The Capital's Court Jester, Mark Russell, Is K.C.-bound—for Yuks
Vice-President Rockefeller steals them. So do Senators Humphrey, Goldwater, Bayh, Weicker and Church. What they have lifted are gags from Washington’s favorite cabaret satirist, Mark Russell of the Shoreham-Americana’s Marquee Lounge. Just the other night, emcee Mo Udall cracked at a fund raiser for Jimmy Carter: “I can now reveal how Reagan picked Schweiker. The computer dating service malfunctioned.” Carter laughed, and Udall credits the line to Russell. “I go every six months to update my material,” Mo says. Other pols like Rocky don’t even pay the $6 minimum—they just ring Russell up for last-minute freebies when their ghostwriters are blocked.
But not this week. Just as he scouted the Democratic Convention (“My doctor told me to avoid excitement”), Mark’s in Kansas City giving the GOP equal time. “I’m a confused independent,” goes one of his lines, “but I can be bought.” That’s not quite true. Russell is heading into an honest “six figures.” Aside from his Shoreham take, he is now going national with a column syndicated in 95 papers, $1,500-a-gig lectures and four annual TV specials for PBS. What’s co-opted the more caustic potential of Russell is not payola but the company-town camaraderie of Washington and the American tradition of pulling satirical punches. Chappaquiddick, for example, is a no-no. The roughest he’ll get in public on Kennedy’s 1976 politics is the line, “I’ll be darned—Teddy really meant it.”
Then, too, there’s Mark’s own basic gentleness. As thin-skinned customer Henry Kissinger told him after the show a few months ago: “You are vunderful, not nasty.” Russell—born Ruslander 43 years ago in Buffalo—attended a “strict” Jesuit school and still suffers from “Catholic guilt.” His dad was a gas station owner and, like his mother, a natural humorist. “What I remember from family get-togethers is just laughing.” They moved to D.C., and Mark lasted 28 days at George Washington University. “You could get your full tuition back if you dropped out within 30 days.” Then came three years in the Marines and five more apprenticing in disreputable piano bars (including the notorious Senate hangout, the Carroll Arms) before he graduated to the Shoreham in 1961.
Whether the Surgeon General has taken note or not, comedy is not necessarily conducive to mental health. Mark headed off a possible booze problem 10 years ago but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1974, when his marriage crumbled. Today he shares a suburban apartment with his teenage daughter; his ex-wife and two younger sons live in Virginia Beach, where the family (including Mark) got involved in the spiritualist cult of the late Edgar Cayce.
As he prepared for his next Entebbe, Russell thoughtfully removed the “Rose Mary Woods for President” pin he wore at the Democratic Convention and remarked: “I never thought I’d be in New York yearning to go to Kansas City where the action is.”