“When I retired, I was telling people that I would dedicate the rest of my life to being an amusing dinner guest. The problem with that was, when I would start to say something, at that moment the waiter would arrive with the list of specials.”
I had begun my conversation with Mark Russell by asking him about his retirement. In 2010, after a decades-long career during which he had become something of a Washington institution, Russell announced its end. Then, a couple of years of traveling and reading later, he found himself pulled back toward the stage. He described what triggered this return on his website (markrussell.net):
“Fifty years ago I promised myself that I would retire on the day that I would be required to write a song about trans-vaginal ultrasounds. I decided to unretire when I heard that a member of Congress had been cavorting in the Sea of Galilee. How can you make that up?”
“That’s why I never wanted to be an actor, to be in a play,” Russell continued, further describing his unwillingness to compete for attention with a server. “The idea of waiting around for my turn to talk was not something I wanted to do.” Reframing his short-lived retirement as “a two-year sabbatical,” he indicated that he has never stopped writing and performing, but that he found it less than fully satisfying to “write songs and do them for four people in a living room.”
So…he’s baaack! On Monday, February 16th at 7 p.m. at Ford’s Theatre, he’s bringing his distinctive brand of topical political humor and witty ditties to his home town. It can’t be a coincidence that the show plays on Presidents’ Day.
Although the Ford’s gig is one-night-only, Russell has been testing his act on the road. “I was quite busy in the Fall. In the month of January, I was all over the place, playing similar-sized theaters [compared to Ford’s] around the country. I begin with a local reference, which is a lot of fun.”
At Ford’s, the local reference will be delivered in song, what he called his “Washington, D.C. song.” That part of the act will be unveiled Monday night. “I try not to dwell on the irony of doing irreverent satire in Ford’s Theatre, of all places. It’s like opening up a comedy club in the Texas Schoolbook Depository.
“I’ll start out with the most topical things,” Russell said and then quoted from a song he’ll be doing, the full lyric of which is also on his website:
“Who pulled the trigger and shot bin Laden? Brian Williams, that’s who.
Who parachuted from the Asia Airline’s plane? Brian Williams, it’s true.
When John McCain crash landed in Hanoi, Who was his copilot? Brian, our boy.
Soon to be host of “Good Morning, Troy”.
Lyin’ Brian — oy!”
Russell copped to a frustration that there are currently “so many extremely sensitive, touchy, controversial subjects, so many of them that I need to double up on them.” As an example, he will begin one joke: “Bill Cosby and the Prophet Muhammad go into a bar.” Russell was in Arizona around the time the Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred and he tested the bit. “I thought, ‘I’ll try this out. If they gasp…’ But I didn’t have to finish the joke, [just the setup] got such a big laugh. I got the subject out of the way without risking any mortal danger myself.”
Russell had been comfortably ensconced at the Shoreham Hotel in Woodley Park throughout most of the 60s and into the 70s when things changed dramatically, for the country as well as for him. As everyone will remember, an apartment/office complex on the Potomac River, next to the Kennedy Center, became a code-name for scandal, and the city became enmeshed in a stranger-than-fiction saga that would end with the unprecedented resignation of a U.S. President.
When I asked Russell about Watergate and the effect it had on his career, he quipped, “Are you asking if I sent a check to G. Gordon Liddy, maybe a case of wine? Yeah, in personal terms, that was the thing that got me going. I would go to New York and audition for The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, but I got nowhere with it. When Watergate happened, suddenly the networks were coming to me. I was the only guy in town doing political satire. They would cover the hearings and I’d give them a sidebar. They’d interview me at the Shoreham. Without auditioning or trying, I was on the news with Walter Cronkite. When I try too hard to get something, it doesn’t work. When I can help them, I get a shot.”
I asked Russell if he had ever pushed the envelope too far and paid a price for it. “Being on an Enemies List would be wonderful. I could have doubled my fee, tripled it. No, unfortunately, that never happened. Sometimes someone who worked for a person I was lampooning would feel duty-bound to defend the boss.”
Looking back, Russell seemed slightly bothered at being perceived as soft on his subjects, while at the same time being satisfied with what he does and how he does it. “These days, never being in trouble, never being threatened is not something you can be proud of. I’d rather someone say I was offensive or unfair than too easy on them. I suppose a case could be made that I was too easy on them. That’s always been a factor. People would say, ‘He’s been on TV, on PBS so long because he’s not snarky.’ But I’ve stopped worrying. I’m in extra innings in life. I don’t care.”
“Snarky” was a word I had introduced, when I said that my mother, after I told her that I would be talking to Russell, spoke appreciatively about what distinguishes Russell from the more abrasive, more partisan of political satirists: “He never was snarky,” she said. Russell feigned outrage: “That’s very offensive! She’s just insulted me!”
“Today you can be,” Russell continued, and he talked about Bill Maher’s being dropped by ABC after his controversial remarks asserting that the 9-11 terrorists could not be described as cowards; Maher was subsequently picked up by HBO. “He survived that. Snark…irreverence…the fans love it, HBO loves it. There you have it.” But after saying that, these days, “To be bipartisan is not the way to go,” he cited Tom Lehrer, whose heyday was the 60s and who has said that, for a satirist to be balanced, to say on the other hand — “you get nowhere with that.”
