Mark Russell Star-spangled satirist
Washington — 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."
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.)
The night we saw him at the Shoreham he came on fast, like an express train, with a rush of one-liners, patter, satire, savvy parodies sung at an upright piano. The laughs were so non-stop the audience couldn't catch its breath. There was a heckler in the crowd, as there sometimes is. But this one didn't want Russell to sing "Melancholy Baby"; he wanted to top him. Russell had just done a funny shtick on the primary returns from Illinois that night. An Irishman from Chicago with a pink face and red necktie yelled out, "The votes were counted yesterday!" Russell wheeled around and faced him, smiling. "No offense, sir, but you appear to be one of those who would know about that. . . ." It brought the house down. Even red necktie laughs. Russell is a fast man with an ad lib, the key to survival in a situation where a heckler can ruin a performance.
Russell, because of the political satire he does, gets a special kind of heckler. "Not too many people in the business get these except somebody like myself.[They] will challenge you on ideological grounds." (He does a quick takeoff on three badgering voices: "Well, the CIA, they're doing a thankless job , grrrrrrr," or "Wait a minute,m he's our President!" or "Why don't you say that over at the Russian Embassy, they'd appreciate it.") "Now that kind of person has all of a sudden turned the evening into a serious occasion. And you can't have a dialogue with him. It's not the press, it's a nightclub. . . ."
He started early as a performer. His manager, brother, and chum, Dan Ruskin, remembers the two of them started performing as kids at three or four. "There was a buzzer and a bell in our room," he remembers. At night when company came, their parents would ring the buzzer and bell, "and we'd go downstairs and sing and play and they'd applaud and we'd go back to bed. . . .There was no question from then that he [Mark] wanted to be a performer. That's all either of us ever wanted to be." Punishment, says Dan Ruskin, was going to bed without any applause.
The family name was Ruslander (both changed it for stage purposes) and both brothers remember growing up in a Buffalo, N.Y., household full of laughter and shared jokes, entertaining the audience at frequent family get-togethers with their father's two brothers. When Mark was 12 and Dan 8, they gave their first public performance: Their father put them on a boat to Detroit to visit an uncle and told the purser the boys would put on a free show.
At 14, Mark, who had been taking piano lessons for years, had formed Mark Ruslander's Orchestra which opened -- and closed -- at an Italian restaurant in Buffalo. He had wanted to be a jazz musician before he decided to be, in his own phrase, "a political cartoonist."
Although Mark Russell kids the rich and powerful, his own roots, he says, are middle to lower-middle class. His father started out as a salesman for Mobil Oil but switched to owning a gas station when he discovered his white-collar job was earning him less than the men he sold tires, batteries, and oil to. His mother always worked -- clerking in department stores, at one time running a candy counter in an office building. She later joined her husband in running a mom-and-pop grocery store when they left Buffalo to live in Florida briefly, after Mark's graduation from high school.
Florida was a wash, even with a brief stint in college for Mark. So the family settled in Washington, where after a year Mark decided to enroll at George Washington University, taking courses in journalism, psychology, and politics. He quit after a month, just in time to get his tuition back. Then he did what he'd always wanted to do, his brother says, since he was a kid: He joined the Marines.
"He's a very traditional guy," says Dan, who remembers that Mark's heroes as a boy were Abraham Lincoln (along with his biographer Stefan Lorant) and the US Marines. He collected all sorts of memorabilia on both subjects and followed every Marine battle in World War II, "fighting the war from a tabletop."
It was after his hitch in the Marines that Russell started at the Carroll Arms and then worked into a full-time job at the Shoreham as a comedian, piling up a PhD in politics with laughs. His brief bio reads: "education -- some. No heavyweight schools."
Russell's wit is dart-sharp and fast, so fast that audiences often aren't aware of the formidable political intelligence behind it. He plays down that sharply honed intellect, says he feels that his lack of formal education is sometimes a handicap. The fact that he knows more about politics than some of those Washington officials in his audience doesn't cut any ice with him.
"It's a gimmick, a gimmick," he says. "It's the seat of my pants. I'm faking it. . . . I'm not endowed with any great political insight. It's baloney."
There's a lot he thinks he could learn from a professor: "I don't know what John Locke said, or the one they're always studying in political science courses , de Toqueville, that's the one. . . ."
"I spend a lot of time on campuses now, see. And I walk around these places, I see the average bulletin board at a university and I want to attend everything: the chamber music, the poetry reading, the lectures -- I can understand how someone stays in college till he's 40 years old. It's a womb, you can just fold it around you. I hate to leave a campus."
He is quietly in the business of educating himself, reading history, biographies, listening to classical music and opera, especially Verdi. He has also just written his autobiography, tentatively titled, "Presenting Mark Russell: That Rare Wit Who Makes People and Politics Appearl To Be Even More Absurd Than Usual." It's scheduled for fall publication.
We are talking in the hotel room he maintains at the Shoreham: gold swag drapes, green rug, orange couch, a coffee table with a Cole Porter songbook on it. Russell himself is monochromatic, even in his casual clothes. He wears a gray sport shirt, gray flannel trousers, black socks, black tassel loafers. Even offstage, he is often quietly hilarious, dropping one-liners deadpan into the interview and at one point doing a spoof of himself handling a difficult heckler.
