For comedian Lewis Black, Chautauqua cultivated a treasured friendship.
Black first met Mark Russell in 2017, during Chautauqua’s week on “Comedy and the Human Condition,” presented in partnership with the National Comedy Center. Russell was a founding advisory board member at the NCC; Black spoke from the Amphitheater stage to open the week. The two maintained a close friendship ever since.
Russell, a celebrated comedian and satirist, was a frequent entertainer in Washington, D.C. politcal spheres for more than 50 years. The Buffalo native was a Chautauqua icon, performing in the Amp countless times and lending his talents in later years to performances from the Chautauqua Play Readers and Friends of Chautauqua Theater. Russell passed away in March, at the age of 90.
“(Chautauqua) was, I would say, a happy place for us. We love coming up here,” said Ali Russell, Russell’s wife. “He loved performing on that stage; he always had a great time here and we just loved being here.”
Mark and Ali Russell spent many summers in Chautauqua after the comedian was first invited to perform at the Institution in 1979, and the initial trip sparked a tradition for decades to come. They created a “tight-knit community of friends,” and Ali Russell said many of those friends came from near and far to be in attendance for her husband’s funeral service this spring in D.C.
“It was a really loving, nice community,” she said. “We made dear friends. It’s the kind of place where you pick up a conversation in June that you ended the previous August.”
Russell was a key figure in the establishment of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York — as was Black — and at 5 p.m. tonight at the NCC, Black will host (but not perform at) an event celebrating his friend. The remembrance is presented with Chautauqua Institution and Buffalo Toronto Public Media. Tickets are available on the NCC’s website and include admission to the center for the day.
As a teenager, Black attended one of Russell’s performances with his parents and he has since credited Russell’s comedy as having a significant impact on his own technique.
“It was great to see him after (attending his show as a teenager) and realize (at) that point, by spending the time with him, what kind of effect he had had on me,” he said.
The celebration will include a brief retrospective of his prolific work and will include remarks from Black; Kelly Carlin, NCC advisory board member and daughter of George Carlin; Journey Gunderson, NCC executive director; and Deborah Sunya Moore, Chautauqua’s senior vice president and chief program officer.
Russell was known and admired for his humorous political satire, which targeted elected officials and offered poignant commentary on current events and social issues. His series of PBS television specials are among his most well-known work. The role Russell played in the comedy landscape, both Ali Russell and Black emphasized, cannot be overstated.
“There were few that could challenge … his musical talent in terms of satire,” said Black.
“(Mark) tried to be smart and clever and not hurt anyone in particular with his comedy, but made people think,” Ali Russell said.
Black credited Russell with teaching him not just who his subjects were, but how their actions served as a basis for comedy.
“It was less (about) the person than the idiocy that they were trying to perpetrate,” Black said of Russell’s strategy of calling out elected officials.
Both Black and Ali Russell said they will miss the comedian’s kindness and personality.
“He was genuinely sweet, kind (and) an exceptional man. He was as great a person, as was his comedy,” Black said. Out of everything, Black said he would miss Russell’s presence the most.
“I’m not generally a happy person,” Black said. “But it was tough not to smile around him.”
Black, along with Russell’s family and friends, were looking forward to celebrating what would have been his 91st birthday this coming Wednesday. Alas, Black said, “he took an early exit, that son of a bitch.”