By Lynne Bader, WNED senior producer
The Mark Russell Comedy Specials began with a pilot in 1974, when public television was really in its infancy – taking risks and offering programs you couldn’t find anywhere else. He is truly one of the original faces of PBS. I have known Mark a long time and had the pleasure of directing the last few seasons of his programs. It was an honor to produce this special.
Producing “Mark Russell’s America” was like taking political science all over again, only this time, I laughed the whole way through.
It was an interesting process that began with a trip through our video library and the endless shelves lined with Mark Russell Comedy Specials. How in the world were we going to pick the best clips? It seemed impossible. For this, I must credit Mark Russell and his wife Alison. We collectively combed through 30 years of transcripts, Mark noting some of his favorites along the way and Alison giving her own hilarious perspective.
At this point in the process, a producer is generally thinking, “why can’t we make this a two-hour show?” We certainly could have, had the budget allowed. One hour seems to be the magic length in television, so that’s what it is to be. However, with creating a DVD of the program, I am excited to say we offer up almost another hour of bonus footage.
One of the most difficult parts of the program to figure out was how to handle his first special after 9/11. Only a month or so had passed, and the world was still in shock after the events of that day. I remember directing the program and was on pins and needles, wondering how the audience would react to Mark’s songs and jokes that evening. He opened the program with an intelligent and thoughtful monologue. We’ve included it in this program as well.
I am in my mid-forties, so when Mark began his PBS career, I was just a kid and didn’t give a hoot about politics. Even so, while reading through transcripts and then working with Editor Chris Bove’, Mark’s jokes and song parodies instantly brought me back to different points in time. I remember the oil crisis and waiting in horribly long lines so my Dad could hopefully fill up his Ford Fairlane. I remember my parents arguing over who they were going to vote for – Reagan or Mondale.
This brings me to the close the program. Mark reminds us, through a joke of course, of our individual responsibility in the political process – the right we have to cast our vote. It makes me think of how wonderful it is to be an American - have the freedom to agree or disagree with the politicians who lead this country, and free to laugh along with someone like Mark Russell about those very same politicians. If you’ve supported WNED and PBS over the years, you made this show possible – and I thank you.
What are some of your favorite Mark Russell episodes or memories?