Mark Russell, political satirist who delivered jokes at a piano, dies at 90
March 31, 2023 Updated Fri., March 31, 2023 at 12:29 p.m.
Longtime political humorist Mark Russell, the wise-cracking piano player who skewered Washington’s elite with pithy one-liners and upbeat tunes, has died. He was 90.
The irreverent satirist died Thursday at home in Washington, D.C., of complications from prostate cancer, his wife, Alison Russell, told the Washington Post.
Russell, a master of political satire with a rapier wit, 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 songs at the piano and also talk,” he previously told The Times. “If (people) were just tuning in (to my shows) for the first time and they had no idea who I was, there’s a good chance that they would only like half the show, because I’m an equal opportunity offender.”
That equal-opportunity offending was “basically cowardice,” the affable comic quipped.
Wearing his dark-rimmed glasses and a bow tie, Russell had been a familiar face in the capital since the end of the Eisenhower administration, but he catapulted to the national stage with his first PBS special in 1975. He also wrote a syndicated newspaper column and considered himself to be “a political cartoonist for the blind.”
The bespectacled entertainer grew up in Buffalo, New York, in the 1940s and ‘50s. He drew inspiration from radio comics Jack Benny and the acerbic Fred Allen, but idolized his uncle — a band singer with the staff orchestra on a local radio station and the only person in the family who had been an entertainer.
He began taking piano lessons at age 7 and scored his first professional gig at 14, earning $10 playing piano with a bass player and a guitarist at an Italian restaurant on New Year’s Eve. “We knew 10 songs and kept playing the same songs over and over,” he told The Times in 1991.
He served in the Marines in the early 1950s as a radio operator stationed in Japan and Hawaii. Then he worked briefly in his father’s gas station in Virginia where his family moved shortly after he graduated from high school.
Russell said he had no career goals then, but wanted “to be in entertainment of some kind.” He described his musicianship as too much of an embarrassment to be a serious jazz pianist, but said he “put those three chords that I know to pretty good use.”
He joked that he became a political satirist because he “was living in Washington and it was just the expedient thing to do.”
“If I lived in Detroit, I would talk about the auto business. The politicians were given such great respect everywhere, such reverence, and I came at them from a different perspective,” he said in a separate Times interview.
In the late ‘50s he was hired to perform in the bar at the Carroll Arms Hotel, which he described as a smoke-filled political hangout on Capitol Hill frequented by senators, congressmen and lobbyists.
“I was hired just as a piano player and whatever else I could do,” he said. “I told jokes and did other people’s material, but I couldn’t get their attention until I started talking about what they did in politics.”
He usually acknowledged the heavyweights in attendance, figuring if they showed up they wouldn’t mind being made fun of, and eventually being stung by one of his barbs became a badge of honor, with many politicos appropriating his material themselves.
“Washington is a hotbed of joke thievery,” Russell told The Times. “My daughter heard some politician make a speech the other day and she said there were three of my lines in it.”
He made a career-boosting move to the Shoreham in 1961, which was “the biggest, fanciest hotel in Washington” at the time and worked as its resident comedian for 20 years. He also appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Dean Martin Comedy World Series” and in a series of “Match Game” episodes in the 1970s and 1980s. By then, he had taken his show on the road, performing at public and corporate events across the nation. He eventually played all 50 states — hitting North Dakota last in 1991 — and wrote funny stories and observations about each one that he compiled into a book.
“Last week I hit my 50th state,” he told The Times in 1991. “North Dakota held out for some reason all these years. I kept dropping hints on talk shows and things. I thought maybe nobody invited me because they didn’t have public television, but then I thought about it for a while; maybe they do have public television.”
Russell was hired by and lampooned both Democrats and Republicans, tilting his humor “toward whoever’s in power” and supposing that “it will even out on Judgment Day.”
“It’s strange. It shows I have no scruples. It’s what’s known as the spineless middle ground,” he joked.
In addition to his wife, Russell is survived by three children from his first marriage — Monica Welch, John Russell and Matthew Russell of Tucson — a brother, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, according to the Post.
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