Not Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin

Trillin, who’s been a thorn in politicians’ sides for 40 years, talks about his new essay collection and how humor can’t be planned.

"I don't think there's very much that can't be joked about."<a href="">Huangavin</a>/Wikimedia Commons

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Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Calvin Trillin realized early on that he was destined for a career in writing. “Math was not my best subject,” he’s fond of saying. “I was never able to convince my math teachers that many of my answers were meant ironically.” After a stint in the Army, Trillin, now 75, wound up at The New Yorker, where his regular column took him around the country as he limned the lives of average Americans, telling their stories with a bone-dry, razor-sharp wit that earned him a reputation as a preeminent American humorist. He also wrote for The Nation, penning political satire (including his legendary “deadline poetry”), culture critiques, and side-splitting roasts of his editor, the “wily and parsimonious” Victor S. Navasky, whom Trillin first met while writing for Navasky’s satirist magazine Monocle. (“I used to assure Navasky that the lack of a sense of humor was probably not an insurmountable handicap for the editor of a humor magazine,” he writes).

Last week, Random House released Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, which collects many of the reporter’s (he doesn’t like the term “writer,” as you’ll see) greatest essays, columns, and poems. I sat down with Trillin to talk about his career, the tea party, and the art of comedy. 

Mother Jones: I wonder if you could talk about yourself for a minute.

Calvin Trillin: “Dashing.” Put that down.

MJ: Okay, “dashing,” got it. But biographically speaking, you didn’t start out writing these humor columns. You started out as a serious reporter.

CT: And I ended up a serious reporter. I mean, this has been a sideline always.

MJ: Is that the way you see it?

CT: I see myself as a reporter who does other things. Once, years ago, my wife said, “When people ask you what you do, you shouldn’t say you’re a reporter, you should say you’re a writer.” And we lived in Nova Scotia in the summer, still do, and the next time we came through customs late at night the guy said, “What do you do for a living?” And I said I was a writer, and he just took that car apart. And I said, “I’m going back to being a reporter; it was much easier.” For 15 years I did a piece every three weeks for The New Yorker from someplace in the country. Magazine people used to say, “How do you keep up with the pace?” And newspaper people used to say, “What else do you do?” But I’ve always thought of all these others things as growing out of reporting. And the fact that the first piece in here is from about 1965 and then it skips a few years, I think is significant in that I was really having trouble finding a form that would work for the sort of humor I wrote.

MJ: What did it take for you early on to want to experiment with that kind of writing?

CT: Oh, I think I just got an idea for something, wrote it, and sent it in. The New Yorker was, you know, a good place for that, they were sort of open to everything. But they weren’t open to having a column, which they are now. But when the person I refer to as the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky wanted a column, at that time I was doing a New Yorker column every three weeks, so at that time it was a week of reporting, a week of writing, and a week of sort of paying the bills and looking for the next story, so I did the [Nation] column in the off week, and it took me some time before I sort of figured out the natural way to do that.

MJ: So you never set out from the beginning to do a humor column?

CT: No, I was someone who didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. I knew it would have to do with words, and not with numbers or with manual dexterity. I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be a surgeon or an accountant.

MJ: The oldest piece in the book dates back to the mid-’60s. What’s different for you now than it was then, in the way you approach your writing?

CT: I don’t think anything’s different. When I did the column, I was thinking all the time about what the column was going to be about. And I was maybe more attentive about reading the paper, and even on Sunday watching the Washington talk shows, with the people I call the Sabbath gasbags. Now I still do a poem once a week, but that seems easier—I always say I just set the shower on iambic pentameter on Sunday night and see what comes out. The poems, or so-called poems, or doggerels, or whatever they are, started a lot broader than they ended up being. With the George W. Bush administration, I started concentrating more on politics.

MJ: Why did that happen?

CT: Well, actually it started with the George H.W. Bush administration, but particularly around the Iraq War things just seemed more outrageous than what was happening before.

MJ: So the scene was richer in terms of providing you with fodder to write about?

CT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t have much trouble thinking of poems now with both [Michele] Bachmann and [Rick] Perry in the race. They make it easy.

MJ: The US seems to be going through a rough patch right now. Is there ever a time when things seem too bleak for you to be funny?

CT: There’s always a source for humor. If it’s inappropriate to write about, if there’s nothing funny about it, then it’s not funny. So it sort of selects itself. It has to. And plus, often something that wouldn’t be funny at the time is okay to make jokes about later. Lincoln’s assassination, for example. But in general, I don’t think there’s very much that can’t be joked about.

MJ: In your process, are you looking for things that are funny, or are you looking for things that are interesting and then trying to find the humor in them?

CT: Interesting things. Or, just certain things stand out. Like when Michele Bachmann said that God had sent Hurricane Irene to warn us about spending; that was obvious. Jerry Falwell said that God had sent 9/11, or withdrawn his defensive shield, because of lesbianism. So there are obvious subjects, but they’re not interesting unless you find some angle to it. In the Bachmann case I wrote a poem called, “So Why Be So Hard On Vermont?” I mean, if God is omnipotent, he can send these warnings anywhere he wants. Why pick on Vermont, of all places? What did they do? Usually, with poems you pretty much have to write about something that’s in the public mind.

