Chicago Sun-Times

Mark Russell will sat­i­rize the Trump era from the side­lines

Mark Russell’s re­tire­ment is no laugh­ing mat­ter for the rest of us

- Erik Brady @ ByErikBrad­y USA TO­DAY Sports

Po­lit­i­cal comic says he’s re­tir­ing, but the jokes will write them­selves

Whither po­lit­i­cal satire WASH­ING­TON in the Age of Trump? Mark Russell considered the query, days be­fore the in­au­gu­ra­tion, then smiled a Cheshire cat smile.

“Pres­i­dent- elect Trump,” he in­toned as his grin grew. “When that hy­phen dis­ap­pears, aban­don all hope.”

Russell is the dean of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal satirists, in a line of suc­ces­sion run­ning through Mark Twain and Will Rogers. He’s made a liv­ing crack­ing wise about ev­ery U. S. pres­i­dent since Eisen­hower. And this one- liner stands as splendid dis­til­la­tion of his comic ge­nius.

Ten words. Punc­tu­a­tion as punch line. And one needn’t know Dante to ap­pre­ci­ate a keen- edged gag that sum­mons the gates of hell. The joke — like the hy­phen — van­ished into a fine va­por at noon on Fri­day, ful­fill­ing Russell’s maxim that his ma­te­rial has a shelf life shorter than cot­tage cheese.

His ca­reer, by con­trast, spans five full decades and parts of two more. That gives Russell, 84, the comedic cre­den­tials to con­sider our open­ing ques­tion. Po­lit­i­cal satire of­ten de­pends on bend­ing re­al­ity into ab­sur­dity through comic ex­ag­ger­a­tion. How does that work in a world where Don­ald Trump can some­times seem a par­ody of him­self?

“In 2016, there was an ex­am­ple of that ev­ery day,” Russell says. “In May, for ex­am­ple, there was the day Trump im­plied Ted Cruz’s father hung out with Lee Har­vey Oswald. And I thought, ‘ Wow, that’s the one miss­ing el­e­ment in this Woody Allen movie known as Cam­paign 2016.’ And Cruz had to go on TV and deny that his father killed Kennedy.”

By late sum­mer, when some mem­bers of his au­di­ence had for­got­ten all this, Russell would set up a joke by re­mind­ing them of the episode — but laughs would erupt dur­ing the setup. They thought he was mak­ing it up.

“Orig­i­nally you had real news and satire,” he says. “Now we only have satire and fake news. The guy who hosted a re­al­ity show has ren­dered re­al­ity ob­so­lete, which is too com­pli­cated for me. If I was start­ing out, I’d have to tackle it. But now, I re­ally don’t care.”

That’s be­cause the fi­nal pub­lic per­for­mance of Russell’s 58- year ca­reer came just days be­fore the elec­tion. He thought Hil­lary Clin­ton was going to win; he’d told enough jokes about her and her hus­band. And even though Trump won, the knee- slap­per po­ten­tial of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion sim­ply wasn’t enough for him to stay in the fray.

“Trump will be great for com­edy,” he says. “How could it not be, for heaven’s sake? But feath­ers will be ruf­fled. Hope­fully peo­ple will not go to jail. In Soviet

Rus­sia, I used to say that a satirist’s open­ing night and clos­ing night were the same night.”


Tra­di­tion­ally, pres­i­dents are lam­pooned, some­times sav­agely, and ac­cept the slings and ar­rows as part of the job — whereas Trump watches Satur­day Night Live and fumes. He calls Meryl Streep over­rated and the cast of Hamil­ton rude. He seems un­will­ing, or un­able, to honor the ven­er­a­ble cus­tom of grin and bear it.

“Don­ald Trump can’t take a joke,” Russell says, “or tell one.”

Trump was booed at the Al Smith Din­ner in Oc­to­ber — not for his pol­i­tics but for his mal­adroit drollery.

“He was aw­ful,” Russell says. “All the bish­ops and car­di­nals were there and his zany one- liner was: ‘ Hil­lary hates Catholics.’ That’s sub­tle.”

Sen. Al Franken, D- Minn., a Satur­day Night Live alum­nus, told The New York Times Magazine he watched Trump care­fully that night and made the re­mark­able ob­ser­va­tion that Trump does not laugh.

“And sel­dom smiles,” Russell says. “It’s more of a gri­mace.”

Then- pres­i­dent Barack Obama mocked Trump at the 2011 White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner for pro­mot­ing birther calumny. Seth Mey­ers fired punch lines as Trump smol­dered in the au­di­ence. The New Yorker’s Adam Gop­nik sug­gested in 2015 that the hu­mil­i­a­tion of that night might have fu­eled Trump’s re­solve to run.

