As an American political satirist, Mark Russell is best known for his parody music. He wears his signature bowtie and incorporates political happenings into his music.
When people ask me how I got my start, I tell them I was born on August 23, 1932, which means that on the previous Thanksgiving my parents jumped into bed to get warm.
It makes sense – they lived in Buffalo, New York. My given name is Marcus Joseph Ruslander, Jr. My mother’s people were Irish. My father’s people were Russian Jews from what is now Poland. It was miserable there in the late nineteenth century. They had every kind of cold: bitter, freezing, bone-chilling, numbing, even biting. Did I mention it was chilly? My father had a dream: He wanted to get out of the cold. So he moved to Buffalo.
I’m eighty-one. I retired at seventy-eight and unretired at eighty. People say eighty is the new sixty. It’s not. Eighty isn’t the new anything – unless it’s the new ninety. My daughter Monica, bless her, reminds me that if I were dyslexic I’d be eighteen. At least in my own mind – what’s left of it.
When I was growing up, my paternal grandmother often sang me a little World War I ditty about Kaiser Wilhelm:
Kaiser Bill went up the hill
to take a look at France.
Kaiser Bill came down the hill
with bullets in his pants.
That was my introduction to political songs. Sophisticated? No. Memorable? Well, it’s been stuck in my brain for seventy-five years.
My father was a salesman for Mobil, which was then called Socony-Vacuum Oil Company. Dad was a happy-go-lucky guy who was aware of his place in the world. One time I asked him, “How come we don’t have a Cadillac?”
“Who needs a Cadillac? Mr. Greggor has a Cadillac.”
Mr. Greggor was his boss. He drove a Cadillac, wore a homburg, drank scotch, and was a Republican. My father and his buddies drove Fords, Chevys, or Plymouths; wore fedoras; and drank blended whisky. My political education was moving past the nursery-rhyme stage.
We moved to Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington after a brief stint where my parents grocery store withered and died. My father opened a Mobil gas station on Route 1.
Route 1 was the main artery up the east coast, and drivers would come in and say, “We want to get to Baltimore, but we don’t want to go through Washington, where that awful Harry Truman lives.” My personal Poli-Sci 101 course continued.
Then I joined the Marine Corps where the boot-camp drill sergeant berated our lack of discipline: “You guys are like a bunch of Democrats!” I later learned that Marines didn’t like Democrats because Truman wanted to abolish the Corps.
I started playing the piano in small clubs around Washington. I wanted to be a jazz pianist. An evening with me was like and hours-long version of the old Saturday Night Live sketches where Bill Murray played a smarmy lounge lizard.
The audience barely paid attention; they’d be drinking, eating, flirting, or doing crossword puzzles. So I started adding jokes. It got their attention.
Then I began writing little ditties about what was happening in the news, a-la Kaiser Bill and the bullets in his pants. People started listening.
I got a semi-permanent gig at a little hotel on Capitol Hill called the Carroll Arms. It was right across the street from the Senate’s single office building. My act got increasingly political. I’ve always been attracted to theater of the absurd. Or as I called it, reporting the news.
A lot of politicians and staffers would come over to the Carroll Arms at the end of the day for a relaxing cocktail or two or eight.
I’d been at the Carroll Arms for three years when the owner of the fanciest hotel in town, the Shoreham, offered me a job. I started one night in 1961 and stayed for twenty years.
Then in the mid-1970s, the Watergate scandal broke, and I made it part of my act. Suddenly, I had something I could parlay into TV – the inside view, colorful, funny stories about a city in the midst of a crisis. I was on the evening news with Walter Cronkite, which proves the point that life presents more funny moments than I ever could.
In 1974, the public television station back in Buffalo asked me to do a show for them. So I went there and shot a pilot. The show was taped on September 8, 1974, which was the day that Jerry Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.
At the time of the taping, the news hadn’t broken, so there was nothing in the show about the pardon. PBS shopped the pilot around and people who saw it commented that I wasn’t topical enough. That made me realize the show had to be live.
We pitched that idea, and it went over. From 1975 and 2004, I did four live specials a year on PBS. Sometimes big news would break late in the day. I’d dash off a ditty about it, but I wouldn’t always have time to memorize the lyrics so I’d tape them to the camera.
The PBS show led to my hitting the lecture circuit. I spent twenty years on the speaking circuit, hitting my peak in 2000 when I did 100 appearances in 100 different cities. I retired in 2001. I was a little tired. In addition, I’d made a solemn pledge that I would quit on the day I had to write a song about trans-vaginal ultrasound.
Retirement was boring. I’d read the news and be itching to satirize it. One day, I read about a bunch of congressmen who went to the Middle East, got drunk, and went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee. I thought that was pretty funny. Of course, it would have been funnier if they’d all drowned. I was eager to get back to work. So I unretired. I’m in extra innings, overtime, waiting for sudden death.