PHOTO COURTESY FORD’S THEATRE
Mark Russell
PHOTO COURTESY FORD’S THEATRE Mark Russell

Retirement didn’t sit well with Mark Russell. Or rather, the political satirist got bored of sitting, reading books and taking trips. Retirement, says Russell, was “awful.”

“Performing on stage is very liberating. It’s the only time in my life when I’m in control,” joked Russell in an Aug. 5 telephone interview from Oneonta, New York, where he was on the road, preparing for a show later that week at the Mount Gretna Playhouse in Pennsylvania.

Russell, who turns 83 on Aug. 23, is a Buffalo native who made Washington his home and political satire his life’s work, because of the abundant comedic material emanating from the White House and Congress. For decades he performed his comedy routine, accompanied by his piano playing and songs poking fun at the world of politics, at the Shoreham Hotel and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, with frequent appearances on public television.

In 2010, he decided to stop performing after decades of skewering politicians, but two years later, when he heard news that a congressman had been caught skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee, “I said, ‘That’s it! I’m coming out of retirement!’” Russell joked.

Just in time for the upcoming presidential race, Russell will be performing a one-night show at the historic Ford’s Theatre on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. Tickets go on sale for the performance on Aug. 17.

This promises to be an eventful fall in Washington, with Pope Francis visiting the White House and addressing Congress. It’s safe to say that Russell – a lifelong Catholic and member of Annunciation Parish in Washington – will be mining those events for possible gags and songs.

Interviewed the day before the first Republican presidential candidate debate, Russell said, “I don’t want (Donald) Trump to be damaged. (If) he drops out of the race, I lose 15 minutes of material!”

When asked if he stored his old jokes on Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, Russell noted that he writes his jokes in longhand, and he has 50 years of material on ringed notebooks. “When I was a kid, the nuns never taught the boys to type!” he said. “The only electronic device I know how to use in my house is the toaster. I can upload toast.”

On his website, markrussell.net, (which presumably was set up with someone’s technical assistance), Russell jokes that, “I am very 19th century with technology. (I thought Dot Com was my maiden aunt.)”

One thing that Russell doesn’t find funny is the current political climate in Washington, which he finds to be “mean.”  He added, “The word sacrifice doesn’t exist. You dare not ask people to sacrifice.” 

Joking about congressional gridlock, he said that Congress tried to pass a resolution commemorating Cinco de Mayo, “but they couldn’t agree on the date.”

One gig he especially enjoyed over the years was emceeing Anchor Mental Health’s annual Festival of Hope, which he joked resulted from a penance he received decades earlier from the Catholic group’s founder, the late Msgr. John Kuhn. The comedian said he confessed to making a living ridiculing the misfortunes of others, and he joked that his priest friend then asked him if he could do that for his group at their annual benefit each spring.

“They were great audiences, local Washington audiences. I would use it to break in material, and see how much I could get away with religious jokes,” Russell said

Russell performed at Anchor’s gala for nearly four decades. He said each year, people helped by the program offered moving testimonials to how their lives had been changed. That agency’s outreach is now part of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. 

In recent years, Russell also helped host the fall gala for SOAR – Support our Aging Religious – with one show featuring a gag about the “Nuns on the Bus.”

A Buffalo native, Russell graduated from the Jesuit-sponsored Canisius High School there, which is also the alma mater of the late “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert.  After a short stint at George Washington University, Russell joined the Marines. “After the Jesuits, the Marines were anti-climactic,” Russell joked.

Asked which have been his favorite presidents over the years, Russell said that maybe Presidents Reagan and Clinton provided the best material, but he added, “Nobody ever let me down!”

(Tickets for “An Evening with Mark Russell” at Ford’s Theatre can be purchased at the theatre’s box office, or by calling (800) 982-2787 or online.)