Pianist, composer, political satirist
Mark Russell is one of the nation’s foremost political comedians, a piano-pounding satirist who skewers the Washington scene with word and song. As Jeff Babineau put it in the Akron Beacon Journal, Russell has been a fixture in the capitol since 1961, “has monitored the pulse of the nation’s political exploits … and has remained funny in doing so.” Today Russell’s brand of humor is a staple on the Public Broadcasting Service, where he performs six times a year in a half-hour musical comedy act. The affable comedian-songwriter also appears live in some 125 shows per year, a daunting schedule similar to that of the most popular professional musicians.
Russell’s routine is essentially the same today as it was when he entered show business thirty-five years ago. He delivers a stand-up monologue, punctuated by short musical parodies of popular tunes. As he bashes the political pundits, Russell accompanies himself on a star-spangled grand piano in an exaggerated, joyfully sloppy style. What does change in Russell’s act is the cast of characters—each new president, each new national scandal provides him with a wealth of material from which to draw humor. He told the Los Angeles Daily News: “We don’t need comedians. We have politicians. There’s a very thin line between satire and the original event. Sometimes there’s no line at all.”
Born Mark Ruslander in Buffalo, New York, Russell was a “class clown” from a very early age. His family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was a teen, and he became fascinated by the apparatus of national government in the capitol. In the early 1950s he served in the Marine Corps, principally as an entertainer in piano bars in Japan and Hawaii. He was discharged in 1956 and returned to Washington, where he continued to work the piano bar circuit.
Russell had begun to work comedy into his routine when he was in the service. As a professional performer he expanded the role of comedy in his act until he became more comedian than musician. He lists Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer as early influences, along with black humorist Lenny Bruce. Music remained integral to his routine, however—in his early years he often made up songs on the spot about the customers in his audience.
Word of Russell spread quickly in the capitol, and soon he was attracting the very crowd he debunked so relentlessly. Politicians of every stripe took in the show. “Nobody in trouble would show up, of course, because they’d risk becoming part of the act,” Russell told the Arizona Republic. “So I’d say, ‘Here’s Senator So-and-So. He’s clean if he’s here.’”
In 1961 Russell moved to the Shoreham Hotel. He and
Born Mark Ruslander, August 23, 1932, in Buffalo, NY; changed name, 1956; son of Marcus Joseph and Marie Elizabeth (Perry) Ruslander; married second wife, Alison Kaplan, December 17, 1978; children: (first marriage) Monica, John, Matthew. Military service: United States Marine Corps, 1953-56.
Comedian and political satirist, 1956—. Began performing stand-up comedy with piano accompaniment at Carroll Arms Bar, Washington, DC, 1956; comedian at Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC, 1961-81. Star of bi-monthly television specials for PBS, 1975—; co-host of Real People, NBC, 1979-84; has provided political commentary during national nominating conventions for Good Morning, America, ABC. Syndicated columnist through the Los Angeles Times, 1975—.
Awards: Mark Twain Award for political comedy, 1980, 1986.
his bunting-draped piano became an institution there, performing regularly for twenty years. He might have remained a local celebrity had the Watergate scandal not broken in 1973—that shake-up in the halls of power proved president Nixon’s undoing, but it made Russell’s career. Reporters in town to cover the scandal relaxed at the Shoreham and caught Russell’s comic rendition of the events. Word of his talents spread, and soon thereafter he moved to national television.
Since 1975, Russell has appeared in a comedy special every two months on the Public Broadcasting Service. The shows are produced by the affiliate in his hometown of Buffalo. The work for PBS spawned numerous requests for live performances, and by 1980 the comedian was logging 250,000 miles of air travel each year to every state in the nation. He also found time to co-host a network comedy show, Real People, and during presidential campaigns he served as a mock commentator on Good Morning, America.
Political comedians always tread a fine line where matters of taste and partisanship are concerned. Russell has ensured his continued popularity by lampooning both Democrats and Republicans with equal vigor. His humor is rarely nasty or vicious, and reflects a middleclass response to government foibles. Russell himself calls it “safe” comedy, a good-natured, equal-opportunity parody of current events. For this reason, Russell is most in demand during presidential campaigns. From the conventions to the inaugurations he finds masses of material in the daily posturing of candidates and their running mates.
Russell’s silly songs—the signature of his act—are scripted in reaction to political personalities, scandals, and social concerns. He performs them with little regard for his voice or his piano skills—in fact, the very amateurism of his style heightens the humor. Topical in nature, few of them survive more than several performances. “Some of [my] jokes last 10 years. Some are gone in a week,” Russell told the Arizona Republic. “If you do 90 minutes on stage, you don’t do 90 minutes of what happened last week, you take little trips down Memory Lane.” The comedian also delights in adding a local slant to his live shows. His motto, he says, is “know your audience.”
When he is not on the road, Russell lives in the capitol with his second wife. He has three grown children by an earlier marriage. He likes to joke that he also keeps a “winter home” in Buffalo, where he is a major celebrity. Asked in the Akron Beacon Journal if he has any unfulfilled ambitions, the bespectacled comic replied: “I’d like to have a sandwich named after me at a Washington, D.C. restaurant.”
Presenting Mark Russell, Everest House, 1980.
Russell, Mark, Presenting Mark Russell, Everest House, 1980.
Akron Beacon Journal, June 16, 1987; December 20, 1987.
Arizona Republic, August 10, 1988; September 29, 1988.
Daily News (Los Angeles), September 16, 1988.
Phoenix Gazette, September 30, 1988; October 4, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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