Mark Russell, a longtime political humorist and pianist who skewered Washington’s elite with witty one-liners and upbeat music has passed away. He Was 90.
Thursday at his home in Washington, D.C., the irreverent satirist died of complications from prostate cancer, his wife Alison Russell told the Washington Post.
Russell, A Master Of Political Satire With A Razor-Sharp Sense Of Humor, Was Best Known For His “mark Russell Comedy Specials” That Aired On PBS From 1975 To 2004 And For Dispensing Nonpartisan Humor — Set To Music Behind A Flag-draped Piano.
“I sing and converse while playing the piano,” he previously told the Times. “because I am an equal-opportunity offender, there is a good chance that [people] would only enjoy half of my show if they were tuning in for the first time without knowing who I was.”
This Equal-opportunity Offense Was “basically Cowardice,” quipped the humorous character.
Russell, sporting dark-rimmed glasses and a bow tie, had been a familiar face in the nation’s capital since the end of the Eisenhower administration, but his first PBS special in 1975 catapulted him onto the national stage. In addition to penning a syndicated newspaper column, he considered himself a “political cartoonist for the blind.”
The Entertainer Grew Up In Buffalo, New York, During The 1940s And 1950s. He was influenced by radio comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Still, he idolized his uncle, a band singer with the staff orchestra of a local radio station and the only entertainer in his family.
Russell began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. He landed his first professional gig at fourteen, earning $10 on New Year’s Eve playing piano with a bassist and a guitarist at an Italian restaurant. In 1991, he told the Times, “we knew ten songs and kept playing the same songs repeatedly.”
In the early 1950s, he served in the Marines as a radio operator stationed in Japan and Hawaii. Then, he briefly worked at his father’s gas station in Virginia, where his family had relocated shortly after his high school graduation.
Russell stated he had no career goals then but desired “to be in entertainment in some capacity.” He said his musical ability was too embarrassing to be a severe jazz pianist, but he “put those three chords I know to good use.”
He joked that he became a political satirist because he was living in Washington, D.C., and it was the most practical thing for him to do.
“If I Lived In Detroit, I Would Discuss The Automobile Industry. I Approached Politicians From A Distinctive Angle, He Said In A Separate Interview With The Times.
In the late 1950s, he was hired to perform in the bar of the Carroll Arms Hotel, which he described as a smoke-filled Capitol Hill hangout frequented by senators, members of Congress, and lobbyists.
“I Was Just Hired As A Pianist, And Anything Else I Could Do,” he said. “I Told Jokes And Performed Other People’s Material, But I Couldn’t Get Their Attention Until I Started Discussing Their Political Activities.”
He usually acknowledged the heavyweights in attendance, reasoning that if they were there, they wouldn’t mind being ridiculed. Eventually, being stung by one of his barbs became a badge of honor, with many politicians appropriating his material.
“Washington is a joke thievery hotbed,” Russell told the Times. My daughter recently heard a politician give a speech, and she informed me that three of my lines were in it.
In 1961, he made a career-enhancing move to The Shoreham, “the largest and most opulent hotel in Washington,” where he worked as a resident comedian for 20 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, he also appeared on “the Merv Griffin Show,” “the Dean Martin Comedy World Series,” and several “match Game” episodes. By then, he had taken his show nationwide, performing at public and corporate events. He eventually played in all fifty states, the last being North Dakota in 1991, and compiled humorous anecdotes and observations about each one into a book.
“I visited my 50th state last week,” he told the Times in 1991. “north Dakota Resisted For Some Reason Throughout All These Years. I Kept Dropping Clues On Talk Shows And Other Occasions. I Initially Assumed Nobody Invited Me Because They Didn’t Have Public Television, But Upon Further Reflection, Perhaps They Do Have Public Television.”
Russell was hired by and lampooned Democrats and Republicans, directing his humor “toward whoever is in power” and assuming that “everything will even out on the day of judgment.”
“It’s Strange. It indicates that I lack scruples. It is the so-called soft middle ground,” he joked.
According To The Post, in addition to his wife, Russell is survived by three children from his first marriage — Monica Welch, John Russell, and Matthew Russell of Tucson — as well as a brother, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
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