Mark Russell was born Mark Ruslander (he changed his name for stage purposes) and grew up in Buffalo, New York where he graduated from Canisius High School. After high school, his family moved briefly to Florida, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled at George Washington University, but stayed for only a month. He then joined the Marines.1
Russell is known for his series of PBS specials, aired live at least four times a year between 1975 and 2004. His comedy specials were a mix of political stand-up comedy covering current events and musical parodies, in which Russell accompanied himself on his trademark American flag themed piano. Russell's song parodies use melodies from old standards with new humorous lyrics pertinent to the subject matter.
For example, in 1990, following the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, Russell did a parody song on his show to the tune of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." ("Pardon me, boys / Are you the cats who shot Ceauşescu / You made my day / The way you blew him away.") Russell himself admits that most of his jokes and songs are very topical and have "a shelf life shorter than cottage cheese."
While Russell's humor is known for skewering Democrats and Republicans alike, his humorous tirades have also poked fun at third party, independent politicians and other prominent political (and sometimes non-political) figures.
Russell has often been asked the question, "Do you have any writers?" His standard response is "Oh, yes. I have 535 writers. 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives!" When asked if his views on current events are too caustic, Russell replies, "I follow the old newsman's adage. As they say, 'I don't make the news. I just report it.' And in my case, I don't even make the jokes. I just report them as they masquerade as news."
For several years, on the Sunday before Labor Day, Russell has made an annual appearance on the NBC news program Meet the Press, which was hosted from 1991–2008 by Tim Russert, also a Canisius High graduate. He also served in the Marines.
Russell lives in Washington, D.C. but often makes appearances in his native Buffalo. Beginning in the early 1960s he was a regular entertainer at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. He gained national recognition with a series of comedy albums during the Watergate scandal, and did his first public television show in 1975. From 1979 to 1984, he was a semi-regular host on the reality TV show, Real People.
In 1994, Russell found himself unexpectedly allied with the rap group 2 Live Crew, when the group was sued for copyright infringement for their parody of the song "Oh, Pretty Woman." The case went to the Supreme Court, where Russell and the members of 2 Live Crew argued that song parodies were protected under fair use. The Supreme Court agreed, and ruled in favor of Russell and 2 Live Crew (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.).
By 2013, Russell had begun to tour and perform publicly again.3
||This article contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (May 2010)|
- Early in the Reagan administration, there was a news story about a power problem at the White House which was causing the lights to dim, etc. Russell remarked, "Of course, the last power shortage we had at the White House lasted four years!"
- (On "trickle down" theory of economics): "Money held by someone like Nelson Rockefeller will trickle down... trickle down... trickle down... to Jay Rockefeller!"
- "You've got the brain-washed, that's the Republicans, and the brain-dead, that's the Democrats!"
- (On The Exxon Valdez disaster) "Exxon did not order the captain to deliberately ram the reef. If they did he would've missed!"
- (On the day after the 1996 presidential election): "I believe that Bill Clinton's second term will be good for business... my business!"
- (from his 1989 Mark Russell at Memorial Hall in Dayton, Ohio)
- "I never went to college. I stopped telling people I didn't attend college when it suddenly dawned on me that no one was particularly surprised."
- "I try to motivate those graduates; I tell them to be prepared for a few surprises. For instance, this summer when you order a pizza, don't be surprised if it's delivered by one of your professors!"
- "We love our children, but it's weird when you consider that in the next century, you're going to have people in nursing homes with names like Heather and Debbie."
- "Most of you in here are of my vintage: we're ignored by the media. Born in the Depression and made to feel guilty about it. Oh, sure, we had T-shirts, but what was written on them? Nothing! We didn't have enough imagination to put anything on a goddamn T-shirt!"
- (To the class of 1990 in his "end of the 80s" PBS special)
- "You say Jonas Salk played Columbo on television, you think William Shakespeare wrote Brigadoon, and Catcher in the Rye was written by Pierre Salinger. You say your teachers taught you those things; your teachers say, 'pay us more money and we'll start teaching the right answers'!"
- "You, the class of 1990... How do you feel about your valedictorian with the 4.9 Grade Point Average who arrived in this country six months ago speaking no English in a rowboat from Saigon?"
- (On Dan Quayle:) A reporter once asked vice-president Quayle, 'What would you do if you were suddenly thrust into the office of the presidency?' Quayle's answer: 'I would say a prayer.' (pregnant pause) OH-H-H, WOULDN'T WE ALL, MY FRIENDS??"
- (On Michael Dukakis during the 1988 Presidential campaign) "Dukakis is a little lacking in romance and poetry, you know? It's amazing; The one bland Greek in the world and he's running for president! Zorba the Clerk!"
- (On George H. W. Bush's famous quote "Read my lips, no new taxes!") "Read my lips, they're going to raise the old ones!"
- (On Bill Clinton's impeachment trial) "Here is what I think will happen with the impeachment. I believe President Clinton will get off...Let me rephrase that."
- A parody of Mark Russell was used in an episode of The Simpsons called "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" where the character (voiced by Harry Shearer) sang three songs ("The Deficit Rag", "The Trading Gap Shuffle" and "Lisa S.") in the style of Russell's political satire songs.
- Mark Russell was satirized by Saturday Night Live cast member Mark McKinney in a sketch in episode 96E.
- In the NewsRadio episode "Public Domain", Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) decides to become a Mark Russell-like singer of song parodies, like "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again (He's Gay! He's Gay!)".
- In an episode of King of Queens Doug and Carrie go to a Mark Russell performance, when afterwards Doug quips, "I never knew there were so many words that rhyme with bipartisan!".
- Mark Russell is referenced in an episode of 30 Rock ("The Source Awards") by guest star Wayne Brady.