Today’s Guest: Mark Russell, political satirist
(Originally published on September 6, 1985.)
More than a decade after Richard Nixon left office, one of the former president’s associates is still providing material for political satirist Mark Russell.
“Howard Hunt gave an interview in our ‘other paper’ here, the Washington Times. I always hire a little kid to go down to the corner to buy it _ Howard Hunt is writing a musical about Claus von Bulow,” Russell says, laughing.
Moments later, still tittering, Russell is asked what makes him laugh. “Musicals about Claus von Bulow,” he answers, cracking up.
The 53-year-old Washington comedian, whose column runs regularly in more than 100 newspapers (including on the editorial pages of the St. Petersburg Times), will bring his road show to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Saturday night at 8.
BEFORE PLUNGING into the story of why a failed piano student became a stand-up comedian instead of a very funny plumber, here are some current and past examples of his humor:
• On the Titanic: “It’s a coverup, that’s what it is! The French blew up another Greenpeace ship and announced, ‘Alors, we have found the Titanic!’”
• “I think that they ought to raise it so they can complete the maiden voyage begun in 1912. If they can name luggage after Amelia Earhart, the Titanic can sail again.”
• On the nation’s capitol: “Washington, home of the federal government, 2.9-million people doing badly that which need not be done at all.”
• On the Moral Majority: “The men of the polyester cloth … That crowd’s idea of gun control is a good steady aim.”
• On former Florida congressman Richard Kelly: “Kelly(says)he took the money because he was conducting an investigation. That would be like telling your wife that you are sleeping with your secretary to find out if she is being promiscuous.”
• On major league baseball in St. Petersburg: “I had a name for the team because of the St. Petersburg geriatric stereotype. The team should be called the High Fibers, or the Metamucils.”
In presidential politics, Russell says the funniest administration is always the one in office.
“THE MINUTE SOMEONE leaves office, I all of a sudden start liking him,” Russell said in a phone interview this week. “It’s amazing. The minute the new guy is sworn in, and the old one is standing there, he doesn’t know what to do, he’s fiddling with his hat- all of a sudden I think gee, I was a little hard on this guy.”
Four times a week, Russell develops five or six one- or two-line gags about a current political or social news topic for his column. Six times a year for the last 10, he has done a live television special for PBS and he also does 100personal appearances around the country annually.
“I write the way I talk,” he says, “and I hear myself saying this as I write. They’re political cartoons for the blind, as I’ve often said.”
Russell claims no subject is off limits for his columns or TV shows. “It depends on the joke. You never say never, as Nancy Reagan once said.
MARK RUSSELL interview excerpt: “Washington, home of the federal government, 2.9-million people doing badly that which need not be done at all.”
“My show in June fell right in the middle of the hostage situation in Beirut,” he says by example. “As satire, everything is worthy of attention. In this case, while We saw tapes of interviews with the hostages, NASA had a contract to launch a space satellite for 21 Arab nations, including Libya, Syria and the PLO. SoI said, ‘Never before has prostitution been conducted at such an altitude.’ ”
Russell was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1932, in the middle of the Depression.
“Talk about your depression,” he says. “They said in A Chorus Line, ‘Suicide in Buffalo is redundant.’ ”
When he was a boy, Russell’s parents sent him for piano lessons – “and the teacher sent me back.” But Russell managed to get in enough time at the keys to become “one of those ’50s piano bar guys who did more talking than playing.” Plunk that kind of talent down in the middle of a political saloon on Capitol Hill for’ three years followed by 20 more at The Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. and you get Russell’s political wit.
“The American Society of Newspaper Editors used to have their convention every year at the Shoreham, so I had those editors as a.. captive audience. That’s how 1 got the column,” he explains.
It certainly wasn’t because of his expertise at the piano, he notes, although taking a few turns at it nightly is still part of his routine.
“THEYWOULDN’T ENJOY it if that’s all I did, I can tell you that. It’s a curiosity. It gives the show more movement, more animation. I suppose it would be wonderful to stop in the middle of all the hilarity and sit down and play something a la Victor Borge, but I don’t have the confidence to do that.”
One of the highlights of Russell’s shows is when he performs anew song. Some go over better than others. “There’ve been lines in songs … I had this one about Mahatma Gandhi: ‘He was the big cheese in the new deli.’ It never got a laugh.”
A current favorite, likely to be played Saturday night, is “Ronnie Rambo.”
“I think the best song I ever wrote in.my life was ‘I Will Wait For You, Grace Kelly.’ It was when she was still alive, obviously. When she died, I threw the song out.”
Part of the song, he says, went something like this:
She never calls, she never writes
She never thinks of me.
But her picture’s been hangin’ upon my wall
for a quarter of a century.
The day she left for someone else . . . “
Anyway, the idea of the song was she was going to leave Prince Ranier and we were going to settle down, the two of us, in a trailer park in Buffalo. I knew in my heart that that’s what she really wanted.
“There are or were a number of us in my age group who went to parochial school. Grace Kelly was always held up to as the ideal woman to look for. There were a lot of us walking around for years who carried this torch for Grace.
“I wrote that one day – it had nothing to do with what I do. But I think it’s the best song I ever wrote.”