Mark Russell, Musical Comedian and Political Satirist Known for Longtime PBS Special, Dies at 90

Jon Stewart remembers him as “a DC institution who did the hardest thing a comic can do… relentlessly and righteously mock his neighbors”

Mark Russell
Mark Russell (Photo courtesy of Gary Hahn)

Piano-playing comedian and political satirist Mark Russell died Thursday at the age of 90, his wife Ali Russell said.

For more than 50 years, Russell took shots at all sectors of the political spectrum with stand-up monologues and song parodies. He was best known for his PBS specials, which he taped six times a year from 1975 to 2004. His routines, which he sang and performed on piano, covered the latest political news with timely lyrical updates of classic songs.

Russell was a member of the National Comedy Center Advisory Board, and was remembered by fellow member Jon Stewart, who said, “Mark Russell was a DC institution who did the hardest thing a comic can do… relentlessly and righteously mock his neighbors.”

“Mark Russell transformed the landscape of political humor in America and, in doing so, influenced a generation of comedic artists,” National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson said. “His musical satires, beloved for decades by those inside and outside of Washington, made him comedy’s greatest lyricist, and the artist most responsible for elevating the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as a premiere platform for comedy when he performed at the dinner 40 years ago. His comedy legacy is unique and incomparable.”

Russell was born Joseph Marcus Ruslander on Aug 23, 1932 in Buffalo, New York. He enrolled at George Washington University in Washington DC before joining the Marines. Starting in the early 1960s, he performed regularly at the Shoreham Hotel in DC.

In 1994, Russell supported 2 Live Crew when the hip hop group was sued for copyright infringement for their parody of Roy Orbison’s song “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Russell and 2 Live Crew’s frontman, Luther R. Campbell, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that song parodies were protected under fair use.

Russell continued to perform new song parodies after his official retirement in 2016, posting new songs on social media throughout the pandemic. As recently as last October, he took on issues including the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Bryon Allen, who worked with Russell on “Real People,” which ran on NBC from 1979 to 1984, called the late comedian “a brilliant man” and “an American treasure.”

“When I met Mark Russell, I surprised myself with how excited I was to meet him,” comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” W. Kamau Bell said. “As a kid who grew up with a mom who made sure that PBS was on our TV as much as any other channel, Mark’s comedy clearly got in my brain and rewired it.”

Kelly Carlin, the daughter of George Carlin and a producer, author and founding National Comedy Center advisory board member, said, “It’s one thing to have a great comedian mind and another to be able to craft a song at the drop of a hat, but to combine them to reveal the endless bullshit of our nation’s politics makes one an American treasure. Mark will be dearly missed by his friends and family, and warmly remembered as a truth teller who made us laugh and want to sing along.”

“He taught me that comedy could be more than just funny and disposable,” Bell added. “He showed that comedy could maybe even be more effective at speaking truth to power, if you made sure people walked out humming along to truth speaking. And he never stopped working, because the point is to keep writing the jokes until the jokes fix the problems. In his honor, I will keep writing the jokes.”