When respectable people look at me and wonder what went wrong, I say, "Blame Calvin Trillin."
He made it look too easy. He still does. "I live in Greenwich Village, where people from the suburbs come on weekends to test their car alarms." I'm sure I could write something as wise and terse and calmly derisive as that. You could too. And yet somehow it's always Trillin who gets there first, damn him.
The rest of us who toil in what he describes as "the small-joke trade" – call it journalism, call it life – are forever doomed to play catch-up when Trillin's around. He's Everyman at the top of his game, something this selection from four decades of funny work (articles for The New Yorker, columns and deadline poems for The Nation, several novels, food books, off-Broadway shows) illustrates far too often for my liking.
The mark of good humorists is that the small things matter to them immensely. Trillin can even do funny adverbs: "Math was my worst subject. I was never able to convince the mathematics teacher that many of my answers were meant ironically." And participial adjectives: "When I was a writer at Time, I tried to escape from the Religion section by writing 'alleged' in front of any historically questionable religious event – the 'alleged parting of the Red Sea,' say, or 'thirty years after the alleged crucifixion.' "
Like a slugger who willingly lays down the perfect bunt, he'll devote his considerable talents to licence-plate mottos just to increase the sum of happiness among those of us who've been schooled to be glum: "Arkansas: Not as Bad as You Might Have Imagined." And political slogans: "Never Been Indicted" for a mayoral hopeful in Buffalo.
Thanks to his personal example, the Allemangs decided to craft their own family motto: "I Know It's Here Somewhere" (which I actually think is more timeless and humane than the Trillins' "Zip Up Your Jacket," though each to his own). Just saying it again makes me feel better, which scientists tell us is the evolutionary basis for humour. How do the fittest manage to survive, given how solemn their Darwinian lives must be? Or more to the point, why do they bother?
His make-believe journalistic world always seems more true and lifelike than the one usually presented to us, in all seriousness, as the real thing. Why didn't Gerald Ford title his autobiography The White House Memories of a Lucky Klutz? Surely at some point, a deplorable U.S. statesman – John Foster Dulles, but it could have been any of them – really did say, "You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but you might as well give it your best shot."
When the authenticity of that line was questioned by an editor he describes, in the universal language of the funny freelancer, as wily and parsimonious, Trillin replies, "At these rates, you can't expect real quotes." Even his jokes have jokes. He can sustain a one-liner over 2,000 words and make you want more, which is theoretically impossible in the humour game.
Funny doesn't mean frivolous, though Trillin's deadly touch is as light as they come. If I want to know what Mrs. Oscar de la Renta would have said if Henry Kissinger tried to muscle his way into an exclusive Manhattan dinner party, it's Trillin who supplies the script: "My God! What are we going to do? We already have one war criminal coming!"
When I need to share the pain of corporate executives who missed the Fortune 500 list by one place, it's Trillin's quiet compassion that voices their feelings: "I could see them giving their all to build their corporation into one of the largest corporations in America – busting unions, cutting corners on safety specifications, bribing foreign heads of state, slithering out of expensive pollution-control regulations – only to remain unrecognized year after year."
And when I get that abiding urge to write a deadline poem about yet another two-faced politician, I turn to Trillin and find he's already said all that needs to be said: "A month's campaign for Wilson came to naught./ He tried to sell his soul, and no one bought."
I went to law school for the laughs. Unfortunately, I discovered Calvin Trillin at the same time and he proved to be even droller. So I dropped out, took him as my role model, and sat around waiting to acquire his effortless sense of humour. I'm still waiting. I know it's here somewhere.
As a charter member of the International Deadline Poets Organization with Calvin Trillin, John Allemang helped enforce a strict no-metaphor policy.