Thursday, October 24, 2002

Mark Russell: Feeble satirist, parodist; racist

Last night WNED-Buffalo presented still another Mark Russell comedy special on PBS, and I again found myself asking: That was comedy? That was special?

It's the songwriter in me that finds these shows particularly disappointing. Song parody is an admirable sort of tunesmithing, and in capable hands the results can be sublime. Witness the 70s Mad magazine lampoon of "Star Trek," in musical form, which featured this number to the tune of "Aquarius":

As your ship goes through the galaxy
To distant worlds way past Mars
Make sure that your adventures
Do not kill off your stars!

And you can do it with a crew that's dispensible
A crew that's dispensible

I also relish Tom Lehrer's take on Gilbert and Sullivan:

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium

On the other hand, we see in Mark Russell's song parodies--the core of his act--numerous examples of precisely how not to write songs, much less rewrite them: weak rhymes, poor scansion, witless jokes. Russell is even known from time to time to mess with the structure of songs, by inserting a Russell-composed bridge, for example. There are no professional standards for this sort of things, of course, but my feeling is that if the original song is unrecognizable in the song parody, then what's the point?

But it's not just Russell's music that stinks; his comedy is no better. There is ample proof in the efforts of for-profit ventures like The Onion and The Late Show With David Letterman that vigorous, funny satire is alive and well in America. So why are PBS viewers subjected again and again to Mark Russell's lame shtick? At best his comedy is puzzling ("I played a show for the liberal wing of the NRA! Nuns with guns!"), at worst retrograde and offensive ("An Iraqi luau! How do you like your dog!?").

And why, insofar as we expect political satirists to possess a certain awareness of the times, does he choose such hoary tunes to parody? Last night's broadcast included send-ups of such recent hits as "We're Off To See the Wizard" (1939) and Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (1963)--itself a song parody of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from "La Gioconda."

Indeed, I correctly prophesied (using absolutely no effort) that Russell would turn his musical sights upon hapless Martha Stewart, but I gave him far too much credit in the song I predicted he would use: the Beatles' "Martha My Dear." What ditty did he spoof instead? The flower-power anthem "I've Been Working On the Railroad."

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