It's amazing to see a performer so fresh come out of an environment that has become so stale.
Mark Russell, who played a one-nighter at Caltech in Pasadena on Friday, has worked virtually his entire career as a Washington insider. Unlike most other comedians who, when they make a lame pass towards a political joke, almost desperately lean on shared prejudices with their audience, Russell knows the people he jokes about. He goes to their dinners and their ceremonial affairs (where he knows his jokes will be stolen). He plays their game. But he also takes their measure.
Washington loves it, because he's funny and tart and entertaining, and because the good comedian always creates a bit of fear that the Establishment (this is true in Hollywood as well) tries to smother in an embrace. But in the last few years Russell has been slipping more and more outside the Beltway to the country at large. On Friday he gave us a bit of what Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Mort Sahl have given us: a bit of blessed comic relief from an insider who knows what the outsider feels.
Which isn't to say that Russell doesn't know what the Establishment requires in public address, that combination of Dale Carnegie bonhomie, bluff manner and that knowing insider attitude that lends an after-dinner glow to the good burghers and civic types now done with their banquet rubber chicken and peas and ready for entertainment.
Russell is a take-charge performer. He has trimmed down to look a good deal like the person he seems most to distrust in the current presidential campaign--George Bush. But Russell still has the amiable aggression of a Chamber of Commerce glad-hander. That's the deceptive element he presents, the calling card that gives him entree into white America's power circles.
Fortunately for the rest of us, for years Russell has felt the need to step outside for a breath of fresh air. He was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. He went to a Jesuit high school. He served in the Marine Corps. Is there anything that could fuel a skeptic's mind more?
He opened with an appreciation of the Caltech audience ("When I think of tomorrow's leaders, I think of Caltech; when I think of pot-smoking professors nominated to the Supreme Court, I think of Harvard."), moved to some self-deprecatory jokes about appearing on PBS, "which divides its air time between National Geographic specials and groveling for funds," and then on to the heart of the matter: Life in these United States as seen from Washington.
The Ronald Reagan presidency, which began so grandly and now seems to be slipping away so ignobly, is encapsulated in the question posed him about the late CIA head William Casey: "Did Casey carry on covert operations without your knowing?" To which Reagan answers, "Not to my knowledge."
The thin and sometimes nonexistent line between satire and the thing satirized runs through Russell's routine like a fault line. Sure the National Rifle Assn. has a right to legalized machine guns. Doesn't an Uzi automatic take the trouble out of duck hunting? And what about that congressional move to take Playboy out of libraries for the blind? That's sure to stop the porn movement in America.
Russell polled the audience on its favorite presidential candidates and did a joke and song on virtually all of them. The evangelical Pat Robertson puts hand to prayerful head and divinely dispenses with the new Cuban missile crisis. George Bush campaigning in the South exclaims, "Free at last! Free at last! Golly it feels neat to be free at last!" Alexander Haig draws this parting sally: "I had a good slogan: 'Elect Al Haig. Let's get it over with.' "
What's the most ideally secluded place in which to conduct an international covert action? The White House, of course. Nobody accountable is at home. At least Oliver North makes an attractive defendant for a presidency that seems now more characterized by defendants than advocates (the "R.C.C." behind the name Lyn Nofziger R.C.C. refers to "Reagan Crony Convicted"), unlike the Nixon era, where "Haldeman and Ehrlichman looked like defendants at the Nuremberg trials."
The audience was reluctant to let go of Russell at the end. Maybe America needs an ambassador to Washington.