With All Disrespect
Theorists who believe that humor should be composed of two parts of hostility, mixed vigorously with one part of aggression, and deftly spiced with small, but essential, amounts of humiliation and degradation, will certainly be disappointed with Calvin Trillin’s With All Disrespect: More Uncivil Liberties. Trillin, if asked whether this disagreeable recipe were, in fact, essential to that hearty brew called humor, would no doubt reply both gently and characteristically: “It’s too soon to tell.” This is the same reply that he gives to his daughter when she asks for the formula for finding the area of an isosceles triangle. It is, in fact, the answer that he gives to a great many of life’s interesting little questions.
Readers who believe that an essayist for The Nation must be interested only in the big, leftist issues such as imminent nuclear holocaust, the plight of the street people, or corruption in high places will almost certainly be disdainful when they discover that in the forty-six essays presented in With All Disrespect, covering the politically and satirically fertile years from 1981 to 1984, Trillin has taken notice of the Reagan Administration a mere eight times. Part of Trillin’s charm is that he is clearly as amused when exposing the silliness of his far-to-the-Left straw horse, Harold the Committed, as he is when gently chiding the political Right. Asked why he writes for a magazine which he himself describes as “Pinko,” he answers quite sensibly that it is, after all, the closest magazine to his house. When asked further if he would write for a conservative, supply-side journal if one were to open shop within walking distance to his house, he answers with another of his incisive rejoiners: “I’d just as soon not say.”
Readers who require their wit in rapid, shotgun bursts may find Trillin somewhat discursive for their tastes. He is not a natural descendant of Ambrose Bierce or Philip Wylie, both of whom believed with Louis Kronen-berger that “humor is criticism.” He lacks the brittle cynicism of Dorothy Parker and the paradoxical wit of Oscar Wilde. He follows, rather, the lead of the early American humorist Washington Irving, who is often credited with having popularized the short, semiautobiographical sketch, filled with gentle observations of men and manners. Trillin clearly admires the American monologist, Marshall Dodge, to whom he dedicated, in memoriam, With All Disrespect. As a humorist, Trillin probably has more in common with Robert Benchley than with Sidney Joseph Perelman. At his best, he is reminiscent of E. B. White.
He is, at all times, a most congenial comedian. He serves Thalia, the muse of comedy, with a whimsy devoid of malice, with an inspired nonsense unencumbered by apology, and with a clear sense that trivial things benefit most from careful observation. His persona in With All Disrespect is a simple man, with simple tastes and simple ideas. He takes things at face value. The smallest detail will send him off on an orgy of rumination, much to the impatience of his wife, Alice, who always has something more practical to do than to fall in with his seemingly aimless musings. He has a notable affinity with underdogs, such as Philip Caldwell, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, whose base pay increased from $400,000 to $440,000 but who got no incentive bonus at all in 1980 or 1981. Trillin’s persona is also a man who is catholic in his interests: He gives the reader a complete account of the amortization of his tuxedo; he considers founding an organization dedicated to attacking the stereotypes that are so disturbing to gout sufferers, and he takes notice of Brooke Shields’s advertising campaign against teenage smoking. Nothing slips by this simple, thinking man.
Eschewing sarcasm and bitter satire,...
(The entire section is 1574 words.)