A fine facsimile of President Reagan stands on the stage, trying to get black votes by showing that he, too, can rap. Ah, he beams midway through, "we're in a grove now." An aide murmurs: "Sir, that's groove ."
Thus begins "Rap Master Ronnie," a satirical revue. Its tone is light but its message is . . . well, it portrays Reagan--and much of his constituency--as genial and unthinking, insensitive to the poor and black, positive about the rich and white and amiably blithe about such matters as nuclear war, women's rights and El Salvador.
Some say that "Rap" is too cutting, others say it doesn't cut deep enough. "But that's the given with this kind of show," sighs the author, often identified as no fan of Ronald Reagan.
The author, who actually is no fan of Ronald Reagan, is Garry Trudeau, 37, the mild-mannered Yale graduate who begat the syndicated, occasionally controversial "Doonesbury" cartoon strip and then the short-lived 1983 Broadway musical based on it.
A Reagan skit from that musical led to "Rap," for which Trudeau wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Elizabeth Swados, composer for the earlier "Doonesbury."
A 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner, Trudeau avoids the publicity ramble. He does interviews about as often as the sun rises in the west. But he made an exception to help promote "Rap," now on the boards at the Backlot Theatre in West Los Angeles.
Thus it came to pass recently that he was interviewed by phone during a working vacation at his father's small farm in Saranac Lake in Upstate New York, where he was semi-relaxing with his wife, NBC "Today" co-anchor Jane Pauley, and their two children.
In the course of the interview, Trudeau, in addition to rapping about "Rap," also:
--Fretted that the kind of robust satire that accompanied the eras of Eisenhower and L.B.J. seems absent from the Reagan years. He theorized that nowadays "true satire--that is, satire guided by a moral purpose--is more difficult to take, and people at this point want comedy that's mindless. . . . I think it's part of this long national nap we're engaged in."
--Lamented that NBC's "Saturday Night Live," after a barbed, promising start in 1975, subsequently "seemed to have degenerated into kind of a nihilistic, hipper-than-thou exercise."
--Said the only idea that young, would-be satirists seemed to have gotten from that late-night show is "to be funny at all costs. . . . Today, the closest thing we have to regular satire is the (Johnny) Carson monologue (on NBC's "Tonight Show"). And there again, the joke's the thing. . . . The gag is more important than any sustained point of view."
--Said he was startled when some critics said his Broadway "Doonesbury" was not political enough. He said he didn't consider the strip on which it was based "to be as political as reputed, but more involved in the lives of its characters than in the body politic."
--Said he doesn't regard it as censorship when newspaper editors won't run a "Doonesbury" strip they consider too controversial, too one-sided, or--as in a recent refusal by The Times to run a segment dealing with Frank Sinatra--potentially too difficult to defend in court should a libel suit be filed.
"No, it doesn't concern me at all," he said of editors who balk, momentarily or permanently. "I consider it an enormous privilege to think about things, put them into my strip, and then have those particular concerns show up in 800-some newspapers.
"So if it doesn't make it into each paper 365 days a year, it's nothing I worry about. I certainly don't characterize it as censorship. I believe that editors have a right and a responsibility to delete features from their newspaper that they deem inappropriate for their readers, for whatever reason.
"Now I don't always agree with their reasons for so doing. But I certainly have to respect their right to do it. So, no, it's not something that agitates me as much as one might think."
Trudeau has agitated others since 1970, when "Doonesbury" and its countercultural cast first materialized, a satirical strip that still alternately needles and savages the Establishment, his own generation and the Fourth Estate, to list a few victims. The list of notables is quite varied--Richard M. Nixon, former Yale President Kingman Brewster, Vice President George Bush, Amnesty International, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
The Fourth Estate spoofees range from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to network types to People magazine. And once, in making sport of the New York Daily News' all-out coverage of the "Son of Sam" murder case, Trudeau even ignited sort of a media range war by enraging columnist Jimmy Breslin, the tough but tender bard of the blue collar.
Cited in Trudeau's jibes, Breslin later replied in kind. He sneered in print at the cartoonist's work as a momentary columnist covering the 1980 Republican convention.
"He often does politics in his strip," Breslin wrote. "The politics are filled with terrific quips from the Yale Quadrangle from which he comes. Bulldog Bow Wow Wow."
(Trudeau got even, though. At convention's end, he said, he wrote a column--which parodied Breslin's direct-from-Queens style--that said Breslin had an ax to grind. No return fire has been reported to date.)
Considerably more uproar has attended Trudeau's cartoon shots at Reagan, particularly in the fall of 1980 and 1984, when Reagan was campaigning for the presidency against President Jimmy Carter, then Walter Mondale.
Some newspapers, perhaps fearing charges of participation in bias, either moved the Reagan-razzing "Doonesbury" from the tidy neutrality of the funny pages to the editorial page during the campaigning. Or they simply shelved it until after the elections.
Some, namely conservatives, would say that Trudeau is your basic liberal Democrat. Indeed, the GOP's Bush, although not accusing Trudeau of being basic or even a Democrat, said last year that the cartoonist "is coming out of deep left field, in my view. . . . "
He was responding then to questions about Trudeau's lampooning of him and his manhood in a strip published during the presidential election race.
