hill and take their act on the road full-time. Since then, the group that has been called the funniest institution in Washington outside of Congress has performed thousands of shows across the country 800 alone this year, their busiest season to date along with regular appearances on National Public Radio and late-night talk shows.
Luckily, Washington scandal is so reliable that the Steps never want for good material. However, some periods in its near 20-year history have been fuller than others. One particularly dry spell came toward the end of Clintonıs first term. Few new faces surfaced on the political horizon, and bits on "How the Gin-grinch Stole Congress" were getting stale. Then satirists around the country hit gold: Monica Lewinsky.
"She was very fertile for comedy," Strauss says.
Clinton, on the other hand, has been another story, Strauss says. The Steps had to soften and refocus their jokes for the two shows heıs attended, particularly material relating to Lewinsky and Paula Jones.
"Iım eager for a new era," Strauss says.
This yearıs election, injected with fresh material, may give Strauss what he wants. At a recent gig at New Yorkıs Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, where the Steps performed skits from their 20th album, "Itıs Not Over ıtil the First Lady Sings," a Gore so stiff that he had to be wheeled out on a dolly sang to the tune of "Put Ten Grand in the Hand," while a matching father and son Bush team swapped refrains in "Son of a Bush," sung to Harry Chapinıs 1974 hit, "Catıs in the Cradle."
Politicians and their mishaps arenıt the only targets, however. Anyone and anything in or out of the Beltway is fair game for the Stepsı material, written mostly by Strauss and co-founder Elaine Newport. In their current show, for instance, they mock the high price of gasoline with "What kind of fuel am I?" (to "What Kind of Fool Am I?") and the phenomenon of pop singer Ricky Martin with "Living Libido Loco." Even this yearıs annual census was ripe material, with "You Fill Out Your Census," sung to John Denverıs "Annieıs Song." For high school shows, they tailor their performances, weaving in spoofs on teenage musical acts like the Back Street Boys and Britney Spears. As noted on their Web page, "The average adult Capitol Steps audience thinks Chumbawamba is something you make in a crockpot."
Theatre wasnıt always in Straussıs plans. Prior to Capitol Steps, his only other stint on the stage was as a first-grade shepherd in his elementary school Christmas pageant in Burlingame, California, a San Francisco suburb thatıs home to the nationıs first country club and the only museum of Pez memorabilia. For the most part, he came from a serious family an older brother, an insurance salesman father, and a stay-at-home mother more interested in politics than parodies. Even brief brushes with entertainers at the Fairmont, San Franciscoıs largest hotel, where his mother worked for a time in the 1960s in public relations, didnıt sway Strauss from pursuing a more serious career.
Strauss headed to Harvard in 1965, where he spent nearly the next decade getting one degree after another. As an undergrad, in the midst of free love and student rebellion, he worked with the administration to start FOCUS, the nationıs first affirmative action program for southern black teenagers interested in college. A few years later, he joined the Kennedy Schoolıs inaugural MPP class at the suggestion of Richard Zeckhauser, his senior thesis adviser. Strauss then tackled Harvard Law School, graduating in 1973. Instead of taking the bar exam, however, he opted for a 45-day trek to Africa with his wife, Janie. Later, a move to DC launched Strauss into a succession of government jobs, including his stint on Percyıs staff.
Two decades of writing silly songs and wearing Texas-sized Ross Perot ears hasnıt diminished his serious side. At a recent interview to discuss the Steps, Strauss spoke more about the new book heıs co-authoring on generations (his sixth book to date) and about his "pride and joy" the Cappies, a project to elevate the status of high school theatrics in McLean, Virginia, where he lives with his family. To date, he has gotten local newspapers, including The Washington Post, to print weekly reviews of plays, and he hosted the first annual Oscar-like awards ceremony in June for 1,500 students dressed in gowns and tuxedos.
"I have confidence in what the millennial generation can do. They really work at their craft," he says, sipping herbal tea, his voice barely audible above the beat of the music at a tiny Brazilian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. "With the Cappies, Iım trying to bring public recognition to their hard work." Even his speaking manner, famous onstage for the jumbled backward talk in his "Lirty Dies" monologues (And what about Boss the Ross! Heıs as frutty as a Newtcake! He wants to build a mall around Wexico and Spanish the banish! What a thupid sting to do!), is a sharp contrast to the thoughtful, controlled answers he gives during an interview.
"My classmates at Harvard are still surprised that this is what I do," says Strauss, who admits he does his best work between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Zeckhauser, now a professor of political economy at the Kennedy School, disagrees. "Iıve always seen a seriousness and playfulness in everything he does," he says. " I see him as a combination of Cole Porter and Alexis de Tocqueville. He loves intellectual discussions and also talks about how to write the next satirical song. Bill enjoys playing with intellectual concepts. Capitol Steps is an intellectual exercise. Some people may laugh and think the show is just silly fun. Theyıre dead wrong."
And what do his four kids think? Dad-as-performer is all theyıve ever known, Strauss says. Although none seems to be following in his footsteps, they have been enthusiastic about his work and pitch in when possible. Eric, 17, hasnıt been involved, but Melanie, 23, recently directed a Wellesley College showing of "stopscandal.com," a musical that Strauss wrote about a teenager who goes to DC to clean up the government. Victoria, 19, helped create a videotape of the Cappies award night ceremony. And 16-year-old Rebecca is the student scheduler for the Cappies program.
Enthusiasm extends to other fans as well, including the past four presidents, who have all seen the Capitol Steps perform. Ronald Reagan, known for using humor even in crisis (quipping, "I hope youıre all Republicans" to the surgical team after he was shot by John Hinckley), actually asked the Steps to spoof him, period, at his annual staff picnic. "The Capitol Steps make it easier to leave public office," said one-term President George Bush, another fan.
"We performed for him lots of times," Strauss says of Bush, Sr. "Heıd even get up on stage with us. After Desert Storm, his staff asked us not to do much on him for a show he was going to attend. I didnıt think that sounded like him, but we agreed. Bush noticed and during the show, gave us a presidential order to put the songs about him back into the act. He laughed about it, and the skits went over fine."
The Steps will know soon enough if "Gush," Jr. and challenger, "Bore," prove as good-humored and humorous. Although Americans still arenıt casting a vote overwhelmingly in favor of either candidate, with allegations of cocaine use and discoveries of the Internet making headlines on a regular basis, Strauss knows there will be plenty of rich material to keep him spoofing and singing songs for years to come.
"It beats working," he says.