Talk about timing. An hour before news of the first U.S. air attacks against Iraq swept the city, political satirist Mark Russell sat in an empty Ford's Theatre, smiling and saying the passing of the big, big Jan. 15 deadline wouldn't cramp his style. He had some good jokes about the Persian Gulf crisis, and he planned to tell them.

"It's a release. It's human nature. There's nothing sensitive about it at all," he said. "Not yet."

If it became a shooting war, he said, things would be different.

And then it became a shooting war.

Around 7 o'clock last night, Russell considered canceling the performance, the first of his four-night stand at Ford's, an annual tradition. But the crowd was already arriving.

"I don't think there will be any humor or jokes concerning the situation over there," said John Logan of Seattle, seated with his wife, awaiting their first chance to see Russell live.

"I think the show is going to be a very difficult one for him to do," said Barbara Logan. "The audience is poised with some form of expectancy, not knowing what's going to happen, and not knowing itself what they want to happen."

Russell went on, with not quite a full house. He did his Persian Gulf material.

And he didn't bomb.

He mentioned the letter President Bush wrote to Saddam Hussein, the letter Iraq's foreign minister refused to deliver because he considered it impolite. "Oh really?" Russell said with overblown incredulity. "Do you know how they answer the phone at the Iraqi Embassy here? 'Iraqi Embassy, you'll drown in your own blood, may I help you?' "

Hearty laughter.

Russell said he was glad Richard Cheney is the defense secretary, rather than Bush's original choice, John Tower. "Can you imagine him running this show? In a little safari suit from the boys' department at Brooks Brothers."

He joked about television news. "This is going to be media coverage like none other. I mean, if they go to a commercial, does the war stop for it?"

He joked about Vice President Dan Quayle's visit to Saudi Arabia. Said Quayle managed to get in a few rounds of golf. "The traps were a little big, but at least they didn't allow women."

Even the first tune Russell banged out on the piano was about bombing Saddam. "... And soon his house will look just like Gadhafi's. Open air where his roof used to be."

After a few minutes, the comedian moved on to a full range of other topics, from the "Keating Five" to abortion. But for his parting words, Russell returned to the news of the moment. "Decades from now, when your grandchildren ask you what you were doing when war broke out, don't go into too much detail. Better just say you went to Ford's Theatre for a press conference."

After the show, Russell said part of the reason he didn't cancel was that the combat story "was in its very, very early form, and I knew the material that I had would not be a problem." He will decide today whether to postpone the other three nights of his engagement.