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Mark Russell Star-spangled satirist

By Louise SweeneyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 1980


For a moment, before he gets into the good stuff, Mark Russell might have been cloned from a Capitol Hill bureaucrat. The first impression is not show biz boffo. It is congressional. He might be the senator or congressman from Bad Axe, Mich., strolling out in a three-piece dark suit to introduce a bill in a resonant voice, a bill resolving that George Bush should be "retired to a home for the chronically preppy," or that the "Republican Party demand that John Anderson take a saliva test."

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His delivery is bipartisan: He suggests that Teddy Kennedy went back to his alma mater, Harvard, to deliver a talk and "for old times sake he's going to read the speech from his sleeve."

President Carter, Mr. Russell snorts, says that "if it weren't for Kennedy, the hostages would be out by now." He pauses. "If it weren't for the hostages, Carterm would be out by now!"

The crowd at the Shoreham Hotel roars. They love it. This is what they've come to hear: Mark Russell, the star-spangled satirist.

He is wearing his Washington image: a sedate dark gray suit, paler gray vest, white shirt, black and white pin-dot tie. "I am dressed in the basic IBM leisure suit," he tells the audience.

Now that Mark Russell has gone national as a humorist, with his own shows on public television, a regular slot on NBC's "Real People," a syndicated column, a daily spot on NBC radio, and an autobiography to be published next fall, the Washington image is still part of his success. It began when he first started out nearly two decades ago, doing a gig at a Capitol Hill club known as the Carroll Arms. It was frequented by congressmen, senators, and their staffs. He says the look was unconscious at first.

"Every once in a while someone would ask me who I worked for on the Hill. They thought I was some guy who got up at the piano for a lark.They thought I looked like somebody's administrative assistant. I did when I was younger. Now I suppose I look like a senator or congressman."

He might have stepped from a still photo in a piece of campaign literature, with his quiet tailoring, well-barbered head of glossy dark hair with its distinguished touches of gray. And there is the glint of seriousness in brown eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. The voice, a rich, deep baritone with a ringing, exhortative quality, sounds as though it might lead a filibuster at the hint of vote. It is doubly funny, then, when he socks it to Congress or John Connally ("His slogan: Peace Through Height") or the FBI or the Chief Justice of the United States, whom he refers to as "Burger Chief."

Recently, says Russell, he's worked a little bit at maintaining the Washington image, which started unconsciously. "I've resisted the open collar which is mandatory. I'm the only guy left with a coat and tie [in show business ], I really am. People are showing up on talk shows, now, who just a few years ago were the last holdouts. . . . So I do that. I keep the Washington look, if there is such a thing, the rest of the country's image of our drab three-piece look."

Russell has become an institution in Washington in the 18 years he's been resident wit at the Shoreham. "This hotel," he tells the audience solemnly, "was never new." Washingtonians love him and drop in regularly for his insider's jokes; visiting celebrities stop by, as actor Robert Vaughn did one Tuesday night. Sightseers try to visit the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and one of Russell's two nightly shows when he's in town. (He's in sharp demand now for nightclub shows and hotel gigs across the country, as well as for college appearances.)