Mark Russell: Agent provocateur' of satire
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2000
In a comedic sense, Mark Russell is an outside agitator. He makes us look at ourselves and forces us to laugh at what we see.
Can't be helped.
Russell, undaunted indeed, encouraged by the dimpled chads of Indecision 2000, strode across the stage at Meridian Community College's Ivy Auditorium last Thursday night, Mississippi flag in hand.
Planting the flagpole stage left, he turned to face the assembled sell-out crowd of at least 556 people and two inconsiderate television reporters who insisted on mumbling loudly to themselves in the back of the room.
It was a thrill, he said, to fulfill a lifelong ambition of appearing at MCC's Arts and Letters Series, his fourth or fifth visit to Mississippi. He said everyone was treating him well and people were really hospitable.
How would you feel, he said, if you had arrived at "Meridian International Airport" and been greeted personally by Mayor John Robert Smith?
The crowd murmured ooh's and ahh's.
And so goes the dry wit of Russell, host of a TV program on PBS (not PMS, as some have accused), popular on the college lecture circuit and a man who prescribes comic relief for the ailments of the day.
First, addressing the burning issue of whether to change the state flag, Russell noted the controversial Confederate canton corner only covers about 25 percent of the state flag so maybe the flag should be displayed just 75 percent of the time.
In fact, he said, without the canton corner, the Mississippi flag bears a remarkable resemblance to the flag of France.
The state slogan, he said, should be "Vive la grits."
Why can't we all learn to get along together, he mused, "just like the Arabs and Jews."
With a seemingly endless supply of fresh material from the presidential election, Russell observed Bosnia and Haiti offered to send election observers to Florida, and Miami-Dade had decided not to count ballots "until we get Elian Gonzales back."
Russell pens little rhymes and sets them to music on his trademark piano. One crowd favorite was "Dangle the chad and I don't care," performed to the tune of Jimmy Crack Corn.
Given the interest in DNA testing, he said the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemming families recently gathered in Washington it was the "million family march." Wouldn't it be neat, he said, if an ironic outcome of DNA testing would be the discovery that Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms were cousins.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., took his lumps, too. Quoting a Lott statement about Hillary Clinton's election to the Senate from New York, about how she would only be one of a hundred senators, Russell translated: What Lott really meant was, "Woman, what time is supper?"
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The specter of 450,000 ballots from Palm Beach heading up to the highway to Tallahassee under armed guard was strangely reminiscent of the police pursuit of O.J. Simpson in 1995.
Millions of Americans sat glued to their televisions as the white Bronco, with O.J. slumped down below eye level, traveled down L.A. freeways, police cars with sirens and flashing lights alongside.
Substitute a yellow Ryder rental truck for the Bronco and Florida highways for California freeways and you have the picture which attracted millions to TV last Thursday.
All those Miami-Dade presidential ballots packed inside the truck, on their way to … what, being counted or discarded? Media choppers overhead bringing the latest pictures reminded us of what this is all about.
Oh, to have heard Mark Russell's next performance.
* * *
Political satire is a cherished institution in a country where too many politicians take themselves far too seriously. Russell seems to be saying let's lighten up a little and laugh at ourselves. He is a national treasure, and the beauty of his act is it spares no one, takes no prisoners and, thus, treats everyone equally.
Ever searching for new material, he surveyed the audience at the end of his performance, asking for applause for our favorite presidential candidate:
No one avoided the griddle.
Early in his performance, Russell said he'd read that day's edition of The Meridian Star:
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.