Mark Russell, early part of Roll Call who went on to fame, dies at 90
Comedian’s style and friendship helped define paper’s early years
Political comedian Mark Russell, who died on Thursday at the age of 90, was a jovial satirist whose friendship with Roll Call founder Sid Yudain helped define the newspaper’s tone in its early years.
As part of celebrating Roll Call’s 50th anniversary in 2005, Russell wrote about how Sid (Sid would hate it if we referred to him on second reference as “Yudain”) helped him get a job playing the piano at the Carroll Arms hotel near the Capitol.
“I didn’t go to college, but my poli-sci class was the Carroll Arms. My textbook was Roll Call and my professor was Sid Yudain. He would introduce me to various politicos, staffers and lobbyists — aka, The Ones Who Pick Up the Checks. He would suggest which hearings to attend in order to pick up ideas for comedy material. Although he was not a music critic, Sid rightly recognized that I could not survive on my piano playing alone,” Russell wrote.
Publications and newsrooms evolve. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when Sid was navigating the first years of Roll Call by focusing on the neighborhood and culture of the Capitol and its denizens, he turned to people like Russell to write a column focused on jokes. From others, Sid got poetry and other features that would seem out of place but were far more common in community newspapers back then, such as Sid’s own “Sid’s Bits” observational column.
The paper grew, covering more political and policy news. The staff from its formative years went on to other ventures. For Russell, his stand-up and piano routines became so popular he would eventually land a long-standing gig at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, as well as televised PBS specials. Throughout his career, his style of good-natured jabs never let politicians off the hook.
It was a delicate balance that is a lost art. Political comedy is rougher now. Whether politics is rougher compared to Russell’s heyday is an open question. Just read about the Watergate scandal and the behavior of its principals. But that is a debate for another time.
Sid sold the paper in the 1980s. Over the years there were some hard feelings between him and its editors and owners, something I do not have any direct knowledge of, but which Russell commented on himself in the 50-year anniversary observations.
“What is the difference between the Roll Call of 50 years ago and the paper of today? About 42 pages and a ton of gravitas. The early paper was an easygoing half-dozen pages chronicling the neighborhood that is Capitol Hill, and was founded by a man who honestly does not deserve the mysterious omission from the paper’s masthead. Just a little nudge from a fan of 47 years. Think of it: Fifty years ago, there was a Republican in the White House, hostilities in the Middle East and gas was 30 cents a gallon. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Or, is it?” Russell wrote in 2005.
We have rectified that. Sid is back on the masthead, as he should have been all along. At some point before I started at Roll Call in 2011, there was some kind of reconciliation.
I did not know Sid well, but our few interactions were warm. After Sid died in 2013, his widow, Lael, was generous with her time in sharing his legacy. Sid’s typewriter keeps watch over us in the newsroom even now, thanks to Lael sharing it with us.
Being a political geek, I had been watching Russell for years, but the only time I met him in person was at Sid’s memorial service at the National Press Club.
Appropriately, he was by the piano, one which he and Sid probably played many times at the club, as they had fun roasting people, singing and hanging out. Sounds like a bygone era. That’s too bad.
Several of the photos in our archives are captioned “Mark Russell with friends.”
In addition to being a famous comedian and pillar of Washington, that’s a pretty good legacy, too.
Jason Dick is editor-in-chief of CQ Roll Call.