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Mark Russell, piano-playing political satirist, dies at 90

Mark Russell, a master of political satire who stood at a star-spangled piano and kept the cognoscenti in stitches for six decades with musical parodies and professorial tomfoolery that tweaked politicians and captured the silly side of Washington, died Thursday at his home there. He was 90.

The cause was prostate cancer, said his wife, Alison Russell.

With his deadpan solemnity, stars-and-stripes stage sets and fusty bow ties, Mark Russell looked more like a senator than a comic. But as the capital merry-go-round spun its peccadilloes, scandals and ballyhooed promises, his jaunty baritone restored order with bipartisan japes and irreverent songs to deflate the preening ego and the Big Idea.

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Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump caught the flak. He sang “Bail to the Chief” for Richard Nixon, urged George H.W. Bush to retire “to a home for the chronically preppy,” likened Jimmy Carter’s plan to streamline government to “putting racing stripes on an arthritic camel,” and recalled first seeing Ronald Reagan “in the picture frame department at Woolworth’s, between Gale Storm and Walter Pidgeon.”

Did he have any writers? “Oh, yes — 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.” The true meaning of the Cold War? “In communism, man exploits man. But with capitalism, it’s the other way around.” Gun control? “I will defend my Second Amendment right to use my musket to defend my Third Amendment right to never, ever allow a British soldier to live in my house.”

For 20 years, from 1961 to 1981, he was the resident onstage wit at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, and for 30 years, from 1975 to 2004, he hosted comedy specials on PBS. He also appeared on CNN and NBC, and on a national circuit of colleges, conventions and other venues, often 100 times a year.

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Critics said that the political satire of Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer had more cutting edge, but Mr. Russell thrived on subtler material that went over with students, politicians and public television audiences. He exploited popular presidential images: Gerald R. Ford’s stumbling, Bill Clinton’s sexual foibles, Reagan’s jelly beans. But he also struck a balance between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, with humor that required a certain familiarity with national and international affairs, if not political sophistication.

As he told The New York Times in 1981, “Events fall right into your hands in this town.”

Long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert exposed the illusions of virtue in Washington, there was Mark Ruslander from Buffalo, New York, a college dropout and Marine Corps veteran who landed in the capital in 1956, changed his surname to Mr. Russell and began playing piano in striptease joints and bars.

He later inserted political wisecracks into his patter at the Carroll Arms cocktail lounge, near the Capitol. It was a hangout for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his sidekicks, and the conventioneers and tourists flocked to see the Capitol insiders as much as the entertainment.

One night in 1959, after a news report disclosed that an Iowa congressman’s teenage son was his highest-paid staff member, Mr. Russell sang his first parody, composed by his friend Sid Yudain, the founder of the congressional newspaper Roll Call, to the tune of a Frankie Laine hit, “That Lucky Old Sun.”

Up in the mornin'Out on the jobWorkin' for my daddyFor my pay-ay.Just a lucky young sonWith nothin' to doBut roll around CongressAll day-ay.

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After that, Mr. Russell wrote his own parodies, mostly to the melodies of old standards. Alert to political shenanigans, he learned that a Minnesota congresswoman had been ordered home by her irate husband, who was tired of her politics interfering with his family life. To the tune of “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” Mr. Russell sang, “Won’t you come home, Coya Knutson?”

As Mr. Russell’s reputation spread, the Carroll Arms lounge became the Hill’s “in” spot. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy, Vice President Nixon and Kennedy-Johnson press secretary Pierre Salinger began dropping in. Mr. Russell acquired a following among White House and congressional aides and reporters. He took in the gossip and read newspapers and even The Congressional Record for material.

After two years, he moved up to the Shoreham, in northwest Washington, home to many prominent politicians and inaugural balls. He packed in the crowds for years. He also performed in New York, Chicago, Montreal and London; wrote a nationally syndicated humor column; and became one of the nation’s best-known comedians.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal gave Mr. Russell a windfall of gags for a series of comedy albums and stand-up one-liners. (“I called the White House this morning, and the only reply I got was a recording of ‘Taps.’”)

Presidents were all grist: “Jimmy Carter went to Philadelphia for the bicentennial. He laid hands on the Liberty Bell and the crack was healed. Hallelujah!” “Gerald Ford reminds me of the guy who answers the meat buzzer at the A&P.”

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Joseph Marcus Ruslander was born in Buffalo on Aug. 23, 1932, the older of two sons of Marcus and Marie (Perry) Ruslander. His father worked in a gas station; his mother, in a department store. For Mark and his brother, Dan, humor was a staple of family life.

“I come from a funny family,” Mr. Russell told The Washington Post in 1976. “There was a kind of competitiveness as far back as I can remember. We were always putting each other on.”

The brothers sang and played the piano at family gatherings. They made their first public appearance when Mark, 12, and Dan, 8, put on a show and won free passage on an overnight boat across Lake Erie to visit an uncle in Detroit. At 14, Mark formed a band that played at a Buffalo restaurant. His heroes were Fred Allen and Jack Benny on the radio, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin in the movies.

After he graduated from Canisius High School in Buffalo, the family moved to Florida, where Mark attended the University of Miami briefly, then to Washington, where he studied for a month at George Washington University before enlisting in the Marines in 1953. He served in Japan and Hawaii, and he began his career after returning to Washington.

Mr. Russell and his first wife, Rebekah Ward, were married in 1955. The couple had three children, Monica, Matthew and John, and were divorced in 1975. In 1978, he married Alison Kaplan. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children; a brother, Dan Ruskin; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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In 1975, Mr. Russell began appearing live four or more times a year on PBS in solo half-hour specials. Most originated in Buffalo, but others were telecast from around the world. They were consistently among the highest-rated programs on the network.

His autobiography, “Presenting Mark Russell,” was published in 1980. He retired in 2010, but two years later he could not resist a comeback as President Barack Obama, seeking reelection, squared off against Mitt Romney.

“No comedian wants Obama to win,” he said, relishing the prospect of four years of new material on the comedy circuit. “We may vote for Obama, but we want Romney.”

In a 2016 show in Greensboro, North Carolina, Mr. Russell promised to be “as balanced as is humanly possible, without prostituting myself,” adding, “There are so many controversial issues that I have to double up to save time.”

Pause.

“So Bill Cosby and Hillary Clinton walk into a bar. …”

Pause.

“So Bill Cosby and Donald Trump walk into a bar. …”