W?hen piano-playing political humorist Mark Russell sat down with producers at WNED-TV to work on a one-hour retrospective of his work, the task of boiling down three decades of material – more than 100 hourlong TV specials – was daunting.
The production team whittled away at the transcripts and was ?still left with four hours of footage. A few of the bits – Gerald Ford's clumsiness, Jimmy Carter's oil crisis, TV evangelism – were indispensable. How could they possibly trim another three hours?
Russell's answer? "I figured the best way to do that would be to eliminate the word ‘Lewinsky,' " he said, with a straight face.
Television audiences will see the result at 9 p.m. Friday, when WNED-TV Buffalo-Toronto airs "Mark Russell's America." The special – a PBS fundraiser – covers the terms of Presidents Ford through George W. Bush. The program chronicles the balanced-budget amendment, Clinton's impeachment vote and Desert Storm. Framing the topical bits is commentary from Russell, recorded this spring at the WNED studios.
"I did a lot of fundraisers for local PBS stations," Russell recalled. "And they always had a table of desserts. There were a lot of chocolate pianos, and then I would go back to the hotel and order a hamburger from room service."
The "Mark Russell Comedy Specials" aired on PBS from 1975 to 2004. The programs were filmed live at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on the University at Buffalo North Campus until November 1993, when they moved to WNED's then-new downtown studios.
"Mark got us through wars. He found a way to make humor around some really serious topics such as abortion or tobacco, the role of women in politics or our dependence on foreign oil," said Lynne Bader-Gregory, WNED senior producer/director. "There was 30 years of wonderful material sitting in our library."
> In the beginning
Russell, who attended St. Paul's School in Kenmore, took piano lessons from Irving Shire (father of Oscar-winning composer David Shire). Russell also played piano in a band that entertained at Canisius High School, where he says he graduated 169th in a class of 211. Even then, Russell recalled making jokes about teachers and the school. And when he joined the U.S. Marines, Russell quipped that, after the Jesuits, boot camp was anticlimactic.
Russell is from Kenmore, but PBS executives discovered him performing his political piano parodies at the Shoreham Hotel on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where he has lived for decades. The pilot for his PBS series was filmed in 1974 in the Grand Ballroom of Buffalo's Statler Hotel — on the same September day that Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.
"Gerry Ford was a good man," Russell said. "He was a decent man. He played football, but in the rigors of the campaign he tripped a couple of times, and that's all the comedians needed. Week after week, Chevy Chase portrayed Ford bumbling and tripping and crashing into things, but Ford could laugh at himself. Several years later he had a humor seminar at his presidential library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Among the invited guests was Chevy Chase."
In town to make the new recordings for his special, Russell was found in the "green room" at WNED-TV studios on Lower Terrace. The Russells are planning a 26-state, two-month summer road trip, a vacation he described as "a bucket list kind of thing, even though I'm in good health. [His wife] Ali is driving. I've got a little, tiny tape recorder, and I'll just talk and talk."
> A PBS character
Russell made his mark in public broadcasting in the 1970s and '80s, when many of the programs were character-driven.
"That's when Mister Rogers was created. That's when Julia Child prospered," said Bader-Gregory."We think of PBS programming in the past as something very personal. That's why Mark did so well back then, and that is why he is remembered now."
Russell taped up to nine shows a year, including year-end specials and a songbook special. He also took his show on the road, performing in cities across the country. His last show aired in April 2004.
"While the band would be warming up the audience, I would be sitting sweating bullets because I was going on live — and I would wonder which joke would work," Russell recalled.
In "Mark Russell's America," he answers his own question during one of his many pokes at the Clinton years, noting that Lewinsky jokes were just "too easy," he said. Instead, he said, "Bill Clinton didn't jog... He ran around."
Russell reads three and four newspapers a day to keep his bits fresh and he posts regularly on his website.
"It's what I do," he explained. "When you live in Washington and go to a dinner party, you have the same conversation that we're having now. We wallow in this stuff. I made a career out of wallowing."
Russell's timely observations predate today's television satirists, including Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report." One television and pop culture expert sees some key differences between Russell and the others.
"Political satire in this country in the electronic media has actually been pretty weak, given the fact we live in a republic, have a First Amendment and all the rest of it," said Robert Thompson, director of the Blier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "For years, you had Johnny Carson telling jokes about politics, but he was by no means a political humorist. Even ‘Saturday Night Live,' when you had Chevy Chase doing pratfalls making fun of how Jerry Ford was clumsy, that wasn't political satire. That was slapstick. A lot of it was politically based jokes that gave us no insight."
Advance the clock three decades, and consider Tina Fey's brilliant take on Palin.
"As funny as that was and for as much as it brought attention to the way [Palin] can talk about anything and not make sense, that was an impersonation. It's wasn't political satire. I would say the same things about Mark Russell's songs. Now, some of his jokes were definitely satirical."
Of his 30 brilliant years on PBS, Russell quips: "I was never censored. I never lost financial support. I was never indicted, and never thrown in jail – which means that, as a political satirist, I failed."?