Mark Russell, a native of Buffalo who rose to prominence as a satirist who joyously mocked leaders from both parties in public television specials in the late 20th century, passed away on Thursday (30 March).
According to his wife, Alison Russell, Russell passed away at his Washington, D.C. home from complications related to prostate cancer. Russell’s career began in the 1950s and lasted well into the 2000s; even when his TV specials ceased to be broadcast, he continued to publish content online.
He also made fun of pop culture and celebrities but his favorite subjects to mock were politicians. Russell’s performances included piano playing, song parodies and witty remarks. They were broadcast on public television for many years as specials, including the Buffalo Niagara PBS affiliate WNED-TV.
Jon Stewart, the comedian and former Daily Show host said in a statement released through the comedy center, which holds some of Russell’s hand-written song lyrics (According to Yahoo)
“Mark Russell was a D.C. institution who did the hardest thing a comic can do: relentlessly and righteously mock his neighbors.”
Said W. Kamau Bell, the comedian, writer, host and like Russell, a comedy center’s advisory board member (as per reports)
“He taught me that comedy could be more than just funny and disposable. He showed that comedy could maybe even be more effective at speaking truth to power, if you made sure people walked out humming along to truth-speaking.”
Russell described his early infatuation with the radio in a 2004 interview with The Buffalo News. He claimed he imitated the broadcasters he heard by tinkering with a wooden microphone. Russell said:
“I was about 12 years old and I would spend hours talking into that microphone pretending I was on the radio.”
He graduated from Canisius High School in 1950 and enlisted in the Marines for three years. Russell started performing while serving in clubs near the Virginia base where he was stationed.
By the time he tried to make a living performing professionally, his comedy act which featured a lot of singing and piano playing had become more political. He started at a striptease bar in downtown Washington before moving on to the city’s Shoreham Hotel, where he garnered widespread acclaim for 20 years.
He met several WNED officials when he was staying at the Shoreham and after watching his program, they made plans to broadcast a PBS special with Russell as the lead.
Commemorating Russell’s shows’ 25th anniversary, his debut special, “Politics Can Be Fun” was taped at WNED in 1974. It was followed by his first live special a year later. Russell taped at least three and often as many as six shows per year for PBS.
He was usually goggled and frequently wore a bow tie. WNED was the site of many recordings made by Russell on his frequent trips back to his hometown.
His razor-sharp humor found material in presidents, members of Congress and others in the political sphere. Richard Nixon’s Watergate presidency was a rich source of material as his comedic career ended. Russell was thoughtful when he reflected on that time to a News reporter in 1989.
Russell was concerned about what would happen if Monica Lewinsky and other participants including Ken Starr, remembered in Russell’s spoof “When You Wish Upon Ken Starr,” were no longer present.
Russell was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers’ Hall of Fame the same year PBS stopped airing his specials and he continued to entertain audiences even after that amiably.
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