Mark Russell, political satirist extraordinaire


WASHINGTON -- Dressed innocently in a black velvet sports coat and red bow tie, Mark Russell struts on stage with the grin of a devil.

'Welcome to Ford's Theater. I am not Paul Simon,' begins America's star-spangled satirist, drawing the first of countless bursts of laughter.


'Jesse Jackson the other day ... said 'Repeat after me.'






'And he was talking to George Bush.'

The crowd roars.

'We will talk about many things this evening -- politics, international politics, national politics. But first let's start right here at home,' says Russell, rolling his eyes and setting sights on Marion Barry, the city's mayor, a reputed carouser.

'Any day I expect to hear, 'Mayor Barry has announced his endorsement of presidential candidate Gary Hart -- in exchange for the townhouse and a dozen phone numbers.''

The audience howls again -- and gives a thunderous hand to this joke-spewing showman, perhaps the nation's best political humorist since Will Rogers.


There is virtually no medium that escapes the razor wit and wisdom of the New York-bred Russell. Along with stage performances, Russell, 55, is in his 13th season as host of PBS comedy specials and his syndicated column appears in 80 newspapers.

Regardless of the format, no one gets a break. With non-partisan dexterity, he lampoons presidents and congressmen, governors and mayors, Oliver North and Raisa Gorbachev, subways in New York City and redneck bars in Texas.

His insightful barbs prompted ABC-News commentator David Brinkley to observe: 'Except for certain politicians, Mark Russell is the funniest man in Washington. And his political comments are more truthful than most of what we hear in Congress.'

Russell began writing his own stuff as a kid growing up in Buffalo, where his dad pumped gas and later worked as a fuel salesman, and where Russell learned he had a knack for making folks laugh, even the Catholic nuns who rapped his knuckles in school.

He honed his skill under a tougher authority, the U.S. Marines, where Russell tweaked superiors and moonlighted as a comic in service clubs and rowdy bars during his three-year stint in Japan, Hawaii and Virginia.

Today, Russell is Big Time -- at small posh clubs and grand city theaters. Half of his 125 shows a year are staged on college campuses, which he relishes.


'The purpose is to help keep the big boys honest,' Russell deadpans, repeating a frequent line in a pre-show interview. 'I really can't expound on that much. I'm a standup comic, a political satirist ... a lot of one-liners.'

Russell is addicted to the stage. 'It's a physical thing. I can't go more than two or three weeks without performing in front of somebody.'

With the presidential primaries heating up, this is prime-time show time. 'We turn a corner in February and a real corner with the primaries in March,' he said. 'I get a lot of attention myself with the conventions. My calendar is full.'

During those rare down times, Russell lives in a house in northwest Washington, D.C., with his wife of nine years, Ali, who handles his books and attends his shows.

This night, before a packed house of 700, Russell is on a roll, pelleting the crowd with jokes and parodies and banging on a grand piano, which like the bow tie, is a Russell trademark.

One song pokes fun at Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., for passing himself off as a Southern presidential candidate, although he actually grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to college at Harvard, 'hardly a bastion of the Confederacy,' smirks Russell.


To the tune of 'Dixie,' Russell prances at the piano and sings:

'... Forget the Southern Primary, that boy was raised in old D.C.

'Far away, far away, far away from Dixie land ....'

He punctuates his delivery with a lesson: 'There is a thin line between the satire and the actual fact, isn't there? For example, if I would tell that Jimmy the Greek had been fired by CBS. You'd say, we all ready knew that. What if I told you he's now writing speeches for Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham.'

The audience cackles.

'Very, very thin line.

'As a political satirist, I look for items in the news. Like about three months. I'm not making this up. This is verbatim ... A reporter asked, 'Mr. President, did William Casey carry on covert operations without you knowing about it?' Reagan answered, 'Not to my knowledge.''

Another volley of giggles and snickers and Russell races on, smooth as high-polished glass.

