The time has come to raise a statue of Mark Russell -- perhaps a Styrofoam statue, because while he is certainly an artist he works in a light-weight medium. He earned his statue, I believe, when he came up with his suggestion for a new national anthem. He is not the first to see the deficiencies of "The Star Spangled Banner," of course, but he is surely the first to suggest that an ideal substitute would be "Send in the Clowns."
He is also the first to put a name on one of our national maladies -- inspired by the name of new fuel that everyone is talking about. "That car of yours sitting out there is sick," Russell says, "and if the poor wretched thing could talk, here's what it would say: 'At first, I wouldn't admit to it, but now I am willing to face the truth. I am a gasoholic . . . . What causes [this] condition? We are driven to it . . .'"
He has come up with the idea of a film called "Nader," starring George C. Scott, and he has come to terms with the inexorable advance of the metic system: "I realize that one day my little wide-eyed grandchildren are going to snuggle up to me and say, 'Grandpa, tell us about the quart.'" He has worked up a whole new set of lines to be used at cocktail parties by people who get tired of saying, "How about those Rams yesterday?" -- startling lines like "A martini please -- and don't spare the vermouth" or "I have quite a vast knowledge of art, but I have quite a vast knowledge of art, but I never quite known what I like."
Mark Russell has formulated one of the horrible truths about the nation's capital; "Washington without lawyers would be like Rome without priests." In fact, he has formulated quite a few horrible truths about the nation's capital; that's how he makes his living. For example: "It seems that everything blessed, pure, and beautiful is found in Kansas, or Georgia, or Iowa, or anywhere but the source of everthing evil and nasty, Washington . . . .But if there is horrid corruption, bungling, chicanery, and stupidity (and there is), where did all those boobs come from? They came from Kansas, Georgia and Iowa, that's where. And the reason everything is so pure in the rest of the country is because you sent all your scoundrels to Washington. They're not from here; they're from there. You sent them here to give us a bad reputation, and then you won't even give us voting rights in Congress." perhaps we should build a Russel Circle to put it in. A logical place would be somewhere near the Shoreham, where his stand-up comedy has become practically a national monument, but I would like to see it in a more symbolic location, a place that defies logic like Russell's prime subject-matter and his basic approach. Perhaps the intersection of those parellel lines, 15th and 16th streets, NW.
No, but seriously . . .
Mark Russell, standing up and talking, is a precious national resource that should be fostered and encouraged in any way we can. Mark Russell writing his first book is a more problematic phenomenon, but not so problematic that you should hesitate to get the book. He averates at least one good laugh per page, which comes to about a nickel per laugh and may go down to a penny if you can wait for the paperback. With gold bouncing between $500 and $600 per ounce, that's a bargain.
The book's dust jacket quotes Bob Hope on Russell: "The funniest man in Washington . . . outside of Congress," with a slight variation on the same theme by David Brinkley. A critical reader immediately challenges such a sweeping statement, and the name that leaps to mind is Art Buchwald. After careful analysis, it can be reported that Russell and Buchwald come out about even on the laugh meter -- but Buchwald is, on the average, a better writer, and the subject of today's discussion is, after all, a book.
If writing a book is something like baking a cake, purveying stand-up comedy is something like putting the bowl on the table. People love the nuts and keep coming back for more, and no doubt there is a quality, a flavor, a nourishment in a bowl of nuts that is as satisfying as what you will get in your average cake. It may even be harder and more expensive to assemble a good bowl of mixed nuts than a good cake. But they are not the same thing.
For those of a literary turn of mind, the most interesting thing about this book is the spectacle if offers of a man who has spent his life dishing out mixed nuts gradually teaching himself how to bake a cake. To observe this process more knowingly, it would be helpful if all the chapters in "Presenting Mark Russell" had their dates listed -- though the odds are that some of them were worked out over a period of time, perhaps years. Still, there is a perceptible difference between some chapters which are almost pure stand-up comedy -- one-line jokes and quick sketches linked by a very loose free-association -- and others that seem to be evolving toward the comic essay: a coherent development of single comic idea. In the comic essay proper, Buchwald is till the master, but by the end of the book Russell seems to be coming along fast. Perhaps we should also set up a Buchwald statue (I recommend the spot where people who have been driving down Connecticut Avenue find themselves, without any perceptible transition, driving down 17th Street). The town certainly has room for both of them -- and if we didn't, we could pull down a couple of statues whose most notable feature is a horse's rear end.
Statue or no statue, literary form or no literary form, Russell is well worth reading, even when he writes "spritely" instead of "sprightly" or when he gives the texts of his topical songs, which are better on stage than on a page. Anyone is worth reading who can characterize a whole generation as "all of us who think that Macho was an unknown Marx brother."
He is particularly worth reading in his final essay, which describes his dream banquet, a fantasy destilled from years of suffering through such rituals. For example, his idea for the invocation: "You tell the clergyman to keep praying until someone askes him to stop . . . See how much time elapses before anyone musters up enough courage to interrupt the ecclesiastical filibuster. How long would it be before people started to giggle? A half hour? An hour? Who would take it upon himself to tell a minister to knock if off? Days could go by. Weeks."
The National Endowment for the Arts should subsidze that one.