Mark Russell will satirize the Trump era from the sidelines
Mark Russell’s retirement is no laughing matter for the rest of us
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.”
CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, OR TELL ONE
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.”
HOPING FOR THE BEST
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.
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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.”