‘Elaina as Nancy Pelosi’
Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. He launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. You can follow People’s District on Twitter @PeoplesDistrict, and can read his previous columns here.
“After I graduated from the University of Maryland, I went to go work on Capitol Hill in 1981 to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I got an entry-level job with Senator Percy from Illinois because I could type fast and Xerox. When our Christmas party came around, some other staffers and I decided to put on a show, mostly as a way of laughing at ourselves. We were working on serious issues all day at work, so it was a nice way to add some levity.
“We performed at the party and thought we might get fired or someone would tell us to stop. As neither happened, we just kept going and doing events here and there. About four years into performing, someone offered us money to play a law firm dinner. We thought it would be nice to finally be able to reimburse performers for parking, so we did it. From there, we started getting offered more jobs to play banquets and dinners that needed entertainment. We never had that moment of sitting and deciding to form a business. The Capitol Steps just grew over time.
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“While all of this was happening, I was still working on the Hill full-time and doing Capitol Steps on the side. When Percy lost in 1984, I went to work for Senator Alfonse D’Amato from New York. In 1988, it got to a point where my office realized that I was not showing up a lot at my day job because we were performing so often. I realized that I had to make a decision. I guess you can say that I decided to run away and join the circus. You know, no kid sits in elementary school and says, ‘When I grow up, I am going to be a political satirist.’ I certainly never did, but I have been doing the Capitol Steps for 29 years.
“The group remains political and politically involved, but not as much as when we started. For the first 15 years of the Capitol Steps, it was a requirement that all members needed to have worked on Capitol Hill. In 1996, we relaxed that and now our group is mixed half-and-half. We obviously stay involved politically, but try not to be too inside. You can’t do jokes about the McCain Amendment on Regulatory Reform because nobody really knows about that stuff. We stick with the songs and jokes about Biden, Clinton, Pelosi, Sara Palin and the other people and things that everyone knows.
“You would think of all the politicians, Bill Clinton was the easiest parody, but he was actually funnier in real life than the comedians could be. We didn’t have to write anything, because you could just read the headlines and they were funny enough. I felt like anything I was doing with him on stage was just redundant. While many people may not believe it, Bush Jr. was actually harder. He obviously became funnier because of his malapropisms, but the issues were more serious with the war and economy. While it was harder, maybe it was more important to make light of them because, as a nation, we needed to laugh a little.
“Obviously, you need to treat these and other serious issues with respect, so we look for an angle that works and allows us to laugh at ourselves. While the Gulf oil spill is not really that funny because of the loss of jobs and oil spewing, we may dress someone up as a giant shrimp. Plus, there is always a public official who is screwing something up, so it is easy to make fun of Tony Hayward with BP or Brownie, ‘You’re doing a heck of a job,’ in terms of Katrina.
“After 29 years, we have performed for a lot of politicians and did shows for all of the Presidents since Reagan, but Obama. He hasn’t invited us to perform yet. I think that now, things are different and between how partisan politics is and how every one has a little cell phone camera, maybe they are worried that someone will catch Obama laughing at a joke about Nancy Pelosi and put in on Youtube. I guess politicians are more cautious these days and don’t want to be caught laughing at the wrong joke.
“While we haven’t performed for Obama yet, we have been to all 50 states, and even performed in other countries. We would love to be considered a staple of this city. Just like you go and see Second City in Chicago, we hope that people will think of the Capitol Steps that way when they are in Washington.”