MJ: As a humorist, do you ever try to write in a way that you think your audience will think is funny?

CT: No, no. I’ve never thought much about audience, or anything, really, because humor is so subjective that you can’t tell whether it’s going to make people laugh. If you think it’s funny yourself, that’s about all you can do. Also, I’ve always been kind of suspicious about “audience;” they used to talk in writing classes about audience, but I was always very disappointing to the teacher when I visited one of those classes because I don’t really think about it. I used to tell the same jokes on Johnny Carson that I told in The Nation. Those are different audiences. Of course, it’s possible that people reading The Nation weren’t laughing; I couldn’t see them. I could see the audience of the Carson show.

MJ: But maybe part of the reason a column like yours was so successful was that it was funny to such a wide group of people.

CT: Well, I just think you can’t start thinking, “Well, this would appeal to this person,” because you don’t know, really. People have different senses of humor. And often, humor is sort of indefensible. I mean, if the woman in the second row doesn’t laugh, it’s not funny to her. You can’t say, “I can assure you, madam, that many sophisticated people have laughed at this joke.” It’s like trying to talk one of your kids out of an inappropriate romance or something: you might as well shut up; there’s nothing you can do about it. But I think about every two or three years I make myself laugh while I’m writing. It’s not a lot, but I always figured if I were in solitary confinement or a hostage or something I wouldn’t be totally without resources. Every couple years I could give myself a little giggle.

MJ: For someone who looks at current affairs with the type of eyes you do, looking for the humor, do you think there’s a certain type of objective distance that’s required, even more than what journalists normally practice?

CT: I think it helps to be relatively detached about it. If you get too angry…I think the piece in this book where my outrage shows is a poem about people defending Roman Polanski, what Whoopi Goldberg called “not a rape rape.” And I actually went back and read the grand jury testimony of the little girl, and it’s just hair-raising. So there were lines that sort of skirted the edge, I think.

MJ: What was your relationship with the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky really like? I have to imagine that it was probably better than the way it’s depicted in the book.

CT: Yes, we’ve been friends since I met him when I was in the Army. We’re friends and our families are friends, and my wife made a book out of letters she had written to his son when he had cancer. But, on the other hand, it’s sort of embarrassing to be caught by Navasky two or three times. I mean, the first time was at Monocle, a supposed magazine of political satire where they once sent me a bill for a piece. And then, he wanted me to do the Nation column for $100, after we got him up to $100. You would think that after a couple swipes like that I’d have the sense to get out of range.

MJ: Why didn’t you?

CT: He’s very good at persuading people to do things for very little money. And also, nobody else had come and said, “You want to do a column?” Also, he really sort of brought The Nation into the light. Actually, for a while there they were making a profit, although I don’t think they like to admit it. He said to me at one point, “This ‘chintzy’ thing is sort of getting out of hand.” I think the New York Times had just run a book review that mentioned his chintziness in paying me, and he had also been at some gala, probably a benefit for the Wobblies or something, and the emcee mentioned how little he paid me. So he said, “It’s sort of getting out of hand, this thing.” And I said: “Well, I’ll tell you what. I can see your problem. I’m sure they have a prepared obituary for you at the Times, and out of respect to Annie and the kids, if it’s in the first paragraph, I would enter in a request that they move it further down the page.” I’m one of those people who has such a low mind that when something happens, some scandal with somebody I don’t like, I try to think of which paragraph in their obituary it’ll appear in. I mean, when Paul Wolfowitz hired his girlfriend or something, I’d say, “Second paragraph! Maybe if we’re lucky even first paragraph!”

MJ: You told the Paris Review that one approach you had to writing your column was to apply the rules of Washington to your own house or the rules of your own house to Washington. Could you explain that?

CT: Well, I think that’s a sort of strain in American humor, applying the sort of simple and domestic to Washington, or the same sort of thing, applying the Midwestern way of doing things to the coast. I mean one example, I did a column once that began, “Reading that the Pentagon has in its warehouses $30 billion worth of material that it has no use for made me feel a lot better about my basement.” So then the column can go toward the Pentagon or toward the basement.

MJ: Is that disconnect problematic for the country?

CT: No, it’s always going to be there. Politicians try to use it by saying, “Your budget at home wouldn’t work if we did this or that,” and often they try to do it seriously, and it’s sort of inappropriate. Your budget at home doesn’t have anything to do with the Washington budget.

MJ: That’s one of the main tropes of the tea party, seems like.

CT: Yeah. I always say the Republican party views on taxation or the economy for the last thirty years can be summed up in one sentence, which is, “If rich people pay less in taxes we’ll all be better off.” And they call it different things. They call it trickle-down, or supply-side, or job creation or something. It’s all the same thing. That’s why I think Obama’s sort of smart to do this millionaire-tax thing, although predictably they said it was class warfare. But the interesting thing about class warfare is that it’s only class warfare if it’s up, not down. If you talk about welfare cheats or something, that’s not class warfare because it’s down; you have to talk about rich people before it’s class warfare. I say, fine, let’s have some class warfare. It’s better than the other kind of warfare.

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