Interestingly, we spoke on a day when, later, Jon Stewart would announce that he was leaving The Daily Show. “The busiest person on The Daily Show is the guy who operates the bleep button. He must have callouses on his fingers. But Stewart’s the gold standard now. I’m a little tired of Stewart, with his mugging and his histrionics, but he keeps hiring wonderful people.” He mentioned in particular Samantha Bee. Another Stewart hire has just taken over the slot that follows The Daily Show, after Stephen Colbert left it to replace David Letterman: “Larry Wilmore…I don’t know. I’m still trying to make up my mind.”
He compared this explosion of politically oriented comedy to his heyday, when, “in print, Art Buchwald was at his peak. The Capitol Steps were still in eighth grade. I was the only one doing that kind of comedy on a nightly basis at the time.”
I asked about his relationship with Buchwald, and whether he had enjoyed a sort of friendly rivalry with the late Washington Post columnist, who would have been covering the same material at the same time with the same satirical eye. “There was no rivalry. He was very gracious. I wrote one book and his wife Ann [McGarry] was my literary agent. I knew them both. I had tremendous support from both of them.”
Continuing his fond memories of Buchwald, Russell told me that “I have a tribute in my show, my own Mount Rushmore.” In addition to Buchwald, “There’s Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer.” He then quoted Lehrer again: “Satire died the day they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger.”
I had intended to ask Russell about Sahl. A picture of the two is among the half-dozen or so on his website. I remember when Sahl came to D.C. and did a politically oriented call-in show in the early eighties. His disdain for the town was palpable. Acknowledging that, Russell drew a comparison between himself and Sahl.
One Night Only! Presidents’ Day
Monday, February 16, 2015, at 7 pm
511 Tenth St NW
Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $49 – $62
Tickets or call 202-347-4833
“I came here as a kid with my parents, so that’s different. Most people I know arrive here with jobs: journalists, Hill staffers. With Mort, he was at a sort of low point in his career. He had lost a lot of jobs because he spent so much time trying to undo the Warren Commission. It was an obsession of his. He would work clubs like The Cellar Door and bring out all sixteen volumes. It looked like the Encyclopedia Britanica. They offered him a daily show on WRC, the local NBC radio station, so he arrived and he immediately started taking off after the CIA, feminists.”
Russell then described Sahl’s first radio joke, involving a doctor who arrives at the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon, announces that he has found a cure for Muscular Dystrophy, and Jerry shoots him. Sahl played a gig at Russell’s home base, the Shoreham, the day Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as Vice President. “‘Huh, Jerry Ford. He was on the Warren Commission.’ That’s how he opened the show. We got to be friends. We talk a couple of times a year. I heard a year ago that he was teaching at a college in California: a course on the Kennedy assassination.”
So whose exit from the national stage did Russell most regret? “Nixon, obviously. I said that I’d have to start writing my own material when he resigned. I’m starting to miss Sarah Palin. I wish she was doing better.” Russell tweaked Palin for the high speech fees she charges: “Freedom isn’t free, and neither am I.”
“They come and go,” he observed. “I wish Ted Cruz was doing better, but he’s in single digits.” These observations were accompanied by a devilish chuckle, tinged with an awareness that what is good for his act may not always be what is best for the country.
This was balanced, though, by his talking about the political figures he misses “for different reasons. True friends, witty people, like Alan Simpson and Mo Udall.” About Simpson, the former Wyoming Senator, he said, “The Republicans need someone like Simpson to blow the whistle these days.” (My personal favorite quote from reliably witty Udall, the former Arizona Congressman and failed Presidential candidate, is his response, when asked midway through, where things stood at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Everything’s been said but not everyone has said it.”)
Russell then returned to a theme he had touched earlier: “I was friendly with a lot of these guys. It made it easy for people to say I was too easy on them. It’s true, I guess.”
Russell told me about how, when he travels, he meets D.C. ex-pats who tell him how much they miss the town. “It’s usually the wife who’s missing it; the husband doesn’t. She misses the cultural atmosphere.”
There’s another recurrent post-show interlocutor. “Often it’s a man in his 40s, or older, who tells me, ‘My father made me watch your show.’ There’s always somebody like that. My wife is with me, and she’ll ask, ‘Have you run into that guy yet?’ We call him ‘that guy.’ And that guy’s always there. Maybe it’s the same guy, I don’t know.”
We ended our chat by talking about how the city has changed, in the eyes of one of us few indigenous (more or less) Washingtonians. Russell began by talking about H St. N.E. and how the streetcar tracks are being laid down where they had been previously pulled up, and how that part of town had been a cool destination when he was young, then had become “the worst crime area, and it’s so trendy now…wow.”
There was a place in Georgetown called Georgetown Wine and Cheese that was “the only place between New York City and Miami where you could get a good bottle of wine and imported cheese.” Russell imagined that a Soviet citizen would have come to a Safeway or Giant in D.C. in the 60s and returned to the other side of the Iron Curtain saying, “Screw this!”
In D.C. in those days, “nobody drank wine with a meal. The old Southern thing was Bourbon and branch water.” When the Democrats held their convention in L.A. in 1960, nominating Kennedy, “the reporters were out there, and they discovered the margarita.” And around then, he told me, is when they started stocking good wine in Georgetown, a benefit, I guess, of Kennedy’s new frontier. “But it’s funny about the streetcars. You can still see the tracks on M St.”
We ended with him remembering and asking about my mother. I told him that my parents are still in Bethesda, and he asked me to pass along to my mom his thanks, and his regards.