Comedian Russell Back for Inaugural

Posted January 14, 2005 at 2:59pm

Mark Russell, the “political pianist” with a knack for skewering policy and politicians alike, opens a six-day engagement at Ford’s Theatre tonight, just in time to weigh in on inaugural festivities.

If history is any indication, Russell should have plenty of new material.

“What excites me about the new Congress?” Russell, 72, pondered in a phone interview from his home in D.C. “Well, gridlock is in place already. That’s great, I love gridlock.”

It’s Russell’s capacity for quickly converting the news items of the day to jokes — “verbal cartoons,” he calls them — that has been drawing audiences back to his political song-and-dance act for almost half a century. And a certain Washington, D.C., soiree this week promises to be no exception.

“They’re saying the parade will be a blend of celebration and security. Think Mardi Gras with stun guns,” he said of the unprecedented police presence planned for the 55th Presidential Inauguration. “They’re sealing the manhole covers to make sure Michael Moore doesn’t surface. The Marine band will wear combat fatigues, in case of the need to multi-task.”

Russell has returned to Ford’s for a January stint every other year for the past 20 years. “We used to do it every year,” he said, before he said he learned, “if you repeat jokes every two years, they don’t remember.”

Russell grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., first performing at age 12 with his brother on a ferry from Buffalo to Cleveland. He got his start at the Carroll Arms across the street from the Capitol — “where that parking lot is now” — before landing a two-week gig at D.C.’s Shoreham Hotel that ended up lasting 20 years.

From the late 1950s, he began attracting politicos and policy wonks to his act with his ability to riff on the news of the very same day. “Oh, they’re good,” he said of politicians in the audience who hear a bit about themselves in Russell’s act. “When they’re there, I suppose they cringe a little bit, but I’ve never had a Member of Congress in the audience who was indicted that day.

“Over the years, I just figured it out: The politicians’ tolerance of me is directly related to how easily they can steal a joke.”

It’s this bent and his no-holds-barred attitude toward the source material that keep Russell’s act up-to-date.

“Michael Chertoff, he’s a shoo-in,” he said, referring to the expected confirmation of Bush’s Homeland Security secretary nominee. “If he only has one mistress, I think they’ll give him a pass.”

And it’s this dynamic aspect of his act that sometimes tends to be the trickiest. News that happens late in the afternoon can call for some quick thinking before the night’s show, he noted, recalling former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) resignation from the Senate to run for president in 1996. Russell had to adapt a song he had written about Dole’s resignation as Minority Leader to reflect his complete resignation from the Senate right before he went on stage that night. “We had to tape the words of the song on the bottom of the lens on the camera,” he said.

“It makes it exciting, to throw a song together,” he said. “The audience feels the spontaneity of it. It’s working without a net.”

The payoff, though, is often high attendance. “A classic example was during Watergate,” he said. “The Saturday night massacre. The special prosecutor, attorney general, deputy attorney general were all fired … and the story broke about six o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday.”

What it led to, he said, was record crowds at the Shoreham, where audiences packed the hall at the last minute to hear what Russell had to say about it. “What made it really chaotic … we were running out of chairs, running out of tables, running out of waiters.”

Though the news can change with the day, don’t expect Russell to be a fair-weather fan of any party. He’s not one to let partisanship get in the way of a good line.

It’s all about “reaching across the aisle, extending the middle finger,” he said.

“Mark Russell: Comedy, Music, Bribery, & Conspiracy” is at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, today through Jan. 23. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office or through Ticketmaster, (202) 397-7328.