Mark Russell Was the Jon Stewart of a Simpler Time
Political satirist Mark Russell passed away yesterday at age 90, a name that might evoke hazy memories of PBS pledge drives from somewhere in your television past. But in his day, Russell and his piano-playing parodies boldly took on the idiocy of Washington D.C. and the morons who made a living there. He was the Jon Stewart (with a dash of Weird Al) of a simpler time.
Russell looked like a Senator himself, or at least a Civics professor (which in some ways, he was). For 30 years on his PBS comedy specials, he’d show up in a suit and bowtie before taking to his star-spangled piano to gently rip our national government a new one. Did he have a large writing staff? “Oh, yes,” he’d say. “100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.”
Like Stewart, Russell professed to poke both sides of the aisle, striving to be “as balanced as is humanly possible, without prostituting myself.” And like Weird Al, he rewrote the lyrics of popular songs to get the job done. As The New York Times remembers, Russell “sang ‘Bail to the Chief’ for Richard M. Nixon, urged George H.W. Bush to retire ‘to a home for the chronically preppy,’ (and) likened Jimmy Carter’s plan to streamline government to ‘putting racing stripes on an arthritic camel.’” Well into his eighties, he was still making up ditties about Trump and Clinton.
It says something about the lasting legacy of Russell that he himself was parodied by comedy tastemakers through the decades, from Bill McNeal shamelessly ripping off Russell’s act on NewsRadio …
To Bart plugging his ears to “The Deficit Rag” on The Simpsons …
To Mark McKinney’s dead-on impersonation on Saturday Night Live.
Trying to satirize both liberals and conservatives meant that some critics found Russell’s comedy to be too safe, but not everyone agrees. “Mark Russell was a DC institution who did the hardest thing a comic can do,” declares his comedy ancestor Jon Stewart. “Relentlessly and righteously mock his neighbors.”