He toiled in small clubs on the East Coast a few years before even landing a full-time job in 1958 at the old Carroll Arms Hotel, near the Capitol, where congressmen drank hard, cut deals and escorted women, often not their own wives.


'Senators would go upstairs with women and I'd be downstairs playing the piano. The place had everything but a parrot,' says Russell, giggling. 'My stuff was real primitive. I was just starting out.'

This vantage point -- from behind a piano down the street from the Capitol, where Russell spent countless hours watching the legislative process -- gave him a cynical view of government that he learned to vent with humor.

At the Carroll Arms, Russell delivered his first political joke. It was 1960 and the nation was about to elect John F. Kennedy president.

Sung to the tune, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' Russell's parody began: 'Swing low, Jack Kennedy, you're daddy is gonna carry you home.' At the time, JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, told his son, 'I don't mind buying you the election, but I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.'

A raft of other jokes followed, particularly after Kennedy got elected and began putting relatives in the adminstration. As Russell put it, 'JFK stands for Jobs For Kinship.'

The customers loved the satire and Russell learned how to handle a fickle crowd.

'The people use to drink pretty good. Then I'd stay too long on one candidate and I'd see a big guy get up and head toward the piano. And I switched to the other side. When I attempted to be bipartisan, it was for survival.'


In 1961, Russell moved up to the Shoreham Hotel, where he played the Marquee Room for two decades, became a Washington landmark and sought national recognition.

Repeatedly, Russell tried to break into network television, and repeatedly he was turned down. 'I used to go to New York and audition, next to the office water cooler,' he recalls.

Then came Watergate. It was 1972-73, watershed years for political humor and Russell. TV crews filmed segments of his show, primarily of Watergate jokes, as part of their overall coverage.

'All of a sudden, I'm on (the evening news shows of (Walter) Cronkite, (Chet) Huntley, (David) Brinkley. Without even trying. I'm part of the story.'

That national exposure led to Russell's syndicated column and PBS comedy series, which, in turn, led to a two-year job as a host of the defunct, heavily panned prime-time comedy show, 'Real People.'

'It was completely different. It was nice to have been asked,' he says. 'It really was like running away and joining the circus. It was zany.'

It also seems that Russell would just as soon let that part of his life fade away. There is no mention of 'Real People' in Russell's two-page autobiography distributed by his publicist.


On stage at Ford's Theater, Russell is a real-live dynamo, zapping candidates and Congress, the National Rifle Association and the Teamsters, Attorney General Edwin Meese and President Reagan.

'Edwin Meese ... is the object of a grand jury investigation and head of the Justice Department, which just concluded its own perjury trial of Michael Deaver. And who is Michael Deaver, the president's former adviser. Ladies and gentlemen, in Washington, there is a word for all of this -- 'tradition.''

The crowd hoots and hollers.

Russell stings Reagan with the Iran-Contra scandal.

'For six years, a lot of us kept saying, 'Mr. President, you're out of touch.' He said, 'No, I'm in charge.' Now we say, 'Ah ha, You were in charge.' He says, 'No, I was out of touch.''

Russell never went to college. But he's in touch, well versed, well read. And he's articulate, a master of expressions, downright clever and just plain funny. He works at it.

He scours at least three newspapers daily and spends hours at his piano, turning events into parodies. For out-of-town shows, he brushes up on local politics so he can tailor his routine for the audience.

'That's what makes it fun' he says. 'The currency of the jokes. A show coming off a day's headlines.'


Despite all Russell's handling of The Establishment -- for what he perceives as absurdities and inequities -- he's a flag-waving patriot.

'There are a lot of things to make fun of. But I think the whole system is fine. I really do. We've had a lot of bad times since the 1950s, but the system has survived all that.

'It allows the humor and the satire. Overall, I'm the biggest supporter. I honestly do get a little twinge every time I see the Capitol building.'

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