Calvin Trillin, ca. 2011. Photograph by Gavin Huang
Calvin Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He graduated from Southwest High School in 1953, and in the fall of that year, as he mentions in his book, Remembering Denny, he was one of the “brown-shoe” freshmen to enter Yale University: “the bright student council president from white middle-class high schools who had been selected by Yale to be buffed up a bit and sent out into the world prepared to prove their high-school classmates right in voting them most likely to succeed.”
After graduating in 1957, while waiting to enter the army, Trillin had a temporary job at Time, working at the magazine’s bureaus in London, Paris and Tunisia. When he finished his stint in the army, which had been spent mainly on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, a position at Time’s Atlanta bureau was available. After a year covering the civil rights struggle in the South, he worked as a writer for Time in New York—but not for long. He was soon assigned his first article for The New Yorker, a three-part series on the two black students who desegregated the University of Georgia. The articles were published in 1963; he has been a staff writer there ever since.
In 1967 Trillin began traveling the country for his New Yorker series U.S. Journal. For the next fifteen years, his journal entries chronicled American life in the small towns and cities he visited every three weeks. Along with his travels, he also began writing occasionally about eating; these essays, in which, as he says, “I wrote about eating rather than food, and I wrote as a reporter rather than as an expert,” have been published in his Tummy Trilogy. While still keeping his journal for The New Yorker, he began writing a column for The Nation in 1978. These columns, written first for The Nation and then for newspaper syndication, have been collected in five books. Uncivil Liberties and With All Disrespect. In the summer of 1990, prompted by the sound of John Sununu’s last name, he wrote the first of a series of short poems, “If You Knew What Sununu,” which presently appear in The Nation.
He is now settled with his wife in a town house in Greenwich Village, where this interview took place in a large sun-lit room. From time to time the phone rang, invariably for his daughter Abigail, who was sunbathing up on the roof and studying for the California bar examination. Finally, Mr. Trillin rose and attempted to turn off the answering machine, but in the time-honored tradition of humorists’ confusion with machines, was unable to do so. This interview could be punctuated with long messages for his daughter, but they have been excised for reasons of respecting privacy, and for length.
Mr. Trillin (known by all as “Bud”) is very much a family man. Married to his wife, Alice, in 1965, he often refers to her and family members in his columns and in the monologues he gives in public performances—“around our house we often . . .” being a constant refrain. The Trillins celebrated their thirtieth anniversary earlier this year.
Here’s a simple question for you. As opposed to spoken humor, what’s the secret to actually writing it? Why can’t people sit down and write funny stuff?
What is called “getting it onto the page.” That’s a really good question, so good it’s probably unanswerable. We all know funny people who can’t get it down on the page—even funny writers who can’t get it down on the page. I suppose that there is the necessity of some sort of structure in written humor that you can get away without in spoken humor by the use of timing and gesture. Everybody knows people who are funny just by the way they talk. Remember that comedian Jack Leonard—this big, fat guy who appeared on the Johnny Carson shows? He talked very fast. He would always say something like, IjustwantyoutoknowJohnnyifyoueverneedafriendyouwon’tbeabletofindone. But if you listened to him carefully, after a while you realized a lot of things he said weren’t funny at all. But he had a wonderful delivery. Or take the joke about the telegram that Trotsky sent to Stalin from exile in Mexico: I was wrong. You were right. I should apologize. Somebody says to Stalin, Trotsky’s given up. He’s asking forgiveness. Stalin says, No, you don’t understand: Trotsky’s Jewish. What he’s saying is, I was wrong?? You were right?? I should apologize?!? So that’s one thing. When you’re writing, you are robbed of your delivery. People, particularly comedians, always say it’s all in the timing. But in written humor, the reader has to do his own timing—you have to build in the timing for the reader, which is difficult.
Also, I find that written humor and spoken humor are really so different. For instance, I have been on a book tour with this recent collection of newspaper columns and Shouts and Murmurs pieces from The New Yorker. Occasionally I gave readings in bookstores. It’s amazing how few of the pieces wore well when read aloud. A number of them, partly for purely technical reasons—they have too many quotes in them, or too many parenthetical phrases—don’t read well. It is hard to read quotes, or parenthetical phrases.
When did you realize that you were funny?
At Sunday school when I was about eleven. We came to the part in the Bible or the Talmud, whichever it is, with the famous phrase, “If I forget thee, oh Yerushalayem, may my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.” I stood up with my right hand gradually becoming noticeably weird and said: If I forget thee, O Yerushalayem, may my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cleave to duh woof of my mout. Everybody laughed except the teacher, who ejected me from the classroom and accused me of self-hatred. A very weird epiphany. I guess I already knew I wasn’t a solemn little boy—shy, but not exactly solemn.
