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Comedian Mark Russell Is Back to Skewer Washington’s Power Elites

Posted on Feb 24, 2013
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By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law

Political satirist Mark Russell drapes a star-spangled banner across the side of his piano. His routine includes singing the part of a caricatured politician, while poking fun at the pageantry, cluelessness and downright idiocy. He calls himself a reporter, insisting that he’s not making the jokes—he’s just relaying them as ‘‘they masquerade the news.’‘

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Russell, 80, came out of retirement in August when he heard that a group of Republican congressmen had drunkenly gamboled—at least one of them in the nude—in the Sea of Galilee.

His quick re-emergence after two years off the stage reflects his attitude toward Washington: There are too many fools on the Hill and their stupidity needs a counterbalance.

Russell has served as that counterforce since the 1950s, doing PBS specials for 30 years and appearing regularly on ‘‘Meet the Press’’ for more than 15.

He jokingly says he has 535 writers—“100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.’’ But unlike Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have a stable of writers, Russell writes all his jokes himself. And he makes them look easy.


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‘’[The Russians] would argue the difference between communism and capitalism,’’ he told an older crowd Tuesday night at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. “ ‘In communism,’ they would say, ‘man exploits man. But with capitalism, it is the other way around.’ ”

Russell constantly freshens his routine with jokes from current news and fads. From Twitter, to secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel and gun control, his material keeps pace with contemporary culture. The downside, he says, is that his jokes have ‘‘a shelf life shorter than cottage cheese.’’

But the man himself is never stale. The jokes might expire, but Russell’s persistence does not. He publishes a list of new one- or two-liners on trending issues every week or so on his website.

‘‘That Justice Department memo indicates progress in the war against terrorists,’’ a post on his site reads about the U.S. drone operation. ‘‘Every time they kill an American—we kill an American.’‘

Another reads, ‘‘I will defend my Second Amendment right to use my musket to defend my Third Amendment right to never, ever allow a British soldier to live in my house.’’

Russell acts out many of these posts in his shows, singing or dramatizing each repartee with embellishment. ‘‘You got that, Obama?’’ he screams, pretending to hold a gun and standing at attention. ‘‘No British soldier is going to stay in my house, God damn it!”

Russell, who moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., as a kid, echoes a Norman Rockwell-type personality who finds himself at the epicenter of world politics. He is a simple, good-natured patriot. He is lighthearted, but sharp and honest. He stands among the powerful with the outsider’s voice of reason.

He is a Shakespearean fool in the nation’s capital. He wears a bright red blazer, both a tribute to the nation and a parody of patriotism. He takes the words of politicians and minces them with plays on words.

The last bit of Russell’s act at Ford’s Theatre, however, took on a more serious tone.

“I’m at the point where if I run into somebody who has two ears, two eyes, a nose and a mouth I back off,” he says. “Those are human beings. Don’t get me wrong—I love humanity, I love my neighbor ... but human beings as a class are responsible for all the tragedy and the suffering and the war and the mayhem and yet most of them claim to have been created by God.”

Russell also warns his audience not to listen to the pundits who spew their vitriol across the country.

“Do not let the evil influences of extremism rip this country asunder!” he says in a Southern preacher’s voice. “Do not let Mr. Rush Limbaugh sow the seeds a’ hatred in ya heart! Do not let Ms. Rachel Maddow make ya more narrow-minded than ya a’ready are! Do not let Ms. Ann Coulter make ya stop lovin’ your neighbor while lookin’ anorexic at the same time!”

Russell’s comedy is about exposing Washington’s illusion of virtue. He sifts through official statements, parses them and then restates them.

“I love this city as long as I’ve lived here,” he concludes. “I look out of the plane and see those shrines of democracy—the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument ... and you can go to the Capitol building, and you look up at the dome and what do you see? You see the statue of freedom! And she’s standing up there and she’s resolute and, yes, it is a she! And she’s wearing a helmet and she’s got a sword and a shield! She overshadows everything in Washington! Just look at her! Look at her!

“Oh, my God,” he says, pointing. “It’s Hillary!”

This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

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