Remembering Mark Russell
by Jeff Baker
Mark Russell, America’s foremost political satirist, has died at the age of 90. His live comedy specials were fixtures of PBS from the Ford to G. W. Bush administrations. His live performances in Washington D.C. made him a fixture of the political scene with many of the political figures he skewered in the audience.
Several commentators, noting Russell’s fifty year career as a performer said that Russell represented an era of civility in politics that has seemingly vanished. Because Russell’s satire, while incisive, was never mean-spirited. And his satire was up-to-the-minute topical.
In his TV special following the 9/11 and anthrax attacks he told the live audience: “Welcome to the Mark Russell Comedy Special, brought to you by Cipro.”
Russell was as well-known for his topical song parodies as anything and they were masterpieces of lyric and of satiric commentary. To the tune of the famous Willie Nelson song, Russell wrote the spoof “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Consultants” that included the lines:
“Consultin’ ain’t easy
The life’s kinda sleazy
And sometimes he rides into town
He coulda gone straighter
Four martinis later
He’s shakin’ a bureaucrat down.”
I saw Russell perform live several times, and heard him deliver one of my favorite lines. Commenting that he’d been traveling through the Midwest and seen a headline that read “Supreme Court Considers Homosexuality,” Russell quipped: “All nine of them?!”
I met him once after he did a show here in Wichita and got his autograph on his book of comedic essays. I patterned my own topical comedy act during my brief performing career after his own. I was no Mark Russell.
Decades later when I’d become a writer I submitted a song I’d written “on speculation” (as we writers say.) Russell e-mailed me back, saying he had recently retired.
His e-mail compliment on the song, a compliment from one of my comedy heroes, meant more to me than anything else ever could.
To paraphrase what Russell used to tell his audiences as the show ended: “Thank you very much, Mark.”