Political satirist Mark Russell, who has said that performing is "on life's short list of physical pleasures," proved during his Salt Lake performance that he is a master of the Jack Benny tradition - and the predominantly gray occupants of the $35 seats in the front rows proved their devotion by applauding and laughing with gusto.
Russell stepped immediately into stride with his specially written Utah material. Remembering meeting a Utah woman in his Washington audience years ago, he asked incredulously, "You mean that you get my show way out in Provo, Utah?" She said, "We see it, but we don't get it."Moving quickly into the Olympics, he said that Utahns were innocent victims of injustice because "we bomb Hiroshima and they bomb Salt Lake City. I saw Senator Jake Garn this afternoon picketing the Benihana Restaurant." Russell assured his listeners that all the work for 1998 was "not to no avail because in that year the Southern Baptists are coming to town. In 1998 you can put up a sign saying `Welcome Baptist bobsledders"'
So when the Olympic Committee went to Nagano, Japan, and said `This is the place' they changed the course of local history. Russell said that was just fine because the Olympics draw a certain unsavory crowd - and "you don't want that. You don't want a Los Angeles. You don't want a San Francisco. You don't want an Ogden!"
Russell wondered how different that "infamous Kennedy Easter weekend would have been if it had been spent in Salt Lake City. Senator Orrin Hatch would have taken them out carousing, singing hymns and chug-a-lugging malted milk shakes until 9 o'clock at night."
His first parody of the evening to the accompaniment of the Steinway: "When the Games went to Nagano, we accepted it with a frown. When we get cold fusion, expect a water bomb. When 1998 rolls around, global warming's right on cue. When your snow melts in your plumbing, we've got the pumps to sell to you."
On the national scene, Russell demonstrated his up-to-date style by touting former president Zach-ary Taylor as one of the greatest of all political comebacks, and claimed that the "Democrats are taking a good, close look at him."
Then Russell suggested that the Democrats solve their candidate problem "by picking Ted - he's not perfect - Koppel."
Noting the last Nixon tapes to be released, Russell promised his audience they could get them "by sending $12.95 to `Kick-a-dead-horse Cassettes' and allow 18 and one-half minutes for delivery." Asserting that younger people often do not understand Watergate, he tried to explain it by saying that "a bunch of Nixon underlings broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee - and discovered Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra."
Showing real life can be funnier than comedy, Russell recalled a recent Nixon statement that he would "have recommended that the CIA assassinate Saddam Hussein, if the CIA did that sort of thing - assuming that it ever did."
During the evening Russell did his trademark parodies several times, taking on the Persian Gulf war parades, Congress, taxation and the recent claims that Reagan and Bush put off the freeing of the Iranian hostages in 1980 until after the election. He also singled out two oxymorons - the Reagan memoirs and Senate ethics.
But politics was not his only object of satire - he jabbed the Irish, gays, the drug culture, the National Rifle Association and the Association of Retired Persons - and got the fewest laughs on all those topics - proving they were sensitive in Utah. But he also took on the Mormons, the Catholics ("both of you") the Episcopalians and the Unitarians - with uproarious results.
As he approached the end of his rapid-fire delivery, he recounted the advice he frequently gives to graduates, "Be just like your parents - get in the wrong field and stay there." He waxed sentimental, saying that he was on a "historic campus - the world said, `What the hell is cold fusion? You can't get a cold beer in that place!"
"What can we do to get our sons and daughters to do better scholastically? Adopt more Asian children! If they go into law and become A students, they have the hope of becoming corporate attorneys - if they get Cs they can be judges - and if they get Ds they can become Vice President of the United States!"
In an hour and 40 minutes of vintage stuff, Russell retained complete composure. With manic gesturing and flawless timing, he covered a gamut of topics at breakneck pace, always keeping a sensitive ear to the audience, testing new topics on them and racing with them if it went well, backing off it didn't. His unique style of intellectual humor was received gratefully by the almost full house - even when it was directed at them.