I grew up reading the Washington Post in the 1960s — the heyday of political cartoonist Herblock and political humor columnist Art Buchwald. My father, who worked in the federal government, found both of them hilarious, and often left the Post on the breakfast table, folded neatly open to a column or cartoon he knew I’d enjoy.
Buchwald died Wednesday, a year after he was diagnosed as terminally ill with kidney disease and moved to a hospice — where he surprised everyone by recovering, and then writing a book about the experience, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.
It was a typical Buchwald scenario.
His approach to political humor writing was to point out the lemons by making delicious lemonade out of them.
As a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Buchwald wrote often about his experiences as a traveler in Europe. One column was about the horrific non-stop racket surrounding his hotel in Rome. In classic Buchwald fashion, he disguised the complaint as a charming anecdote. It began something like this: “I am in Rome covering the world Fare Rumore Championships, ‘fare rumore‘ being Italian for ‘make noise.'” He went on to describe the events of the day, including, if I recall correctly, a pre-dawn can-banging event for the garbage collectors behind his hotel, a late afternoon shouting competition between little old ladies on balconies, and teenagers racing mufflerless Vespas through the streets.
I’ve been heavily influenced by Buchwald, but never more so than in this 1995 letter I wrote to the editor of a weekly newspaper in a beach town where we were vacationing. My husband and I were stuck in detoured traffic on a hot summer afternoon; as we sat and sweltered, one of his more printable suggestions was that we write to the local paper. Buchwald’s “Fare Rumore” column flashed into my mind, and I said “I know exactly how to do it.” Here’s what they published:
To the Editor:
We want to congratulate the community of Long Beach, Wa., on the fascinating new tourist attraction it is offering this season. We came expecting beaches, seafood, and kites but found as well the engrossing new passtime, “Detour.”
Each day, as visitors come and go on the peninsula, the Long Beach Detour appears and disappears along Route 103. Like a desert mirage, it is always just a mile ahead of you. In the morning it blocks the boardwalk. At noon it prevents access to the pharmacy. And in the late afternoon heat, it paralyzes vehicles for blocks. Who knows where it will be tomorrow? The peninsula now boasts not only the world’s longest beach, but the world’s longest traffic jam as well.
The Long Beach Detour is without question a classic Northwest landmark. We noted that the city has gone so far as to employ professional Eddie Bauer models in stonewashed jeans and flannel shirts as flag persons. Not only are these trim, tanned workers aesthetically pleasing, but they are able to stand stock still for long periods of time while retaining the beaming smile of those who are well paid for doing little more than looking good.
For a tourist attraction in only its first year the Long Beach Detour is becoming remarkably well known. You could say, in fact, that you simply can’t leave town without experiencing it at least once. We would, however, venture one suggestion for next year’s Detour. How about a t-shirt proclaiming “We Survived the Long Beach Detour” in orange and black with permanently sweat-stained armpits?
Most sincerely yours,
This cheery approach to satire, whether practiced by the late master or by an apprentice like me, is no longer in style. Sure, it’s still found in daily newspapers. But online, and in the alternative press, the current recipe for humorous commentary is a snarky attack offset by a conversational, detached tone. (In essence, it sounds like the columnist is having a conversation with someone he or she doesn’t like much.)
That, of course, is probably ripe for some good-natured parody. Now I’m trying to imagine what Buchwald would have written about a Dan Savage column. Any ideas?