No president ever let Mark Russell down

Eric Heyl
By Eric Heyl, February 25, 2012
Courtesy of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Political satirist and comic entertainer Mark Russell is ending his nationally syndicated column that has amused readers for nearly four decades.

Russell, 79, also well-known for his long-running PBS specials and stand-up performances, discussed his impending retirement and the current state of American political humor with the Tribune-Review.

Q: Why did you decide to retire the column? You’re not even 80.

A: Well, I’m slouching toward 80. And a couple of weeks ago, I said to myself that I’m starting to care less and less about this (presidential) campaign. Do I really want to write that Callista Gingrich looks like the rarest bird in the aviary? Do I really want to write that I believe Rick Santorum is sincere, I believe he’s consistent, but I also believe that his running mate is a man named Benedict XVI?

Most of the stuff I wrote (over the years) wound up in my act, so there was a daily deadline. But I’m not performing anymore. My TV show went off the air in ’04 and I did my last (live) show almost two years ago, so I don’t have that deadline anymore. I don’t have to do this.

Q: How did the column originate?

A: The column started in 1975. I knew Art Buchwald, we were good friends, and we were at a reception at the British Embassy for the actor Dudley Moore. On the way out, Buchwald said his syndicate wanted him to write an additional column of just one-liners. He said to me, “I don’t want to do it, but if you’re interested, I’ll suggest you.” That’s how I got it.

Q: Which presidents provided you with the best material over the years?

A: I can only answer that in terms of time and service. Reagan with eight years was better than two years of Jerry Ford. And I guess Bill Clinton — although no (comedian) was ever proud of their Lewinsky jokes. So Clinton and Reagan probably win, but let’s put it this way — no president ever let me down.

Q: What do you think of some of today’s well-known satirists — people such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher?

A: Mort Sahl never filled the mall down here. (Colbert and Stewart) had that event last year on the National Mall and drew almost as big a crowd as the one at Obama’s inauguration. What (Colbert and Stewart) have done (lampooning) super PACs, that has never been done before by any comedian in such an artful way — and I don’t think most people get it.

The people who don’t like Bill Maher say he’s too angry, but anger is good. That’s OK. See, the worst thing that can be said about anybody (in comedy) is that they are safe. If you’re considered safe, that’s the kiss of death.

Q: What’s next for you? Will you continue to live in Washington?   A: My wife and I travel a lot, but, oh yeah, I’m staying here. I was born in Buffalo — and being a comedian, I died there a number of times — but I enjoy this town.

People always complain about Washington, but they should go into detail (about what irks them about it): Congress, the bureaucracy, the Federal Reserve. People shouldn’t just (generically) complain constantly about Washington, Washington, Washington — look, it’s the nation’s capital, for God’s sake.

Q: Not to suggest this is something you might have to think about soon, but have you ever pondered what you might want on your tombstone?

A: Racing stripes. (And the epitaph) “I was a comedian. This is not the first time I died.”


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