Mark Russel photo

FIREZINE Interviews Mark Russel, The Singing Political Humorist

Mark Russel and Freditor photo

MARK RUSSELL: Proctor and Bergman founded The Firesign Theatre in the 60s, I guess. I worked with them. They used to come to Washington a lot and they'd come to see my show and then we'd hang out, as the expression goes, people did. And then I did a summer show, on CBS in the summer of '77. It was hosted by a musical group that had a hit record called "Afternoon Delight", and these were kids from Washington called The Starland Vocal Band. In fact they're installed in the section of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland called One Hit Wonders. Anyway Proctor and Bergman were on there. They just had friends of their's on. I was on there. And then there was a comic who was on there, and he was just a kid who wasn't any more well known then any of us, and it was David Letterman.

FIREZINE: Peter Bergman had some funny things to say about Bob Dole. He said that he's the Bob Dole sacrificial lamb. It's chewed up in the spring, well digested in the summer, and entirely passed by fall!

MR: Oooh. Now when you do a joke like that, well at least if it was me, you'd have to quickly, quickly, hit a Democrat. You've got to hit Clinton so fast, after that or maybe not. But I remember for years, during the Nixon era and during the Reagan era. So you'd talk about them. In my act its not all 50 / 50, it's always's tilted toward one guy, and that's just the way it's done. You don't sit there with a calculator. But anyway, obviously I had an awful lot of Nixons, and then later Reagan. And so I'd see somebody in the audience and he'd really looks any show there's the quintessential audience member who's really ticked by now. And he's about ready to come up on stage, because of all this Reagan stuff. And I know that a reference to Chappaquidic will be like cool water on his fevered brow. See. That's all it took or just Kennedy. Or Dan Rather. There's something about Dan Rather...know you could just yell out, "Bleep Dan Rather", and that guy would be happy for about 2 minutes, until you got back on the Republicans. So you know it is a balancing act for survival. Some people, uh, they don't care. They just have more of an agenda and they want to hammer away. You have people on radio now who are not required to balance it, obviously. It's just straight ah.. it's a monolithic view. But being on Public Television, funded in part by the government, PBS, literally, when I started doing the show in the mid-70s, and we were still under that 60's syndrome, so PBS literally wrapped the piano in a flag, just to take away any feelings that I might be some sort of an anarchist. You know? So I still have the bunting on the piano also to remind the audience that it's still illegal to set fire to the piano while I'm playing.

Have I ever said what party I'm affiliated with or lean toward? No, I'm a confused independent, but I can be bought. I voted for Nixon in '60. The first I voted, I guess was in '56. It was Eisenhower, just because it was Eisenhower. I didn't know anything about this stuff. My parents were for Eisenhower. They didn't like Adelaide Stevenson because he was an intellectual, he was an egghead. I said that word egghead. The word egghead in it's use today originated with Adelaide Stevenson. And reading about him later on, I was delighted with him, but I knew why he didn't win because his humor was a little vague, a little subtle. We had the same situation with Eugene McCarthy. You have the same situation with Bob Dole. Bob Dole, they have him in check now. They have some sort of a device on him, sort of a humor version of the nicotine patch. But I love his sarcasm, but it's wrong. Whoever is handling him I guess in that aspect because when he went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, again, in Cleveland. In the media some guy reporter said, "Who's your favorite rock band?" And Dole said, "Well we haven't gotten to that part yet." I liked that. He wasn't being stupid, he was being Dole.

FZ: How did you feel when Dole turned down Harold Stassen for his Vice President? He offered?

MR: There again. See he said, "Well that's ridiculous, Harold Stassen's 106 years old." That's his charm, his wit, and you and I are the only one's who got it, obviously.

FZ: So what do you think was the political humor of the conventions?

MR: None. You know when Jerry Ford gets the best joke, you know you're in trouble. The convertible Dodge was a great joke. It was also the last one. Gore's sight gag with the macarena. That was it. Humor is very very risky, particularly for a candidate, unless he's been in so long that it just doesn't matter, and he's not running for president. But it's just that people are so sensitive and so touchy, and you're just going to upset somebody without ever realizing it. They opted for none and then it became a parade for personal tragedies. What that has to do with an election I don't know. It was sort of the best of all possible worlds I suppose. It was the Jerry Lewis Telethon, without Jerry.

FZ: Clinton used to have a sense of humor?

MR: He does. I gotta tell ya. That at these dinners in Washington, we have about half a dozen a year: there's the Grid Iron, there's the White House correspondents, there's the Radio and Television correspondents, and these are these big glitzy dinners that the theme of the evening is humor, see? And Clinton does better than anybody since Kennedy, in my opinion. He's that good, he really is that good. He's got some good writers. He has a fellow named Mark Katz, a young guy. But yeah, don't look for it out here on the campaign trail. It's too risky. People grumble. People are not in a good mood when any politician's face appears on television. Why do you think they always boo? You know that a given in life in human nature, is that at a sporting event, a baseball game, a football game, you never introduce a politician, is because he'll be booed. I don't care if he's the most beloved person in the world, its part of the game. I remember at one time at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, an Oriole's game and somebody brought one of the candidates by, and the owner of the team was Edward Bennet Williams. And "We want this guy introduced. What publicity, look at that. All these people here." And Edward Bennet Williams says, "I might as well tell you, I don't want to interfere. People at a ball game, without even listening for the person's name, no matter, you could introduce one of the apostles, at this thing, they're gonna boo. It's just the way, that's it." See? So politicians make 'em uncomfortable. So if you try to be funny, it's too risky.

FZ: Dole in the '76 campaign tried to be funny, and it didn't work too well.

MR: See a vice president can get away with a little more. but it's too risky. But in this half century, natural wit, natural humor, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, that's about it.

FZ: Have you made any enemies with the politicians over the years?

MR: I hope I have, because if I haven't, I'm not doing it right. The figures themselves, they know that ...If they're in serious trouble, I mean a politician, that's been indicted that day, isn't gonna show up in the audience that night. I remember about 4 years ago when they had this bank scandal where'd they all overdrawn at the House of Representatives bank. I was on the road, and they'd say, "Well we invited the congressman to your show and he just cancelled." I said, "I could have told you that. He wrote a 185 bad checks, he's not going to show up here." They're sensitive to that.

The thing that you're faulted on today is not that you are too tough, or not that you aren't careful. It's that you might have been too soft. People want that red meat now because you have to keep up with the mood and the mood today is harsh. It really is. So the point is: don't be too soft, don't be accused of whimping out, keep it on the edge without making them squirm. It's a juggling act. I don't care about embarrassing anybody.

FZ: Do you have another special coming up before the election?

MR: No the next one is the day after the election, live. No matter who wins, I'll be ready because I keep 2 sets of books.