I actually think of being funny as an odd turn of mind, like a mild disability, some weird way of looking at the world that you can’t get rid of. It’s odd: one of the questions that people ask me constantly is, Is it hard having to be funny all the time? The difficult thing for me is being serious. It’s a genetic thing—being funny—like being able to wiggle your ears. I don’t have any trouble being funny, that’s my turn of mind. Or at least attempting to be funny. Whether it really is funny is for the audience to judge. But I actually do think that some people are and some people aren’t. We all know, say, a lot of lawyers who aren’t funny and some who are. A lot of dentists who aren’t funny. The dentist who just took a fractured root out of my tooth—we refer to him as the butcher of Fifty-fourth Street—is a pleasant, friendly man, but he’s not funny.
I would have thought most people who find themselves very funny early on think of themselves as potential stand-up comics or actors.
If I had been raised in a different house, I might have done something like that. As it was, I was raised to be a kind of champion, sent out to make something of myself. My father, who was technically an immigrant—he came when he was an infant—wanted me to be an American, preferably an American president. He didn’t go to college. Before I was born he wanted me to go specifically to Yale, which he thought would help. It was easy for him to think I could be president: he didn’t have to worry about being president himself, being ineligible because he wasn’t born in the United States.
Did he worry about your comic streak?
I think that he enjoyed it, but yes, he did worry about it a little bit. It never seemed to me a bad thing, or something that I was supposed to suppress or anything like that. On the other hand, if I’d had the ambition to become, say, a stand-up comic, I don’t think I could have gone to my father very comfortably and said, This is what your dreams have come to.
I do remember in high school I wanted to be a disc jockey. I remember even going around to talk to a disc jockey. The disc jockey said, Well, maybe you could be in your family business and then just be funny when people come in. By then my father was out of the grocery business, and he had a restaurant. The disc jockey was suggesting I could be one of those great maître d’ jokesters. I saw one in Italy last spring. We stopped at one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. I saw the guy who ran it talking to three or four regulars who obviously came in for lunch every day. I had no idea what he was saying, but you could see he was telling a joke. At the punch line he would turn his back as they laughed and take two steps in the other direction, spin around, and come back. It’s an old vaudeville move. In that motion you could see that every day he told this wonderful sort of restaurant-proprietor joke. So this disc jockey was telling me to think of it in some way like that, the sort of thing to do on the side, like the very serious lawyer who makes a funny speech at the Bar Association dinner.
Did you do a lot of reading . . . Twain, for instance? Thurber?
No. I didn’t. It’s always embarrassing for me to be asked, Well, I suppose you really grabbed a hold of Thurber and Perelman when you were in high school. I only knew one person who took The New Yorker—a cousin of mine who was considered a little bit strange. One person I read in college who I thought was funny was the very déclassé Max Shulman. I thought he was hilarious.
One time I was asked, by the New York Public Library, for a book put out in connection with some Literary Lion function, to submit a passage of prose that I particularly admired. A lot of writers were asked, and I suppose a lot of Proust found its way in there. It gave me the chance to quote Max Shulman. I found this passage about Dobey’s dog where his mother says, Dobey you’re going off to college and I’m no smarter than your old hound dog Edmund lying there in the corner. Dobey says, Don’t talk that way about Edmund, Mom. He’s a smart dog. He whistles to him and says, Play dead, Edmund. Look at how he obeys. All four feet sticking in the air. His mother says, Dobey, I hadn’t wanted to tell you. He’s been dead since Friday. You ran over him with the car. It fit perfectly.
Were you employed by The New Yorker because you were funny . . . they’d seen funny pieces?
The first one I wrote was about the integration of the University of Georgia, a fairly serious piece. The first pieces I did were all fairly straight, I think partly because I hadn’t really figured out what I sounded like. Then I started writing a series of pieces that were all about the same guy, Barnett Frummer who had a girlfriend named Rosalie Mondle he was trying to impress. Each one was about a different kind of trendiness. At one point she became a radical; he tried to be radical. She got interested in gourmet cooking; he tried to do the same. These were what The New Yorker called casuals—short pieces that were signed. At the time, they had a special deal on them, like a cut-rate special in the fiction department: if you sold six of them in one year, something wonderful happened to you. It was sort of like hitting the pinball machine in “The Time of Your Life”—flags went off, you got a lot of money, piano lessons for a year, a new pair of shoes, all that stuff. So I wrote these really sporadically at The New Yorker.
I didn’t really find an outlet for just purely I’m-going-to-try-to-be-funny-now-for-a-certain-number-of-words until I started doing The Nation column, which I think was in 1978. I always thought of writing humor as some sort of little, weird thing that I could do in the way some people could play the piano.