Mark Russell, comedian who packed a political punch, dies at 90

Mark Russell, the bowtie-wearing comedian known for playing the piano while packing a political punch with his jokes, has reportedly died at the age of 90.

The longtime performer died Thursday at his home in Washington, D.C., due to prostate cancer, according to The New York Times.

The Buffalo, N.Y.-born satirist worked his way up the comedy circuit after touching down in Washington with a musical act in the 1960s.

“I started up on the Hill at the late little Carroll Arms Hotel, across from the Senate, right where the parking [lot] is on First and C [Streets],” Russell told The Washington Post in 1993.


The crowd who frequented the hotel at his early gigs, Russell recalled, “just wanted to hear about politics.”

“Every night in there was like a little private party, lobbyists and Senate staff and so forth,” Russell, who was born Joseph Marcus Ruslander, said.

In 1975, Russell landed a series of PBS specials, where his zingers knew no partisan bounds — lobbed at Democrats and Republicans alike. The specials would continue on PBS until 2004.

The spectacled entertainer became the first comedian to headline Washington’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 1983.

The whole country, Russell said in a 1991 interview, is “divided into two groups — the people who are curious and not curious.”

“It takes people who read the op-ed pages, listen to public affairs shows, C-SPAN and all that. There you have knocked off the mass audience. There is a certain elitism about it,” he said of his comedy at the time.

In a statement, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) called Russell a “once-in-a-generation mind” who “had the ability to make us laugh when we needed it the most.”

Describing him as a “special man and friend,” Dingell said, “He had his finger on the pulse of the country and helped keep life in perspective with his wit.”

The Times reported that in addition to his wife, Alison Russell, he is survived by a brother, his children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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