Mark Russell combines lyric genius with daredevil delivery. He is, after all, the man who came up with the line - to the tune of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" - "Pardon me, boys, are you the cats who shot Ceausescu?"
In a telephone conversation Russell labeled his elaborate creations "corny doggerel" - but they're not easy to write."I love words, but writing parodies to songs is a tricky thing. You have to be careful about telegraphing your punch line. That's the common flaw. It's a time-honored craft. It's a throwback to the topical ballad. We've always had it. You want to surprise the audience and get the laugh, and it has to rhyme at the same time. It can be a challenge."
Russell, whose horn-rimmed glasses and middle-class mien make him look like everybody's favorite accountant, will perform in the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 18. Tickets are $15 and $35.
Despite his orthodox appearance, he'll not be doing anyone's tax return. Instead Russell takes his unique comedic grace and shock-of-recognition insights into the trenches of American politics. Using a star-covered grand piano as a vehicle, Russell tackles official pomposity and pinpoints the utterly outrageous with a wit as deft as a neurosurgeon's scalpel.
No newsmaker finds protection from Russell behind party affiliation, ideological credentials or high-profile PR agencies. All are exposed to his ingenious, elaborately rhymed and impeccably metered song parodies.
One, about the parades to honor the Persian Gulf war veterans, is done to the tune of "76 Trombones":He is confident that most people cannot predict the final rhyme in that verse, "and I haven't even mentioned Saddam Hussein's name."
Russell is also not interested in telegraphing his material for his Salt Lake appearance in advance. "If I tell you, you'll print it in the paper, people will read it and then stay home." But he got a lot of mileage during his last visit from Utah's pumps in the desert, and he remembers that "Ogden is the town where Brigham Young said, `This isn't the place!' "
As for the national scene, he's not likely to make many Quayle jokes, which he considers "a terrible cliche. The audience doesn't need me to make Quayle sound dumb." As far as the Bush administration goes, "There's something funny in the White House water - John Sununu drank it and thought he could fly."
He does plan on talking about a current problem in society called "political correctness." He calls it "a nasty thing. You get invited to a party and you get a checklist of the acceptable subjects. A friend of mine who does concerts was asked if he could do an all-black program. You've got college kids who are bigots who don't remember when civil rights was a great moral crusade."
Russell scoffs at the suggestion that his humor is more intellectual than some other comedians, yet admits that "the whole country is divided into two groups - the people who are curious and not curious. It takes people who read the op-ed pages, listen to public affairs shows, C-Span and all that. There you have knocked off the mass audience. There is a certain elitism about it."
Russell does not admit to having been born a political junkie - he just lives in Washington among the fingers-in-the-wind congressional veterans, the newspeak bureaucrats and sanctimonious reformers. And so he can't resist taking them on. But "it's part of the game. They cut each other up in the cloakrooms. You don't need a professional comedian to do it. You have a Washington beltway mentality in every city in the country. I get a lot of people who lived in Washington and they miss it even if they didn't like it that well. They miss that buzz."
Since his TV shows are aired on PBS, he is not well-known to everyone. Moreover, what he does is unique. "It's impractical. . . . You're not gonna get on all the talk shows or in Vegas. It's terribly limiting. But it's also very energizing, very rewarding. Once you're finally on that stage, after going through all the hassles with the airlines - it is on life's short list of physical pleasures."
Russell believes some things are entirely safe objects of ridicule, such as Congress, New York City, the Postal Service, potholes and Geraldo Rivera. Nevertheless, his work is not without controversy. Most people take the barbs gracefully. "People who watch PBS are a little more literate. They sometimes give me a scolding, but it's reasonable - as opposed to those who watch commercial stations. When they write you a letter they do it in crayon on a shirt board beginning `Dear Vomit.' "
Nevertheless, nothing and no one is off limits to Russell. "I never say never." In fact, sometimes real life is funnier than his material, and that presents a problem. For example, during the Iran-Contra investigations, a reporter asked President Reagan if William Casey, the director of the CIA, had carried on covert operations without the president knowing about it. President Reagan's exact response was, "Not to my knowledge."
Russell also recalls that back in 1940, famed humorist Charlie Chaplin got into trouble with a lot of people when he made the object of his ridicule none other than Adolph Hitler. "Today we would say that Chaplin was ahead of the curve, which is where a satirist belongs."
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., as Joseph Marcus Ruslander, Russell grew up admiring the comic talents of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. At a young age he began providing impromptu home musicales, displaying his combined gift for the keyboard and the smart aleck remark.
As a teenager he had his own orchestra and contemplated a career as a jazz musician. Following his discharge from the Marine Corps he got a job performing at a lounge in a small Maryland town. The editor of the Capitol Hill weekly, Roll Call, spotted him, and he was soon booked into the Carroll Arms Hotel on Capitol Hill during the final years of the Eisenhower presidency.
He had joined a new breed of comics - Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer - who were moving lounge comedy away from mother-in-law jokes and spiking it with edgy topicality. While Sen. Joe McCarthy self-destructed during the Eisenhower years, Russell forged a unique and savvy act.
In 1961, he became a regular at Washington's Shoreham Hotel and his act was so popular that he stayed for 20 years. He not only does TV specials for PBS but 130 concerts a year around the country. With such an intensive schedule will he ever burn out?
"If I do," he says wryly, "I hope it doesn't happen in Salt Lake City!"