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“John McCain is such an easy target,” says Bill Hurd, press secretary for the political satire comedy troupe The Capitol Steps. “He’s the oldest candidate we’ve ever had — therefore you can make all the old jokes, senility, etc. But it’s almost too easy.”

The Capitol Steps perform at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido on Saturday, October 25.

Elaina Newport cofounded the troupe in 1981 while working for Illinois senator Charles H. Percy. Newport and a few coworkers “decided to make fun of our bosses” during the senate office Christmas party. As she explains, “You may have heard the story — we briefly considered staging a traditional Nativity play, but throughout the Congress we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin.”

Reagan had just been sworn into office, and his campaign chief of staff, Ed Meese, was appointed to the president’s cabinet. “The first show had Ed Meese in ‘The Meeseketeers’ and a song about big defense spending, ‘Immense Expense Is Mainly in Defense,’” recalls Newport. “And, of course, there was the perception that Reagan didn’t exactly work all that hard, so we had a song, ‘Workin’ Nine to Ten.’”

“We typically poke fun more at the people in power, just because they hog the spotlight,” says Hurd. “But for every joke about Bush, we’ll have a joke about the Clintons; for every joke about McCain, we have one for Barack. We try to be equal-opportunity offenders.”

According to Hurd, George Bush Sr. was a big fan of the show and once asked the troupe to perform for him. “In respect to him and the office, they did not do any songs featuring him, and afterwards he came up and said, ‘Where was I?’ He was disappointed.”

On another occasion, says Hurd, upon attending a show, New York senator Al D’Amato was “actually offended” to have not been spoofed. “It’s considered quite an honor to be featured in our show, which is funny, because in any other country we’d be shot for what we do.”

According to his bio, Mike Tilford joined The Capitol Steps in 1992, when the group “realized they didn’t have anyone quite sleazy enough to portray [Bill] Clinton.” As Tilford recalls, “I had a far-reaching résumé that, fortunately for me [at the time, working in Congress was a prerequisite for joining the troupe], included a stint as a schmooze-meister for the Republican National Congressional Committee, smiling and nodding and trying to get checks out of people.”

Tilford was disappointed when Clinton’s term as president ended. “Sadly, as much fun as it is to play the dour, quasi-human Dick Cheney or that leaning tower of haughty B.S. John Kerry, I think Clinton is still my favorite. Maybe because he could flirt with the audience and have more fun that way, whereas when Dick Cheney starts flirting, people start hiding their babies.”

When it comes to choosing an event or person to satirize, Hurd says, “We don’t want to be too inside-Washington. We listen and wait for an issue that the entire country will understand.” Once an issue hits the news, he adds, “The next step is to find the right song, and that’s a lot harder than you think because we want our title to be similiar to the actual titles.” For example, when spoofing Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade his neighboring country, the troupe wrote a song, “Midnight Raid to Georgia,” to the music of R&B classic “Midnight Train to Georgia.” “We always say when a scandal happens, go to our website to find out what rhymes with it.”

Tilford says extreme character traits make for the funniest material. “Palin’s accent and tendency to shoot live moose right on stage during the show, Bush’s general dimwittedness — being unable to tell which part of Beijing China is in, for instance. Mitt Romney’s cheesy game-show-host demeanor, Barack’s halting yet pompous speechifying. Anything that you can stretch into an even more extreme thing. It’s just like a drawn caricature.”

Hurd says the troupe is bipartisan. “[Members] learned to resign their politics a long time ago,” he says. “We approach the issues very differently as to how a normal citizen would — we pray for a politician to put their foot in their mouth.”

“Comedy-wise, McCain and Palin would be better,” Tilford postulates. “It’s almost always better when crazy people are involved, and if they aren’t crazy, they’re close enough for government work. Palin is an incredible comedy juggernaut — sexy, feisty, comically accented, of dubious merit, and festooned with mythological super-womanism. She made McCain interesting. Not an easy task.”

Even though Barack Obama and Joe Biden seem “comedically bland,” Tilford notes, “We thought Clinton and W. were boring at first, too.” He adds that, in general, “Republicans are funnier for the stuff they do to the country, and Democrats are funny for the stuff they do to interns.”

— Barbarella

The Capitol Steps
Saturday, October 25
8 p.m.
California Center for the Arts
340 N. Escondido Boulevard
Cost: $27–$42
Info: 800-988-4523 or www.artcenter.org

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