Political comic Mark Russell makes his star as a singing satirist on PBS
By Gretchen Giles
Standing hunched over his piano on a big red, white, and blue set, political satirist Mark Russell twinkles behind his oversized glasses. The lights catch the sparkle of his ubiquitous bow tie as Russell gleefully hits the first notes of his latest theme song for Steve Forbes’ presidential campaign, “Hey, Big Spender.”
For the last 20 years on PBS, Russell has been having a capital time on the Hill in Washington. Airing six shows a year and touring constantly around the country, Russell keeps himself informed and entertained by reading the papers and watching C-SPAN, which daily airs his favorite comedy show of all–the workings of our government. Boasting that with 535 writers in the Senate and the House of Representatives, he is never short for a joke, Russell–who appears at the LBC on March 22–has been having a non-partisan last laugh every night since he first began cutting up in public in the early 1960s.
Claiming that he avoided the draft by joining the Marine Corps, in 1961 Russell was a 29-year-old veteran with a penchant for funny songs who got a two-week gig at Washington’s Shoreham Hotel as a lounge singer. Twenty years later, he was still the house clown. “Since all of the patrons worked on Capitol Hill,” he remembers by phone from his D.C. home, “I just pitched it to them. But I was just sitting there, hitting chords and talking about what happened that day. It was so casual,” he laughs, “that most of the patrons thought that I worked [in Congress] myself and that I was just doing this for relaxation.”
Indeed, with his easy stride across the centerstage floor, Russell does seem to be getting laughs as a bit of therapuetic rest from his real job of tracking down political malfeasants and giving them a bit of his well-timed delivery. In fact, Russell is such a political professional that in interviews he refuses to speak of the candidates as anything other than fodder for his keen wit.
“Both Buchanan and Forbes are audience-proof,” Russell states, when asked about his preferences in the presidential primaries. “In other words, you can do jokes about Forbes or Buchanan in front of Democrats and Republicans alike and nobody’s offended. Of course,” he sighs, “nobody’s offended by anything anymore, they don’t have that visceral attachment like they did to Nixon or Reagan, or as they did to the Kennedys. Nobody loves anybody, so it makes it easy for somebody like me because I no longer have to be terribly preoccupied with balance or fairness,” he laughs.
“And the way that I put it now is that I am achieving fairness by being unfair to all.”
As times have changed, Russell has tightened up his schtick to reflect the nation’s burgeoning crassness. “Comedy’s gotten meaner because we’re more harsh as a society,” he admits. “We don’t have the taste anymore for subtlety or irony. So your precious little turning of a phrase and your little puns and all that, they get smiles now, and smiles don’t make it. People don’t say to one another, ‘Let’s go out tonight and have a good smile.’ By comparison, though,” he chuckles, “I’m pretty wild for PBS.”
Conceding that politicians have also fanged their rhetoric, Russell muses, “It’s that kind of in-your-face delivery that is part of the reason that Buchanan is playing so well. What gives him a bit of appeal compared to the old lock-jawed delivery of George Wallace from the old days is that he does laugh at himself. And while to some it’s a demonic cackle, it’s really almost as though he’s imitating a guy who talks like him. It’s a self-parody.”
And Russell doesn’t think that what Buchanan says is all that scary. “I do some Nazi jokes about Pat because they’re expected,” he says. “But no, I’m not frightened. For example, one of the things that got him in trouble was that he would refer to Congress as Israeli-occupied territory. Now, to me, that doesn’t cross the line. I don’t see anti-Semitism in that. That’s the kind of joke that Mort Sahl would do. I wish that I had thought of it. It’s a good joke, but when you read that someone in the Washington Post the other day uses that as an example of anti-Semitism, I say, well, c’mon, you can nail him on all sorts of other things.”
One wonders how this man can keep his sense of humor about the state of the States when most days the morning paper does little more than seep sadness and stupidity off its pages. “I write press releases that are more perky than I am,” chuckles Russell. “I’m as depressed as you are, but I have to fight it, to muster up some joviality each day by 8 o’clock.”
Mark Russell dispenses his wit on Friday, March 22, at 8 p.m. Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $18.50-$30. 546-3600.
From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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