Meadville Tribune

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March 1, 2013

Longtime satirist Russell to perform at Baldwin-Reynolds anniversary event

MEADVILLE — Mark Russell, a political satirist who retired in 2010 after more than 50 years of poking fun at politicians, has returned to the comedy circuit and will be making a stop in Meadville as part of the celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the operation of the Baldwin-Reynolds House.

“I quit a couple of years ago,” Russell said in a telephone interview in advance of his upcoming trip to Meadville. “Then I realized the material is still there.”

Russell said he tried to work his comedy into dinner conversations, but “the waiter would show up with the menu,” he laughed. “It’s better on stage and not have outside distractions by other things.”

He’s been back on the circuit for about six months, citing that “it’s a lot of fun.”

Russell is no stranger to the Meadville area, noting it is “the home of Ida Tarbell (who lived in Titusville) and the late, great Joe Boughton, who ran the jazz festivals,” referring to Meadville resident Boughton who was involved with the annual festival in Conneaut Lake prior to its move to Chautauqua Lake.

Russell is well known for not only his jokes about the political world but composing humorous songs to well-known tunes to poke fun at somebody or something involved with the political world. There is one drawback to his live shows. He can’t make the material up too far in advance.

“A joke that may be a 10 (on a point scale of one to 10) on Monday may be down to a 2 by Friday.”

He opens each show with “a local reference” about something happening in the area. He gets most of his information first from the “printed media,” noting often the TV shows — particularly the cable shows — reports are something that had been in the Washington Post the day before.

“The print, you are my heroes,” he said. “I salute the newspapers. I think it’s terrible what is going on (in the newspaper business),” he said referring to the loss of many newspapers in the nation.

Looking back, he recalled one of his first shows was poking fun at President John F. Kennedy, whose father Joseph Kennedy said he would contribute to Kennedy’s campaign with money, but added, “I’m not going to pay for a landslide.” Russell took the issue to his show, penning a song to the tune of “Swing Long, Swing Chariot,” and recalled singing, “Swing Long, John Kennedy. Your daddy’s coming to carry you home.”

Russell started his career playing piano at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., where many of the people he poked fun at often came to see him. He played there for decades. He became friends with some of the people he used in his show, including Sen. Alan Simpson. He said the late Hugh Scott, a senator from Pennsylvania, was a “great linguist,” noting he was great orator.

“These were the Republicans,” Russell said. “There aren’t a lot of them left that eat with a knife and fork.”

Asked if he ever had repercussions from those he made fun of, he recalled the late Sen. George McGovern, who ran for president in 1972. He made light of McGovern’s followers, mostly minorities — “gays, lesbians, albinos, Czechs, etc., etc.,” he said, adding that many were “hippies and rabble rousers.” After the performance, Russell “got a note from McGovern saying ‘at least they aren’t all in jail.’”

The public officials who often were the butt of his jokes usually took in all in stride.

“They usually slapped me on the back,” he said. Those officials continued to say, “We need you and all this stuff.”

His show is designed to be entertaining.

“Both Democrats and Republicans believe the other side doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Russell said. “They are both wrong. They both do (have a sense of humor).”

He said it’s ironic that the most popular people on radio and TV today are one sided. “Jon Stewart is a liberal,” he said, adding that Stephen Colbert “pretends to be a conservative,” but Russell said Colbert’s character is all an act.

Russell’s act is designed to entertain — not to be serious. He said if people don’t laugh at things, life could be overwhelming.

“We laugh at ourselves in America,” he said. “It’s a nice leveler. ... You have to have satire.”

At the same time, Russell said, people in the audience have to “be open to it.” So far, they have, he said, noting that most people who come to his shows are open to the comedy.

He loves the Capital Steps, another group of satirists who poke fun of politicians.

“They admitted I was an inspiration to them,” Russell said. “We don’t consider ourselves competitors but unindicted co-conspirators.”

Russell took piano lessons as a child and learned some of his antics from his grandmother, who sang a song to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” about World War I. It inspired him to use those same tactics to entertain.

It’s a lesson he learned well as he has entertained thousands of people over his lifetime and one he continues to use all the time as he draws on today’s headlines to compose tomorrow’s show.

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