Mark Russell Dies: PBS Piano-Playing Political Satirist Was 90

Mark Russell, the political satirist who delivered his wisecracks to the tunes of his piano on PBS specials for nearly 30 years, died today of prostate cancer at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 90.

His death was announced to the Washington Post by his wife Alison Russell.

Russell, sporting a bow tie and standing behind a usually flag-draped piano, was a staple of PBS from 1975 to 2004, where his bipartisan jabs and jaunty playing melded with the gently intellectual tone of the network. With a persona and style closer to Will Rogers than Lenny Bruce, Russell was an affable TV presence whose topical observations offered a family-friendly alternative during an era when George Carlin was saying seven dirty words and Saturday Night Live was making pot jokes.

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Still, his amenable demeanor could serve as Trojan Horse for his most pointed and ego-deflating quips. After the exposure of President Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos, Russell said, “Believe me when I say that Bill Clinton’s second term will be good for business. My business.”

“President-elect Trump,” Russell quipped in 2016. “When that hyphen disappears, abandon all hope.”

“Mark Russell was an extraordinarily talent satirist with a unique comic voice,” said comedian Lewis Black in a statement today. “He had a rapier wit. Which are words I rarely use to describe a comedian.”

Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart said, “Mark Russell was a DC institution who did the hardest thing a comic can do…relentlessly and righteously mock his neighbors.”

Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Russell briefly attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. before a stint in the Marines. By the early 1960s, he was presenting his song parodies as a resident performer as the Shoreham Hotel in D.C., building a name in comedy that led to PBS the following decade. In 1977 he was a regular on CBS’s summer replacement variety series The Starland Vocal Band Show, and from 1979 to 1984 appeared on NBC’s Real People reality show.

Russell gave his final performance in 2016 at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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