The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Russell, political satirist with a star-spangled piano, dies at 90

With his instrument of choice, he called himself a ‘political cartoonist for the blind’

Comedian Mark Russell in 1982. (M.C. Valada/The Washington Post)
7 min

Mark Russell, Washington’s social-political satirist and stand-up comic who spoofed, teased and laughed at celebrities, politicians, politics and popular culture for more than 50 years from behind his star-spangled piano, died March 30 at his home in the District. He was 90.

The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his wife, Alison Russell.

From the waning years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration through the presidencies of 10 succeeding chief executives, Mr. Russell poked fun at the foibles and flaws of the well-known, the pompous and the powerful in monologues replete with pithy one-liners and musical ditties. He called himself “a political cartoonist for the blind.”

Long an institution on Washington’s stages and in hotel bars, Mr. Russell gained a national following on public television, where for 30 years he made regular broadcasts. In the 1980s and 1990s, he took his show on the road, appearing in public and corporate venues in cities and towns across the country.

In addition, he wrote syndicated observations for newspaper op-ed pages, where he delivered such quips as “a broken campaign promise to change the way Washington works is exactly the way Washington works.”

As a performer, Mr. Russell projected an engaging aura of showmanship that most audiences found difficult to resist: the warm stage persona, the resonant baritone, the sly smile, the signature bow tie and dark-rimmed glasses.

Mr. Russell composed and sang the material while accompanying himself on a piano, which for most of his career he played while standing up. He eventually decided that playing seated gave him more alacrity on the keyboard and was easier to improvise. “If a joke dies,” he said, “it’s easier to fill in.”

Inspired by the social satirist Tom Lehrer and the comedian Mort Sahl, Mr. Russell’s humor could be biting and sarcastic, but his tone was amicable and good-natured and often had the ring of one friend teasing another. He aimed his satirical arrows at Republicans and Democrats alike. Each party, he said, “thinks the other has no sense of humor. They are both wrong.”

He was a fixture at the Shoreham Hotel’s Marquee Lounge in Washington when the Watergate scandal launched him to broader prominence. Journalists began featuring his quips in their stories and calling him to appear on television to bring levity to an otherwise grim epoch in American politics.

So rich in satire were those Watergate years, Mr. Russell once said, that he could “just rip and read” his material right off the wire-service tickers. After President Richard M. Nixon resigned, he said, “I had to go back to writing my own material.”

In 1976, when Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), the powerful chairman of the House Administration Committee, became ensnared in a sex scandal involving a secretary who by her own admission could neither type nor answer telephones, Mr. Russell sang to the tune of “The Rain in Spain”: “The reign of Wayne seems plainly down the drain.”

Two decades later, Mr. Russell wrote a musical tribute to a special prosecutor during the era of President Bill Clinton: “When You Wish Upon Ken Starr.”

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president as a Democrat in 1984 and invoked a multicolored patchwork quilt to symbolize his Rainbow Coalition, Mr. Russell countered that Republicans had their own quilt. He pulled a white cloth out of a bag and asked viewers to note all the shades of vanilla, ivory and cream.

After Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) married a woman 44 years his junior in 1968, the comedian told an audience: “On a social note: Yesterday in South Carolina, Strom Thurmond’s next wife was born.”

Mr. Russell said politicians often asked to borrow his jokes to appear gently self-deprecating. He once told an audience that former vice president Walter Mondale went to California, and the crowd thought Mondale “was a little town near Pasadena.”

Mondale, Mr. Russell later told a reporter, “called me and said, ‘I like that. I want a dozen more like that.’”

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Mr. Russell’s career was at its zenith, and in those years he was said to have been among the brightest luminaries in a cluster of political and social satirists who included Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jay Leno, newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and the Capitol Steps, a troupe of former congressional staffers turned songwriters.

“Even in Seattle, where political correctness feeds at the twin troughs of good manners and social rectitude, satirist Mark Russell has a following,” John Levesque, TV critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, wrote in 1997. “Russell is a master at condensing information, a sort of walking, talking Reader’s Digest, with a twist of irony.”

Marcus Joseph Ruslander was born in Buffalo on Aug. 23, 1932; he said he took Russell in the mid-1960s because “if your name was the least bit complicated, you changed it.”

His father, a gregarious man, was a gas station owner who encouraged pranks and show-business ambitions in his two sons. Mark’s younger brother, Dan, became the cocktail lounge pianist Dan Ruskin, who for years manned the piano at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.

The brothers made their professional debut as children, when their father put them on a boat to Detroit to visit an uncle and told the purser the boys would put on a free show.

After the family moved to the Washington area in the early 1950s, Mr. Russell worked at his father’s gas station in Alexandria, Va., attended George Washington University (“for about an hour-and-a-half”) and then joined the Marine Corps. In later years, he distributed a brief biography that read in part: “education — some. No heavyweight schools.”

His desire was to play jazz piano, but he soon realized he lacked the talent. Instead, he played piano at enlisted men’s clubs in Japan and Hawaii, composing ditties deriding officers and senior noncoms in his unit.

While still in the Marine Corps he began playing and singing at bars near the base at Quantico, Va., and on his discharge decided to try it professionally, initially at the Merryland Club, a downtown Washington striptease bar.

In the late 1950s, he progressed to the old Carroll Arms Hotel, a now-defunct Capitol Hill watering hole that in the mid-20th century drew its drinking and carousing clientele from the halls of Congress. From there, he went to the Shoreham’s Marquee Lounge and then to greater attention on public television.

Mr. Russell’s first marriage, to the former Rebekah Ward, ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Alison Kaplan, a television advertising and promotion manager. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Monica Welch of Kensington, Md., John Russell of Providence, Utah, and Matthew Russell of Tucson; a brother; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Mr. Russell developed a reputation among Washington insiders for a savvy knowledge of how the city’s political class works and plays. He often attended congressional hearings to deepen his knowledge of the legislative process and the personalities involved.

Mr. Russell said he needed to develop a thick skin to deal with politically powerful hecklers who did not always approve of his barbs.

He once told the New York Times that Sen. Russell Long walked into the Marquee Lounge one night and disapproved of a bit the comedian was doing about the Peace Corps. An argument ensued, with the powerful Louisiana Democrat becoming increasingly loud and disruptive.

Mr. Russell boomed back, “Look, senator, if you’ll give me equal time on the Senate floor tomorrow, I’ll let you have the mic. Otherwise, your time has expired. Sit down.”

Long reportedly walked away in a huff.

But overall, Mr. Russell could not do without Congress. Frequently asked if he had a team of writers, he replied: “Oh yes, I have 535 writers. One hundred in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.”