Much like the rest of us, Elaina Newport and her colleagues went into Election Night 2016 with a set of expectations that did not pan out.
But for Newport, a cofounder of the satirical comedy troupe and Washington, DC institution the Capitol Steps, which perform in Tampa Jan. 12, the stakes were particularly high.
Mind you, it didn't matter who won the election per se in terms of her political leanings; Newport calls herself an “extreme moderate.” It was just that the Steps had written essentially two scripts based on potential outcomes of the election: a Hillary Clinton victory, which seemed to have a higher probability of actually happening, and Donald Trump easily winning the Electoral College on Election Night. And they spent more time on the former.
“We had written, basically, two versions of the show, because we...sort of expected Clinton to win, and as you recall the odds-makers were saying 80 percent that she was going to win,” Newport said. “And so we had written two versions of the show, one for either outcome. But to be honest, I spent a little more time on the Hillary won version, because that's what the people were predicting.”
But it didn't work out that way, of course, and the Capitol Steps' writing team had to scramble to come up with fresh material for their next show later that week. They had to figure out how to work in Mike Pence, for example, which they hadn't given much though to before.
But it could've been worse — and has been.
“Unlike 2000, when we woke up the morning after the election and didn't know who won, that was the worst year, because we had to all of the sudden write songs about hanging chads and butterfly ballots — thank you, Florida — and that was the year that we, for a month, couldn't do either version of the show. We had to sort of do a third version of the show,” she said. “So this time, at least we knew pretty definitely who won.”
The Capitol Steps got their start in the early 1980s, when the founders of the group were staffers for U.S. Senator Charles Percy, a moderate Republican from Illinois.
“You don't find those in the wild anymore,” she said of moderates in Congress. “They're in the history books and that's about it.”
From the start, the idea was to mock U.S. politics and culture in a way that that, unlike many political satire outfits that have cropped up in the last decade or so, pokes fun at all sides.
Think U.S. Senator from Vermont (and Clinton Dem primary rival) Bernie Sanders doing show tunes, VP Joe Biden belting out classic rock parodies and Russian President Vladimir Putin prancing around shirtless. During election season, she said, having Hillary Clinton in the running meant they could bring back an old favorite: her husband.
But even if they strive to be even handed, given the cantankerous tone that's taken over in U.S. politics, it could be easier than ever to alienate half the audience.
In the days following the election, when Republicans and Democrats were angrily divided, theCapitol Steps had a show in the DC metro area. It was unclear whether the divisive climate would yield an audience that was universally offended — some with wounds still fresh from Election Night, others wary of the frequency with which their president-elect is targeted.
But the show went over well, even among those still in mourning.
“After the show a lot of people were coming up to the cast and saying 'oh my goodness, I needed to laugh.' Because it was a tense fall,” she said. “But you can't go around being tense all the time. You have to laugh.”
That doesn't mean she and her co-writers don't take advantage of the most obvious, larger-than-life target, Trump. But satirizing the president-elect has its challenges, Newport said; his antics would often parallel the absurdity of their scripts.
She recalls one point during the election at which she wrote a joke for their Trump character in which he said he won't kiss babies because “babies are losers.”
“That seemed to me like an exaggeration of something Donald Trump would say,” she said. “Then, of course, he did get into it with a baby at a campaign rally. He kicked a baby out.”
In the time that the troupe has been around, of course, plenty of other satirical outfits have cropped up, largely in the form of late-night comedy: The Daily Show, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Late Night With Seth Meyers, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee as well as a slew of websites that poke fun at the news.
But Newport said since what the Capitol Steps do is so different from all those sources, they're not really competing. It's actually a good thing there's so much out there, as it stokes more interest in news and politics.
“In some ways it's good that there's so much late-night comedy because people are very focused on the things we write songs about; people hear them on those late-night shows,” she said. “But what we do is very different.”
Ferguson Hall, Straz Center, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa.
Jan. 12, 8 p.m.