No sacred cows: All's fair in Mark Russell's war on political pomposity
BEACON-NEWS - Nov 10, 1994 Section: NIGHT & DAY, page: D4
Mark Russell goes for the jugular.
His razor-sharp wit carves out satire known to slash any or all of
America's politicians, leaders, institutions or social anomalies.
But Russell, America's political song-and-dance man, said he hunts for
prey to please his audience.
"They want the red meat, big slabs of meat," Russell said.
Those big slabs include issues of the day from health care to the health of
the economy, from supreme politicians like Ted Kennedy, Oliver North and
Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court. It is ironic that as Russell prepares
for his 8 p.m. Saturday appearance at the Paramount Arts Center in Aurora --
his last before the mid-term national election Nov. 8 -- he said the rest of
the country does not see Illinois as one of those big slabs of meat.
"Illinois is a major state, but for some reason the governor's race isn't
playing nationally like the ones in Florida, New York and California," he
said. "One reason might be that this year's one of the most fun-packed,
mid-term elections in years. You have North and (U.S. Sen. Charles) Robb in
Virginia, and the race in New York, where a Republican mayor endorsed a
Democratic governor. Maybe Daley should endorse Edgar."
Actually, Russell said it could be the personalities of Gov. Jim Edgar and
challenger Dawn Clark Netsch.
"I was in Illinois for the primary and I got to see this thing with Dawn
Clark Netsch and the pool cue," he said. "I thought she might be Minnesota
Fats' grandmother. Well, she doesn't look like a Dawn; she looks more
like a Gertrude."
Barbs at politicians have been Russell's mainstay since the late 1950s,
when he became the featured lounge act in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington,
D.C. He did his show of stand-up comedy sprinkled with song parodies
on-and-off there for 35 years.
Russell's popularity grew in almost cult-like fashion. The nation's most
influential politicos and leaders were often seen in the audience at the
Shoreham, listening to Russell's amazing ability to go through the day's
newspaper and have an updated show each night. Eventually, he was asked to
do television appearances, culminating in his long-time relationship with
the Public Broadcasting System.
He still does periodic specials for PBS, featuring a half-hour of his
schtick in front of a live, studio audience. His next special is scheduled
for shortly after the election.
It has worked out well for the 61-year-old Russell, who first played the
piano for money when he was 14, on New Year's Eve 1947 at an Italian
restaurant in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
"I'll keep doing it until I die or the audiences die," Russell said.
Russell, who spoke from a hotel in Atlanta, spends a lot of time on the
road, doing shows like his Paramount appearance Saturday. He prefers the
longer, live shows to television.
"It makes all the difference in the world," he said. "It's three times as
long, it's more relaxed, more free-wheeling. I can't think of a performer
who is better on television than in person."
He no longer performs regularly in the nation's capital, but still makes
his home there. While he likes the road, he admits he begins to feel funny
"if I get outside the Beltway for too long." He said his Buffalo roots and
transplantation to Washington have caused him trouble only once: during the
"It was difficult to root for Buffalo and the Redskins at the same time,"
he said. "The only way I could do it was to sing Hail to the Redskins in
Along with Russell's ability to stay current is his willingness to be
local. He hinted that Aurora's connection to riverboat gambling may get a
bit of lampooning Saturday night.
There are no sacred cows in Mark Russell's world.
"I do jokes about what's funny, and both sides are funny," he said. "If
the audience doesn't like it, usually they're just silent. But they've
never all walked out at once."