The object of the vice president's ire grew up in Saranac Lake, which Trudeau describes as a conservative GOP stronghold. He says his parents "were Eisenhower Republicans" back when most everybody liked Ike. He won't identify his party of preference, though.
He describes his philosophy this way: "As a satirist, I'm basically a patriot and an optimist. I feel that one of the things that's remarkable about this country is that we're always challenging ourselves and our leaders to do better. . . .
"I can't see any Administration, Republican or Democratic, where I wouldn't be saying that--that it's possible to do better."
Because of his Reagan strips, he says, there's probably a perception that he's been harder on the President than on other major political figures. Not so, he insists. When people, particularly newspaper editors, say otherwise, "they're reacting with a selective memory."
He says he was not satirically soft on Carter or any other Democratic presidential candidates in 1976 and '80.
And, he says, "many don't remember, for example, the numerous segments on Jerry Brown." He referred to a controversial 11-part strip in 1979. It concerned a $1,000 campaign contribution that an alleged organized crime figure made to Brown, a Democrat, during what proved Brown's successful race in 1974 for the governorship of California.
(When the segments appeared, Brown called them "false and libelous," but never sued.)
Voicing the ancient view that no satirist "has an obligation to be evenhanded," Trudeau says he believes that "for better or for worse, I'm doing with 'Doonesbury' what I've always done with it through the years.
"Those editors and leaders who think that the tone (of the cartoon) has changed might give some thought to the possibility that the tone of their newspaper--and of the national dialogue and the times in general--has changed."
In 1983, Trudeau believed that the countercultural times depicted in "Doonesbury" would have to change. He took a 20-month sabbatical to reflect, regroup and plot ways to avoid keeping both himself and his strip in a "time warp."
The cartoon returned to American newspapers in the fall of 1984, with its major inmates in a process of transition from youthful idealism and commune commentary to an uneasy coexistence with such realities of life as earning a living. In short, Graduation Day.
That also was the theme of his musical, he says: "My feeling about it was that many people who grew up in that era"--of teach-ins, Vietnam protest, rock music and struggle for social change--"felt that how you led your life was in effect a political statement. And that's one of the things that Doonesbury characters wrestled with on graduation: How do you reconcile a belief with the imperatives of a career? Or more simply, how do you avoid being a hypocrite?"
"Rap Master Ronnie," on the other hand, involved no such wrestling, only what Trudeau and collaborator Swados regarded, and with grave concern, as the tone and record of Reagan's years as the nation's leader.
The 90-minute, 17-segment revue premiered in 1984 in New York. It bowed here last February to generally nifty reviews, particularly for John Roarke's Reagan. However, a few critics mildly groused that some of the show's material seemed elderly and suggested that the proceedings might be improved with periodic updating.
"That is one of the points we're trying to make in the show, that Americans tend to suffer from a kind of collective amnesia, that we're really not all that interested in . . . the record of an Administration.
"The point we're trying to make is that any Administration should be held accountable for more than what appeared in the headlines yesterday. It should be looked at and judged in its totality."
Trudeau is the first to admit that his isn't the first cartoon strip with social or political commentary to come down the pike. The late Walt Kelly's "Pogo," for one, has come to be regarded as a swamp Doonesbury of its time, having lampooned Sen. Joseph McCarthy and certain of the Nixon gang, namely John Mitchell, Spiro Agnew and their boss.
Trudeau's personal hero in comic-strip commentary is the late Al Capp (whose "Li'l Abner" became a Broadway musical that enjoyed far more box-office success than the later "Doonesbury").
The Capp crew included Sen. Jack S. Phogbound, the baby-kissing, right-wing Southern politician. But in later years "Li'l Abner" took a conservative turn, featuring Joanie Phoanie, a caricature of singer-activist Joan Baez, and lambasting student protesters.
That doesn't diminish Trudeau's admiration for Capp.
"He's taken a bad rap, again through that process of selective memory," says Trudeau, who twice met the cartoonist before the latter's death in 1970. Many, he says, forget that Capp "was considered an outrageous liberal in the late '30s, '40s and early '50s. . . .
"He was considered very tough on the right-wingers and big business. Then, in the '60s . . . well, Al would put it that he stayed the same but the country changed, and that all the phoniness and fakery now was coming from the left. But I don't think you should ever exclude the possibility that it's still coming from the right, and I certainly hope to be an equal-opportunity satirist for years to come. By definition, a satirist has to be against something in order to be for something.
"To be a counter-institution, you have to have an institution to push against. The bulk of the authority happens to come out of the White House. And, after all, I wasn't going to retire if Mondale had won."
It occasionally is said that today's young liberal is tomorrow's old conservative. Does Trudeau ever think or worry about that?
"No, and I don't think Al would either," he says. "I think you just have to follow your instincts. . . . I don't think it's my responsibility to worry whether I'm being conservative or liberal. I think it's my responsibility to worry about whether I'm being read.
"And by that, I don't necessarily mean read and liked."
He cited with particular pleasure a letter he got from a disgusted citizen who wrote: "I've been reading you for 15 years and you're just as bad now as you ever were."
"Those kinds of readers I like," Trudeau said. "They're reading the strip. Whether it's the strip or the show, at least they're paying attention. That's all you can hope for."