Some comedians who make their living with laughs are unexpectedly morose, essentially tragic, in their view of life offstage. That's not the case with Mark Russell, whose manner is low key, but quietly content and buoyant. He describes himself, with a droll smile as "keen, middle-aged and . . . nifty."
His wife, Allison, and his brother both speak of his innate kindness and gentleness. Dan Ruskin calls him "disciplined, spontaneously exuberant, conservative," and says "his greatest gift, outside his humor, is his memory. He remembers everything, can quote whole passages from state and city amendments , tell you what happened on such and such a day in 1946, never forgets a name." That talent helps Mark Russell do two separate, intricate, and different shows in one evening -- with the overlapping of only one minijoke between the early and late shows.
At a time when the news was more bizarre than fiction, columnist Art Buchwald described himself as simply a rewrite man for Page 1. Russell is on the record as saying that during Watergate he would "just rip and read it [his material] right off the ticker" of the wire services.
"Well my line was that after he [Nixon] resigned I had to go back to writing my own material." Does Russell think that at times of national anxiety people turn for relief toward humor?
"Well, nobody ever came up to me and said, 'We're at the Shoreham tonight because we're depressed and we're reaching out. . . .' I don't know, I suppose it's like all the great musicals that came out during the depression, the Busby Berkeley (movies) with the 120 white grand pianos in a sort of pyramid, all of that, and so nobody left their cold-water flats and walked down to the neighborhood theater and was offended by it. Nobody said, 'Look at all those white tuxedos and I'm here in this threadbare dress.' So I guess that's part of it.
"But the humor, the source, the easiest stuff to write is when you get a very clear-cut incongruity, like when the most pompous, arrogant member of Congress gets caught with a secretary behind the beaded curtain who can read 12 words a minute and she's getting $20,000 a year. That's wonderful!m It now becomes a cartoon in your mind, so it's easy to write about.
"What's not easy to write about is the Federal Reserve, not since Arthur Burns left. I was a veteran Arthur Burns watcher. . . . I wrote a bit about Arthur Burns as a challenge. The people from out of town didn't know who he was , but I didn't care, I got a kick out of doing it, and one day when Carter first came in he suggested very casually during a conversation in the hall with a couple of reporters that he might keep Arthur Burns. The next day the stock market went up 11 points, and they attributed it to the word around Washington that Arthur Burns was going to stay. So I thought if just a subtle hint like that would cause the market to go up 11 points, what would happen to the market if we had an all- out effort to make Arthur Burns a real folk hero, if we had Arthur Burns T-shirts and dolls, really put an effort into it, why we'd be in fat city for years!" He gives his barking laugh at the thought, a laugh that sounds as though it belonged to a Thurber dog.
Russell says the performers who've influenced him have been Mort Sahl and singing satirist Tom Lehrer; Russell's antic parodies of well-known songs, sung in a jaunty baritone at an upright piano, are reminiscent of Lehrer's. Russell's nuclear folk song, for instance, begins: "This uranium is your uranium , this uranium is my uranium, from California. . . ." Other performers he enjoys although "they don't do anything remotely connected with what I do," are Dick Shawn, Lily Tomlin, the English comedy duo Flanders and Swann, and radio's Gene Sheperd.
He is asked whether being a comedian is tough on a marriage or whether being able to laugh together gets a couple through some of the difficult times. "I don't think it makes any difference. I really don't. You can still have a lot of laughs but there has to be something deeper than that. For many years I had the kind of life you see on television where the guy is in show business and he's home every night, which is ideal. . . .I had a thing like that for 18 years. And the marriage didn't work out, so what can I tell you?" He has three children, two sons and a daughter, by that marriage. His second wife, Allison, is a former lobbyist for the American Trucking Association. She's a slight, quiet bruntte who's there with him between acts and on the road. She calls him "loyal, honest, intelligent, funny," a man who hates Brussels sprouts, loves the cello, and has a "cockeyed, very open, wonderful view of life."
For years Russell was content with his nest at the Shoreham, but recently the offers have come pouring in, unsolicited, in a sudden expansion of his career into TV, radio, print, and, says brother Dan, "I think he has a film or two in him." Russell says of himself back before he started to gain popularity, "I never had the imagination to think I could do it. It took years to build up that kind of confidence. It wasn't in my nature to say 'Yeah, I'm going to dom it!'" He mimics in a cheerleader's voice. "It was only in the last five years or so I said, 'I can do more than this!'"
Although he's becoming a television presence, Mr. Russell still prefers his audiences live. "Television is inhibiting. You're never completely relaxed out there. You stop and start and stand on the mark. I suppose if you take off from your other things and do TV every day for years without doing anything else , then you'd be relaxed. . . . But, conversely, I would be petrified the first time I went back to a live performance after doing it. It's just a different set of gears working. And you're slower. Television does not hold the brain. But the other stuff does. The other stuff is great training for television. But it doesn't work the other way around."