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Political Comedian Mark Russell Returns to Happy Valley For First Time in 20 Years

by on July 27, 2014 10:00 AM

On his way down from New York, comedian Mark Russell wondered about how to handle jokes about the Sandusky scandal in his scheduled performance at the State Theatre at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Russell, a comedy veteran of several decades, says he’s no stranger to controversy. Having made a career out of political humor, he’s laughed at national scandals and poked fun at every important politician. Controversy is part of the job description.

“I was wondering about what State College has in common with the rest of the country,” Russell says and pauses for a moment. “Well, their last president was a disgrace." 

He says this with a gentle edge, as if he looks forward to the mixture of laughter and anguish such a joke is likely to produce. For Russell, a successful show involves a delicate balance of laughter and offense.

With something like the Sandusky situation, he says you “never want to rub your audience's nose in that.” Instead, you call attention to it and move on to other topics. In preparation for his shows, Russell reads the news every day, finding a wealth of humor in the daily absurdities of politics.

“Congress is always a great target, and that’s how it should be,” he says. “If we get too complacent on Congress, we’ll be worse off than the Banana Republic.”

Jay Bartlett, a member of the board of directors of the State Theatre, says he was very excited for the chance to bring Russell to State College. He says he feels the PBS television star of 30 years will appeal to residents of a variety of ages and backgrounds, something the theatre has been trying to focus on.

“He’s just been all over public broadcasting for most of his long career,” Bartlett says. “That’s one of the reasons we brought him in. He’s very popular and people love him.”

Russell says people don’t always love him. He says that when he talks with audience members after a show, some people tell him that he’s too hard on elected officials -- roughly an equal number of people tell him that he’s not being hard enough.

Both reactions are vital to Russell’s performances. He says he “tries to be bipartisan without looking like too much of a fool.” When he gets conflicting opinions from his audience, he knows he’s hitting the right mark.

“If someone is upset at me about what I’m saying about Obama, then they would’ve loved me when George W. Bush was in office,” Russell says. “In the end, God will decide how fair I really was.”

He calls his comedy “a basic form of cowardice” and says he first started down the road to being a comedian back in parochial school, where he made fun of the nuns behind their backs. Later, while serving a stint in the Marines, he laughed at the officers’ expense.

Now, while laughing at politicians’ expense, Russell says he sometimes gets interesting insight into the world of politics based on an audience’s reactions to his work. While working a cruise ship in the 80s – and performing for people he says were too rich to ever feel threatened by his jokes – he knew Bill Clinton would win his presidential election when the stereotypically Republican audience supported the democratic candidate.

In the end, some things never change. Congress stays inept, politicians stay corrupt, and Russell keeps laughing. 

“Right now, there’s the whole thing with Putin and people saying the Cold War is back, which is kind of frightening,” Russel says. “There’s also the fact that that we’re spying on Germany, or as my generation calls it: nostalgia.”

He says he’s never had plans during his career to try and impart any real worldview to his audience. Once you veer from telling jokes to preaching, he says you very quickly lose your audience.

“I’m just always glad to get offstage without being physically harmed,” Russell says. “The whole idea of performing is exhilarating, and it’s still fun after all these years.”

Russell will perform at the State Theatre at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 27. For more information, including ticket availability and pricing, visit TheStateTheatre.org or call (814) 272-0606.

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Michael Garrett is a freelance reporter who covers a wide range of assignments for StateCollege.com.
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