Calvin Trillin, as we are reminded in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff” (Random House: $27), has long served as a polestar in the American literary firmament. He is best-known and loved for his witty contributions to The New Yorker, but he has also displayed his acerbic good humor and powers of social observation on the off-Broadway stage, in a series of comic novels (including “Tepper Isn’t Going Out”), in “deadline poetry” for The Nation and in a heart-tugging memoir about his late wife, “About Alice,” among many other efforts.
Trillin may be an emblematic New York writer, but his origins and interests are not limited to the inner boroughs. Born in Kansas City, Mo., and educated at Yale, he quips that “T.S. Eliot and I constitute the Missouri school of poetry.” Although he has written only sparingly about his Jewish background, he affirms that “in Kansas City, where I grew up, Calvin Trillin is a very common Jewish name.” And he can be credited with a leading role in the invention and improvement of American food journalism, a specialty that was inspired by his voracious appetite and all-consuming curiosity: “Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life,” he once wrote, “I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”
Trillin talked to The Jewish Journal from his New York City home shortly before embarking on a national tour that will bring him to Los Angeles on Sept. 21 for a conversation with “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon, at an event sponsored by Writer’s Bloc at the Writers Guild Theater.
Jonathan Kirsch: The first stop on your author tour is an event at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. What does the venue mean to you personally?
Calvin Trillin: It’s where my family didn’t go. My family came to America in the period when a lot of people lived in tenements on the Lower East Side, but my family went to Galveston, Texas, instead.
JK: The headline on The Journal’s story about the passing of Amy Winehouse was “Jewish Chanteuse Dies.” A close reading of your book — but it takes a close reading — suggests that you would be entitled to a similar eulogy. What does your Jewish background amount to, and what does it mean to you?
CT: I grew up in what most people would call a typical middle-class, Midwestern neighborhood. I sometimes say that it’s like being in an episode of “The Brady Brunch” as played by actors who just got off a yearlong tour of “Fiddler on the Roof.” My father was born in the Ukraine, but he was brought as an infant to St. Joseph, Mo., so he spoke like Harry Truman and used phrases like: “I haven’t had so much fun since the hogs ate Little Sister.” So it was an astonishment to me to hear him speak Yiddish, which was probably his first language.
JK: Did you pick up any Yiddish in Kansas City?
CT: I picked up a lot of words, but not words that would do me any good in a conversation — unless the conversation was in a locker room. I can have long conversations on the difference between a shlimazel and a paskudnik, but I couldn’t say, “Pass the salt.”
JK: Thanks to your long association with The New Yorker, I tend to think of you as a quintessential New Yorker, and yet you disclose that you keep a famous line from “The Wizard of Oz” on your bulletin board: “Toto, I don’t think we’ re Kansas anymore.” Have you been fully Manhattanized?
CT: That’s still on the bulletin board right in front of me, and I still think of myself as a resident out-of-towner. I’ve lived here permanently since I came up from the South in 1961, but there are still subway lines I’m unfamiliar with, and I don’t know in which car to stand in the way my daughters do. I think there are things that real New Yorkers keep secret from the rest of us.
JK: Did you personally do the work of selecting the various pieces that appear in your new collection, more than 130 in all? Did you work from your own archive of your writing?
CT: Yes, I did, but “archive” would be much too serious a word for what I have. I have some stuff in the computer, some stuff that I asked people for, but there is also some stuff that I didn’t have and couldn’t get. I’m not organized enough to even use words like “archive.”
JK: Larry David and Sarah Silverman are willing to make jokes about the Holocaust, and you are able to write comically about the Shoe Bomber. As a humorist, do you think there are any subjects that are beyond humor?
CT: Not really. You know that they ought not to be joked about if they’re not funny. It’s self-selecting. You know whether you can make a joke about something because otherwise it wouldn’t be funny. Zero Mostel used to say about the Romanian-Jewish restaurants in New York that Romanian-Jewish cooking has killed more Jews than Hitler. Well, I thought that was funny, but I’m not sure I’d feel that way if I were the son of a Holocaust survivor.
JK: One of your couplets refers to the Rodney King beating and invokes the Viet Cong (“If I done right or I done wrong/I’d sooner be held by the Vietcong”), which prompted me to wonder: What is the expiration date of a good joke?
CT: Most humor depends on specificity. It’s funnier to say that a cheese steak tastes better when you’re leaning up against a Pontiac than when you are leaning up against a car. People have still heard of the Viet Cong, but at some point, it may not be funny anymore. I don’t think the humor changes, but the references change.
JK: You devote one section of your new book to “Twenty Years of Pols.” Do you think that American politicians are getting better or worse?
CT: Well, they’re not getting better, for sure. But that only makes them better targets for people in the small-joke trade.
JK: You have written that “the average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.” Do you think that the advent of electronic publishing means that books will have an even shorter shelf life, or perhaps a longer one?
CT: I’ve heard all sides of that argument. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. The last people who know about that are writers. But I expect that people are going to keep reading books in some kind of format for a long time.