88 Keys; Endless material Political satirist Mark Russell coming to Regis College October 17

To read the news today is to read a great tragedy. From unemployment and political stagnation at home to unspeakable hatred and deception abroad, there is nothing much to smile about.That is, of course, unless you are political satirist Mark Russell.

For over 30 years, Russell has been using his keen wit, clever turns of phrase and his piano talents to poke fun at the people and things that take so much fun out of life for so many. He’ll be doing so one more time at Casey Theatre @ Regis College Friday Oct. 17.

“I took piano lessons when I was young” Russell recalls, “and wanted to be jazz piano player, but to this day, I only know a few chords….I would have been a good zydeco musician!” As there was no Zydeco in Buffalo (where he grew up) or in DC (where his family moved when he was 18), Russell stuck more to the genres of Jazz and the Great American Songbook.

“Often, I use original melodies because I do not know any songs that came after 1956,” Russell laughs, recalling such recent favorites as “The Road to Damascus” {a take off on the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby theme “Road to Morocco”) and a tune that pokes fun at a former Secretary of State who claimed that she and her Intern Commander in Chief were broke when they left the White House.

“I have them singing ‘We’re for sale’ to the tune of ‘Love for Sale,’” Russell says.

While his melodies may be “simple,” Russell’s lyrics are far from it. Loathe to pick such low-hanging fruit as using the great Israeli leader Menachem Begin’s name in a parody of “Begin the Beguine,” Russell chooses instead to challenge himself, as he did when he tried to rhyme “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” “You have to sneak up on it and surprise the audience,” Russell advises, “so you can’t rhyme ‘drama’ with ‘Obama.’”

Fortunately, Russell is rarely without lyrical material. Inspired by the legendary likes of Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer, backed by a team of 535 writers (100 in the Senate and 435 in the House) and fueled by the multiple newspapers he reads daily (Yes, Virginia- Someone still does read newspapers!). Russell takes aim at every deserving target and in the process, hits heads, hearts and funny bones across the nation.

“I always wanted to be in some kind of show biz,” he muses, recalling underage nightclub visits with his brother (now also a musician in DC) family in Buffalo. “Buffalo was quite a town in those days and my parents were very supportive.”

Such support continued when the Russells moved to Washington and U.S. Marine Mark got a gig playing at the Carol Arms, a “lively place” which happened to be across the street from the offices of the U.S. Senate. “Lobbyists were there picking up checks for members,” Russell recalls. “Staffers are there and reporters were hitting on the staffers….It was a wild scene!”

Having gotten his first post-Marine taste of performance at the “community sing” at the Arms, Russell eventually caught the attention of regular vistiors, many of whom began inviting friends from other parts of the District to come catch his act.

“One night,” he recalls, “a congressman said, ‘If you really want us to listen to you, sing about us more!’” Russell soon began spending time at the Senate caucus room, watching labor hearings that featured such famous (and infamous) characters as John F. Kennedy and Joe McCarthy. “At the end of the hearings, they would come across the street to the hotel,” Russell explains. “We had the Teamsters on one side staring down the senators on the other….It was quite dramatic!”

In an effort to keep things light and “keep the peace,” Russell began singing silly songs about the Senate proceedings, “They would each feed me dirt on the other side of the aisle,” the “apolitical” politcal commentator explains. “I was pulled at by both sides.”

Russell was soon pulled to larger venues, eventually ending up on PBS. No matter where he performs however, the thing that makes a Mark Russell show so special is that every show is different with material taken from that day’s headlines and some that may even predict and presage foibles yet to come.

“There’s a pattern when a new president is elected,” Russell observes. “People say I am going to have a field day. When Obama was elected, however, they didn’t say that. They said you can’t joke about this guy and they meant because he was black. I didn’t agree with that. I may be perceived as being a little easy on him, but…now it’s easier because the Democrats are hitting him as hard as the Republicans are.”  Though he recently “retired” – like The Who, like Cher, like David Bowie –  Russell was inspired to “come out.”

Why? By the overwhelming comedy inherent in politics. “I did it when those four congressmen went to the Middle East and got drunk and went skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee,” he explains of his welcome return to the stage. “It was funny, but had they . it would have been even funnier!”

Show: 7:30. Tickets: $30 for adults; $20 for students, seniors, Regis faculty/staff/alumnimarkrussell

– Matt Robinson

235 Wellesley Street, Weston  781-768- 7070 boxoffice@regiscollege.edu 

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