Reading: Humor in a Hard Time | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Humor in a Hard Time 

Who needs to read jokes, when we can elect them, buy them, meet them at parties?

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The problem confronting humor writers in the 80s, of course, is that the world is funnier than they are. We don't need to read jokes anymore, we can elect them. Or buy them. Or bed them. So while this is a Golden Age for comedians--Esquire said so--it is anything but for humor. Still, people keep trying. The evidence includes three new collections of humorous miscellany appropriate for an exceedingly miscellaneous age.

For the better part of $17, Ticknor & Fields will let you have a copy of If You Can't Say Something Nice, Calvin Trillin's third collection of columns originally sold under the brand name "Uncivil Liberties." Nice is an example of what might be called an end table book, composed of more than 60 examples of what is variously known as the personal, the familiar, the casual, or the light essay. Trillin's pieces tend to be all four. Both column and collection are misnamed, since there is little that is uncivil or unnice here. But there is much that is funny. If borscht-belt comic Jackie Mason's parents had sent him off to Yale with a brand-new typewriter, he'd have come home as Calvin Trillin.

"Uncivil Liberties" began as a triweekly column in the Nation, the leftist weekly that, because it doesn't have pictures, is today read only by what Trillin describes as "1,200 librarians and eight unreconstructed Trotskyites." The column tested the then-novel notion that the socially conscious had a sense of humor, which has since been amply confirmed by the supporters of Messrs. Dukakis, Gore, et al.

That column is now syndicated weekly, so Trillin's readership has expanded from thousands to fives of thousands. Those who have not read him will discover here a man who is middle-aged. (At his 20th wedding anniversary he is surprised to learn that to today's young, "Marriage is a part of a sort of fifties revival package that includes neckties and naked ambition.") He is Mitty-esque. (He imagines himself before a committee looking for a new Harvard president, and informs them that he's "transposed the first ten amendments to the Constitution into Spenserian stanzas, although not in a pushy way.") He is sympathetic. (The man in charge of ethics at the White House "must feel a bit like the high school history teacher who has been assigned to enforce the no-drinking rule at the all-night graduation party.") He has seen enough of sin to know that repentance can be achieved by finding either God or a book publisher. He likes to be entertained (he reads the wedding announcements for background about bride and groom, then tries to imagine what sort of tension there will be at the reception), but has a healthy aversion to mime. ("When the French government refused to allow our bombers to cross French airspace on their way to bomb Libya . . . we could have revoked Marcel Marceau's visa.")

Trillin remains Trillin, in short. But syndication to a wider market often has the same effects on writers that it has on bread. The distinctive flavor of writing done for a local audience--and the Nation's readers comprise a far-flung small town--can be lost. Trillin was aware of the risks. He confesses in his introduction to worrying that his references to left-wing gonifs might confuse midwestern editors whose idea of a Jewish intellectual is Robert Klein. But what New Yorker could resist the prospect of becoming (as his syndicator promised him) a household name in Moline? However, I suspect that the only way a writer who lobbies for spaghetti carbonara to replace turkey as the national Thanksgiving dish can become a household name in Moline is to change his name to "Deere."

Syndication also requires Trillin to crank out roughly 50 columns a year. Feeding an appetite like that means casting the net wider for topics, and some of what any such columnist hauls in are pretty small fry. You can usually tell when a columnist is straining for material when colorful relatives with names like Aunt Rosie begin dropping by for visits. (Aunts are never funny, although uncles attest to their sense of humor.) Nice gets chiggers mixed in with Michael Deaver, and soap operas with greedy Wall Street types, with the result that you wonder whether Erma Bombeck joined the ADA and is writing under an assumed name.

Actually, for a supposed political commentator, Trillin has always had trouble sticking to the subject. And he's always been a nice guy; he reminds me more and more of Robert Benchley, who is a good man to be reminded of. Those who prefer the knife in the ribs instead of a poke can read Spy.

Aren't you in Vogue?" I asked.

"Are you kidding? I've been out of vogue for years," Alice Kahn replied, deliberately misunderstanding my question. Her new collection, My Life as a Gal, had just been reviewed by Vogue--whose readers will no doubt become as grateful to Kahn as Charles Kuralt is to Rand McNally, and for the same reason. Kahn is a guide to the back roads of Berkeley, California, where the typical apartment comes with hardwood floors being puked on by a cat, where one is likely to run into Eldridge Cleaver in the toiletries department, and where the late-night hangout is a fresh produce market.

Like Trillin, Kahn is out of place. She's a Chicagoan in California, he a fan of the old minor-league Kansas City Blues now living in the land of the Mets. Both are in their new homes without being quite of them, which explains some of the qualities their works have in common; the clearest vision belongs to the wide-eyed. But while Trillin has polished a single literary form until it shines, Kahn succumbs to a California urge to experimentation confirmed by Gal's subtitle, "Memoirs, Essays, and Outright Silliness." Also, Trillin shuns parody as risky in a world that calls USA Today a newspaper. (There is one exception; Trillin cannot seem to resist attempts to parody country music lyrics. You figure.) Kahn knows no such fear. The titles alone of the parodies she attempts here--"Ask Ms. Popsych," "Ms. Bad Manners," "Dr. Oops' Revised Sex Guide"--suggest their redundancy.

