Jest Lag Campaign comedy: The satire troupe Capitol Steps is rushing to keep up with politicians who, every day, prove wonderfully adept at making caricatures of themselves.


In the age of Clinton and Buchanan, Gingrich and Forbes, political satirists might consider this advice: take a few months off. Joke for joke, irony for irony, the news is tough to beat.

Lord knows, the Capitol Steps musical satire group is trying valiantly, but audiences may wonder: With Pat Buchanan mugging for cameras at Mount Rushmore, who needs satire?

This recent delicious campaign moment doesn't get into the Capitol Steps latest show. Instead a troupe member portrays Mr. Buchanan in a sort of Tommy Hilfiger Stars-and-Stripes shirt and American flags sticking out of his head. But this is tame compared to the Real McCoy grinning it up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, saying he's got plenty in common with the four presidents carved in granite. If only the enormous head.

You have to admire a satirist's attempt to take on such formidable competition, as the Steps will do at Goucher College at 8 tonight in a $30-a-seat benefit for the Baltimore County League of Women Voters.

The group of 20 current and former congressional staff members has tried to keep up, adding new songs, rehearsing on the fly, marching out the fresh stuff. But after catching their show this week at the Washington Hilton, you sense they're falling behind.

A troupe member in gray wig, sunglasses and black leather jacket does a musical take on President Clinton's pre-election rush toward the political mainstream with "Return to Center," to the tune of "Return to Sender." But really, is this funnier than the real Bill Clinton (whoever he is) telling a crowd in Long Beach, Calif., last week that he thinks public school students should wear uniforms?

Hey folks, the guy's got a million of 'em. We'll not soon forget the stupendous irony of Mr. Clinton's telling the world in his State of the Union address: "the era of big government is over."


Elaina Newport, one of the founders of the Capitol Steps, acknowledges that the news itself "does seem to be getting more ridiculous."

What's a satirist to do?

"This time of year you have to update constantly," says Ms. Newport. Even with a new song or two a week and old bits being revised all the time they can hardly keep pace. Consider the routine performed at the Hilton this week featuring Mr. Clinton on the phone with former Vice President Dan Quayle, urging him to run for president because he's the only person who can resurrect Mr. Clinton's moribund re-election effort. Ha-ha-ha.

That was written a few months ago, with Bill and Hillary still dogged by ethics investigations and before Sen. Bob Dole began receding into Mr. Buchanan's shadow. Lately, Mr. Quayle looks more like a statesman who could rescue the Republican Party. This week, anyway.

The (Harry) Golden Rule

The Capitol Steps are struggling with what writer Calvin Trillin called the (Harry) Golden Rule: "In modern America, anyone who attempts to write satirically about the events of the day finds it difficult to concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not actually come to pass while his article is still on the presses."

Mr. Quayle, for example, had not yet been selected for the Republican ticket when the Capitol Steps performed at then-Vice President George Bush's home back in 1988. At one point Mr. Bush approached Ms. Newport and off-handedly asked her advice about a running mate. She assures that this is true, that she had no more specific suggestion than this: "Just pick somebody funny."

She never called Mr. Bush back later to say thanks, but maybe he'd gotten carried away. Perhaps she and Steps co-writer/co-founder Bill Strauss were too busy writing Quayle shtick, trying desperately to keep up with reality.

Joe Queenan, who makes a living writing humor, some of it political, says that was a lost cause.

"It was impossible to write anything funnier than what [Quayle] ,, said," says Mr. Queenan, who writes from Tarrytown, N.Y. The Buchanan problem is slightly different: "I wouldn't dare write anything about Buchanan. He's such a master of self-satire."

And what of Bob Dole? The Steps' repertoire includes his appearance as the Phantom of the Opera in mask and black cape. But is this more creepy than the Senate Majority Leader's actual response to the State of the Union address, in which he appeared as the Crypt Keeper?

Ms. Newport reports some difficulty finding the humor in Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who has yet to morph into a cartoon character like so many of the other presidential candidates. And, she says, "I haven't been able to find out what's funny about [GOP candidate] Alan Keyes."

Just a thought: check his campaign financial records.

The Steps were not so dismayed when Texas Sen. Phil Gramm packed up his entire personality and quit the presidential campaign. But Ms. Newport says "we're wondering where Perot went. We loved Perot."

Yes, but didn't H. Ross Perot always present the dilemma of how to caricature a caricature?

It's a challenge lately, says Washington satirist Robert Hirschfeld, what with television instantly reducing people to comic-book dimensions.

"As extreme as it seems, you can still push it farther," he says. It helps that he's got a daily feature on America Online and a World Wide Web page, so he can publish on very short notice.

The Capitol Steps became accustomed to tight deadlines when they started in the early 1980s, says Ms. Newport. National Public Radio would call in the morning requesting a song for that evening's "All Things Considered" program on, say, "trade relations in Vietnam."

The real masters

The troupe has performed hundreds of times all over the country, often before the very politicians who are being lampooned. Perhaps that's why some of the act has all the bite of old gags about Dean Martin's drinking. "It's not our purpose to be harsh," says Mr. Strauss, who used to work with Ms. Newport in the office of Illinois Sen. Charles Percy. "People who want harsh satire have other places they can go."

Besides, you have to cut the Steps some slack for trying to outdo masters of buffoonery at their own game, for staying with this work in 1996, 23 years after satirist Tom Lehrer said, "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."

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