“The cam­era comes in on Trump and he has that scowl we’re all fa­mil­iar with,” Russell says. “Iron­i­cally, he didn’t know Celebrity 101. That’s when a comic is ham­mer­ing you, you stand up and make a grand ges­ture with a big grin. Now what you’ve done is two things. You show that you have a sense of hu­mor and you take the fo­cus away from the guy who has been ridi­cul­ing you. But he didn’t know enough to do that.”

Russell fig­ures most politi­cians learn a ver­sion of this on the rub­ber- chicken cir­cuit as they rise through the ranks of city coun­cil or state leg­is­la­ture. He won­ders how Trump will fare at the an­nual din­ners of the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion and the Grid­iron Club, where pres­i­dents are ex­pected to ab­sorb zingers — and de­liver them — be­fore end­ing by earnestly prais­ing the na­tion’s free press.

Can Trump fol­low such a script? Will he even go? No pres­i­dent since Grover Cleveland has failed to at­tend a Grid­iron din­ner at some point in his pres­i­dency.

Russell lives in Cleveland Park, a Wash­ing­ton neigh­bor­hood named for Grover, where Trump sup­port­ers are few.

“I tried some jokes on my Demo­crat friends, but they’re not ready to laugh,” Russell says. “They’re too de­pressed. My wife stayed in her room for a cou­ple of weeks and only watched the Hall­mark Chan­nel.”


Russell was born in Buf­falo, where he took pi­ano lessons from Irv­ing Shire, whose son David would com­pose the score for All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, just as Russell would go on to com­pose the best jokes of the Water­gate era.

“I was Irv­ing Shire’s worst stu­dent,” Russell wrote in Right Here, Right Now: The Buf­falo An­thol­ogy, “but you can ac­com­plish a lot with three chords and a lit­tle help from the politi­cians.”

He started his ca­reer in a honky- tonk on Capi­tol Hill. Later, a two- week gig at Wash­ing­ton’s Shore­ham Ho­tel turned into a 20- year run, where Russell re­calls un­ruly mem­bers of a not- so- silent ma­jor­ity heck­ling him when he told the Nixon gags that made him a na­tional name. That led to his PBS com­edy spe­cials that aired live from Buf­falo for 30 years.

Russell couldn’t stay re­tired when he tried it the first time in 2010. Even if now he’s re­ally fin­ished telling jokes, he can’t stop writ­ing them, which he does long­hand in a fat note­book next to a stock­pile of note­books going back decades. New one- lin­ers make their way onto his web­site, MarkRus­sell. net.

If Meryl Streep goes on Satur­day Night Live and sings a song from the mu­si­cal Hamil­ton, Trump could hit three tar­gets with one tweet — giv­ing him more time to gov­ern.

Con­flict of in­ter­est — that’s when Pres­i­dent Trump asks his chil­dren: How’s busi­ness?

Trump will nom­i­nate a Supreme Court jus­tice who thinks cor­rup­tion is speech.

Russell hopes Trump will be a good pres­i­dent. He points out Obama has said the same: “If Trump suc­ceeds, the coun­try suc­ceeds.”

To which Russell added: “What coun­try? Rus­sia?”

The Cheshire cat smile spread once more over Russell’s court- jester coun­te­nance.

“We can only spec­u­late on what kind of dirt the Rus­sians have on Trump,” he says. “Well, it couldn’t be any more dirt than what we Amer­i­cans have on him. And Trump was so disgraced that we elected him pres­i­dent.”

“Trump will be great for com­edy. How could it not be, for heaven’s sake? But feath­ers will be ruf­fled. Hope­fully peo­ple will not go to jail.”

 ?? JARRAD HEN­DER­SON, USA TO­DAY ?? Po­lit­i­cal satirist Mark Russell con­tin­ues to write ma­te­rial even though he in­sists he is re­tired.
JARRAD HEN­DER­SON, USA TO­DAY Po­lit­i­cal satirist Mark Russell con­tin­ues to write ma­te­rial even though he in­sists he is re­tired.
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ?? PHO­TOS BY JARRAD HEN­DER­SON, USA TO­DAY ?? As a kid in Buf­falo, Russell took pi­ano lessons. “I was Irv­ing Shire’s worst stu­dent,” he once wrote.
PHO­TOS BY JARRAD HEN­DER­SON, USA TO­DAY As a kid in Buf­falo, Russell took pi­ano lessons. “I was Irv­ing Shire’s worst stu­dent,” he once wrote.

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