Kahn is at her best as a reporter and memoirist. These pieces are no less humorous than the others. A place like California, where kids ask for cola-flavored spring water instead of the real thing, provides plenty of straight lines. She visits with the author of the eight commandments of love, and investigates a drug that causes women to have an orgasm whenever they yawn. She takes us to the Oakland museum where one of Nancy Reagan's suits by Adolfo is preserved on a rack awaiting the day when its new owners mount "a comprehensive show on lounging," and makes an expedition to LA to buy her daughter school clothes ("In the City of Angels where shopping is a way of life, wholesale is pride"). Kahn is a particularly acute observer of the habits of the baby boomer, and her observations on child raising, diet, exercise, sex, and feminism among the biological clock watchers are sane without being fussy. I suspect that thousands of her readers in the Bay Area regard her--at 43--as the sensible big sister they never had.

Her sanity makes Kahn something of a Berkeley eccentric, of course. (She even married her high school sweetheart.) True, she is capable of wielding a dildo as a prop microphone during a press tour, but in California this kind of thing is considered mere conviviality. She has lived through feminism as well as lived it, and dares even to offer a recipe--her own version of real Chicago pizza as served in 1956 by Mama Zaccagnini in her three-room flat on the west side.

Kahn's pieces are rooted not just in a place but in a generation. She shares with the boomers their preoccupation with adolescence, a topic Trillin dismisses with the observation that people are what they were in high school. Kahn's reflections on turning 40 are as good as such pieces ever get. She remembers vividly her college days at Columbia, whose classrooms were filled with people who'd had nervous breakdowns at Princeton and Radcliffe. "One day, in the middle of Late Victorian Poets, a woman stood up . . . and started screaming, 'I can't stand it anymore.' As she stood there sobbing, the kindly professor asked to no avail, 'Was it something I said? Something Tennyson said? Morris? One of the Rossettis?'"

Anybody who doesn't let a bit of sobbing distract her from a potential anecdote is indeed quite a gal.

Topical humor, I am told, is shunned on TV these days because it dates so quickly; like an eggy salad dressing it spoils after only a few days, rendering the dish unpalatable to the rerun syndicates. Book publishers, however, have stronger stomachs--which is why Bonus Books has just published Confessions of a Lottery Ball, a collection of sketches, scripts, and essays by Chicago comic Aaron Freeman.

Freeman is best known locally for his "Council Wars" spoof, but his resume includes comic acting (such as the lottery ball impersonation of the title) and stand-up gigs. He has appeared with such comedy troupes as Second City and MacNeil-Lehrer.

Readers who have seen Freeman perform live will have an advantage over those who haven't. Many of the pieces in Confessions (including "Council Wars") were written to be performed rather than read. Jokes that appear on the page instead of on the stage, thus shorn of inflection and gesture, usually fall flat. Bob and Ray have also published their skits in book form, and readers who have not heard the duo are in the same fix as a wine taster with a bad cold.

Offstage Freeman tends more toward the didactic than the daffy. He believes in the Bill of Rights. ("We must all be willing to defend each other's rights, not necessarily with a loaded musket but with a wary eye"--the choice of the word "musket" marking Freeman's taste for the oratorical.) He encourages people to write their congressmen. Apathy is evil, and ideologies of any kind dangerous. While his politics are unavoidably informed by his experience of race, he is a black angry man, not an angry black man. He does not shy from attacks on black racism (a position on which he enjoys the Nixon-can-go-to-China-because-nobody-can-say-he-gave-it-away advantage) and on religious bigotries of our allies; in both respects he shows himself to be that rarest of creatures, a liberal with principles.

Freeman's range of reference is both wider than Kahn's and more pointed than Trillin's. He is a headline comic who reads the rest of the story; while in their typical pieces we find Kahn in a day-care center and Trillin in a quandary, we here find Freeman in Peru, being ripped off by an eight-year-old. A college education did not take away his street smarts; he likes polo, for instance, but does not play, explaining after a visit to Oak Brook, "The last thing I want to do is confront fifteen hundred pounds of horseflesh commanded by one hundred fifty pounds of inbred debutante waving a large stick."

Considered in all its uneven parts, Confessions is the work of someone who has a lot to say that can't be best said in a book. Some of his parodies ("West Bank Story") work best with a piano accompaniment, which makes this book tricky to read on the el. And his essays are really lectures, better declaimed than read; the least of these show the earnestness of the sophomore who has just discovered the New York Times.

In fact, many a reader will end up panning these pieces for the one-liners that glint like gold amidst the gravel. Such as:

About spy scandals: "The only person in the world the government can deceive is Ronald Reagan."

"A terrorist in a suit is called a statesman."

"Ronald Reagan is an Uncle Remus for yuppies."

"Contrary to rumors . . . Nancy is not the real Anastasia . . . Jeane Kirkpatrick is."

The wisdom of his Aunt Birtie: "The good lord gave us politicians because She knew that not everybody could make it to a nightclub."

Books too.

If You Can't Say Something Nice by Calvin Trillin, Ticknor & Fields, $16.95.

My Life as a Gal: Memoirs, Essays, and Outright Silliness by Alice Kahn, Delacorte Press, $15.95.

Confessions of a Lottery Ball: The Inside Out World of Aaron Freeman by Aaron Freeman, Bonus Books, $7.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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