They just took a poll, and the two most popular religions in America are now Hobby Lobby and the World Cup,” announced Mark Russell during a recent interview with Weekender, his familiar baritone still jovial and robust at 82 years old.
Before “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update,” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the public looked to the bowtie-clad singer/satirist Russell to poke fun at all things malfeasant and asinine in American politics. Russell’s popular PBS specials, fusing song parody and commentary, ran from 1974 to 2004.
Our relationship with politics in the 2010s is, of course, a completely different animal. With the news literally at our fingertips, one takes to Facebook and Twitter instantly with a comment or a quip about an event as it breaks. The social media age may look upon Russell’s comedy as a relic of a bygone era.
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The Buffalo, N.Y., native, former Marine and longtime Washington, D.C., resident remains abreast of the times and is busier than ever, his wit still sharp enough to cut through the pork.
Weekender: Do you recall the first political joke you ever heard, specifically humor that was critical of its subject?
Russell: My grandmother was of the World War I generation. She used to recite this famous poem about the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm: “Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France; Keiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”
W: As a pianist, who were your musical influences?
R: I liked jazz. Duke Ellington, Count Basie. Nat King Cole lead a great trio before they shoehorned him into crooning. My playing was never on par with that of a jazz pianist. I remember, however, going to shows where comedians and bands shared the bill. That was where my attraction of joining music and comedy developed.
W: How did you cultivate the live performances you’re known for?
R: In D.C., I was playing piano at the bar in Hotel Carroll-Arms. Most of the patrons were politicians and people of civic prominence, and I ad-libbed songs with lots of “insider” humor. The performances became popular, and I moved to a bigger venue — the Shoreham Hotel, where I played from 1959 to 1979. Those shows were geared more toward the general public; the material was broader. I taped my first PBS special in 1974.
W: Are any topics too taboo for your humor? Is there a certain degree of prudence or self-censorship you employ when crafting your show material?
R: Prudence is something you really shouldn’t worry about. If you practice self-censorship too frequently, you get bland. I’m a fan of Mark Twain, and Twain never censored himself. He had written material — satire on the Bible and so forth — that was so controversial, his publishers wouldn’t even release it years after he died.
I don’t believe there should be any topics that are off-limits. It’s all in the tact and angle you approach the subject matter with.
W: What are your predictions on three hot news stories: Will the Republicans reclaim the Senate in the midterm elections, who will run in the 2016 presidential elections, and will the Washington Redskins change their team name?
R: Yes to the GOP taking the senate. The 2016 GOP ticket will be Jeb Bush/Sarah Palin. The Dems will nominate Hilary Clinton. It really doesn’t matter who her VP candidate is, because her “running mate” will be Bill. The Redskins will change their name, though I’ve always found the “Washington” portion of the name to be more distasteful than “Redskins.”