Wait — Mark Russell Wasn’t ALWAYS 90 Years Old?

I refer in the title of this post of course not to the super-cool downtown performance art impresario who used to curate P.S. 122 and who founded and runs the Under the Radar Festival. The Mark Russell who turns 90 today is sort of the opposite — a Washington D.C. cabaret entertainer who somehow became a creature of national television in the (almost) three decades between 1975 and 2004. I am certain I first knew him as one of the presenters on the NBC show Real People (1979-1984), though what he was most associated with was a series of PBS specials between 1975 and 2004. He also performed live concerts throughout the country, from the early 1960s until as recently as 2016.

The Mark Russell (b. 1932) of whom I speak was a 20th century man, and I razz him in the title of this post because I always thought of him as the ultimate fuddy-duddy, middle of the road entertainer. In a manner that needs must seem inconceivable to young people today Russell performed an act that was theoretically “political satire” but which playfully pulled the noses of both Republicans and Democrats. You must remember, however, that he began doing his act during the Cold War, the Kennedy Administration, one of those times when the differences between the two major parties was at its most infinitesimal, or seemed that way, at least. His act started in D.C.’s Shoreham Hotel. He didn’t just poke fun of Washington as so many have done, but he was a Washingtonian himself, and had a vested interest in never being TOO offensive.

This made Russell perfect for that mysterious alternate universe of show business known as public broadcasting, home too of Garrison Keillor, and of non-violent children’s shows that carry no embedded advertising for sugared breakfast cereals. With hundreds of channels to choose from now, younger people must wonder why PBS and NPR even exist, though some (evil) people have always wondered that. (My short answer is their news divisions. Irony of ironies, in America public broadcasting is one of the few places to find relatively unbiased news reporting that isn’t propagandistic. None of the cable news networks, left or right, can make that claim.) Though PBS is only partially and indirectly funded by tax dollars, it has always striven (though not always successfully) to take a “balanced” approach to programming with political content. Claims that it is monolithically “liberal” must contend with the fact that it was also once the home of William F. Buckley and is currently a platform for David Brooks. (Since the lexicon has shifted once again in recent years, let me instruct you: David Brooks is an actual, textbook conservative. By contrast, the vast majority of people who call themselves “conservative” today are members of a cult bent on radical and even violent change. There needs to be some new word for what these people are. Actually, there are very good, old and factually accurate words for what they are. Those words are intrinsically pejorative. To go down that path here would be digressive). At any rate, my point is that Russell was perfect for PBS because he gently teased both Republicans and Democrats.

Russell’s schtick was, shall we say…”familiar”? He used a lot of flag-themed paraphernalia to decorate his performance area, echoing the décor of political events, just as Pat Paulsen and others had done since the days of Of Thee I Sing. He played piano and sang in a manner very similar to Tom Lehrer. But Lehrer was a true satirist. He had a point of view, and when he sank his teeth in, he drew blood. Russell mostly sang well-known traditional songs (standards, showtunes) with altered lyrics, in time honored Mad Magazine/ Weird Al fashion. It was more successful as parody than as satire. I won’t say he wasn’t funny and occasionally even clever in his dry, cheerful way. But for those who have been impatient for real change, the men and women (mostly men) in power aren’t lovable scamps, but crooked rogues standing in the way of human progress. As such, stronger sauce was required. One didn’t want to send them up, but send them packing. And I include the ineffectual liberals as well as conservatives as the targets of my ire and disgust.

So even back in the day, Russell’s audiences tended to skew older and more “moderate”. And though today his act would play even more infuriatingly inappropriate than it did then, I have little doubt that he would even now attract a fan base of comfortable, middle-of-the-road “liberals” else why would both-sides-ism persist in an era where one of the sides has gone full-bore Fascist? (There, I said it). How’d they get a toehold, anyway? Maybe it’s because of this attitude that, “Hey, we’re all buddies, we’re all chums, it’s all in good fun” when one of the sides (and to be really honest, both of them) is actively suppressing the progress of women, people of color, and the poor? (What type of entertainment answers their needs, you may wonder? For that, I must refer you back to the other Mark Russell. )

As for the older guy, he’s pretty much culpable in his own present state of obsolescence. Try and “tease” today’s right wing without receiving death threats! Much that was evil and cruel has been normalized over the decades, all to some familiar, hummable tune.

For more on variety entertainment, including cabaret acts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous