What Tickles America's Fancy?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a great news story, and George Plimpton took the bait. With alarm, the British press reported that a Japanese man who had run the London marathon days before was now trotting through Scotland. His English wasn't the best, and he apparently thought the race was 26 days, not 26 miles. His wife in Osaka was beside herself.

"What a story! Wow!" says Plimpton, still amazed years later. "I had almost persuaded Sports Illustrated to send me over there to cover it, when some sharp fellow noticed the date on the piece--April 1. It was a joke. We had all been had. It was marvelous."

Plimpton runs his fingers through a shock of gray hair and grins. Tricking newspaper readers on April Fool's Day is a proud British tradition, he says. But not, alas, in America.

"Can you imagine the New York Times or any other major newspapers here doing that?" he asks. "In this country we laugh a lot, on television especially, but you get the feeling that comedy is compartmentalized and kept in its place. And I wonder if that's such a good thing."

A prominent humorist and essayist, Plimpton also edits the Paris Review--one of America's most prestigious literary magazines--and he recently devoted an entire issue to the question: Whither mirth?

"We had run several humor contests before, but admittedly there wasn't much humor in the Review," says the 68-year-old writer. "And this was a shame, because the tradition of written humor seems so . . . well . . . sparse these days. It's getting hard to find in American culture, or at least harder to discover than it used to be. We wanted to find out why."

To do so, the review called on some of America's finest wits, including Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, Calvin Trillin, Dave Barry, John Irving, John Barth, Harold Bloom and T. Coraghessan Boyle. Cartoonists, short story writers and poets also contributed, along with foreign authors such as Mordecai Richler, John Mortimer, Auberon Waugh and John Wells.

The result is an issue that departs radically from tradition, abandoning the Review's sober tone for a collection of zingers, spoofs and outrageous comments that will amuse many readers and no doubt offend others. The winter 1995 publication seems hellbent on the latter.

"We're subject to no literary rules, no rules of taste, since bad taste is a vital element of humor," declares Mortimer in a symposium with other writers. "The interesting thing is to push the audience toward the limits of its taste and just leave it there trembling."

Bloom, Yale literary professor and intellectual extraordinaire, gets things rolling with a remarkable story (summarized) that Bloom says he learned from a Catholic prelate:

Frank Perdue, the poultry magnate, requests an audience with Pope John Paul II and is ushered into the presence of his holiness. The Baptist businessman offers to make a $10 million donation to the Vatican, and the pope asks what the church can do in return.

Perdue makes a simple request: Could the Church change the wording in the Lord's Prayer from "Give us this day our daily bread" to "Give us this day our daily chicken"?

The pope is outraged. Perdue says: "Twenty million." His holiness rises angrily and Perdue also rises, saying: "$100 million." At this, the pope asks Mr. Perdue to follow him into his innermost chambers. One week later, his holiness addresses the College of Cardinals.

"There's good news and there's bad news," he says. "The good news is that Mr. Frank Perdue will make a $200 million gift to the Vatican. In return he is asking for the trifling concession that from now on when we Catholics recite the Lord's Prayer, we will not say 'Give us this day our daily bread,' but will instead say, 'Give us this day our daily chicken.' "

The cardinals give his holiness a standing ovation.

"Now the bad news," the pope says. "This will ruin our relationship with Wonder bread."

It's the kind of joke that seems destined to travel widely. Indeed, when gossip columnist Liz Smith read the story in the Review, she insisted on sending one of her own favorites to Bloom:

Two British gentlemen are strolling through Calcutta when one of them spies a woman ministering to a sick child on the sidewalk.

"Is that Mother Teresa?" he asks, bending down for a closer look.

"You miserable bastard, get out of my goddamned face!" the woman screams.

The second man sighs. "Now we'll never know," he says.

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Plimpton loves this stuff. Ever since his literary career took off in the 1950s, the New York author has been laughing, mainly at himself. A founder of the Harvard Lampoon, he is best known for pioneering a zany brand of participatory sports journalism--competing as Everyman against a pantheon of baseball, football, boxing, hockey and basketball stars.

Dubbed "the amateur professional" by Leonard Bernstein, Plimpton has also done one-night stints as a Las Vegas comedian and a member of the New York Philharmonic. There have been memorable moments: The would-be pitcher sweating on the mound at Yankee Stadium as Willie Mays and Gil Hodges rip screaming line drives past his head. The percussionist-for-a-day out of sync with his orchestra, causing Maestro Lenny to shout: "You've destroyed Mahler's Fourth!"

Eventually, Plimpton did his own version of the Japanese jogger story. In 1983, he wrote a Sports Illustrated profile of Sidd Finch, a pitching phenom who threw a 168 mph fastball and was also an aspiring Tibetan monk. Accompanied by "action photos" from the New York Mets spring training camp, the article caused a sensation until readers learned it was a hoax.

These stories have won Plimpton a large audience, and he continues to be one of the more appealing characters in New York's literary scene. With his resilient good looks and rumpled patrician grace, he's become an erudite fixture at book-biz dinners, and some of his finer stunts--such as the night he and John Kenneth Galbraith played touch football at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball--are firmly etched in New York social history.

If you don't have Plimpton at your party, the saying goes, you might as well stay home. And while you're at it, check out the current Paris Review. Consider, for example, the questionnaire on comedy sent to several contributors:

How important is humor in a literary work?

"It is crucial," answers Dave Barry. "Try to imagine 'Brothers Karamazov' without the pie-fight scene."

Plimpton's writers feast on sacred cows, and they blame political correctness for the demise of literary humor. But cultural dissolution and the lack of a common world view are also culprits, according to Malcolm Bradbury:

"In the '50s, humor was generally seen as something rather civilized, literary and benign. Then in the '60s . . . we started to think of humor as a quite different sort of discourse: anarchic, bitter, enraged and alienated."

Today, he adds, "There isn't a common agreement about what culture is . . . and therefore about where the edges of order and anarchy lie."

Just as important, Plimpton says, the rise of television has expanded the mass audience for comedy but weakened its literary sophistication. Fewer people read humor in the New Yorker these days, but they all watch David Letterman and Jay Leno. The result, he suggests, is vaudeville.

"I don't denigrate it," says Plimpton, relaxing in the living room of his Eastside Manhattan row-house. "Some of that material is absolutely brilliant. It's very funny, and in some ways the daily quips we once read about in newspapers from the Algonquin Roundtable have been replaced by the highlights from comic monologues on American late-night television."

Still, he says, something is missing. Once, the bright students who worked on the Harvard Lampoon aspired to produce memorable wit or quality lit at any of a number of prestigious American journals. Nowadays, they're all heading for Hollywood, where the best of them earn $10,000 a week writing jokes, skits and other material for popular TV personalities.

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To be sure, Plimpton has pocketed his share of the loot. He's appeared on several sitcoms and late-night talk shows; he plays a harried presidential lawyer in the movie "Nixon;" and he'd be the first to admit that the glow of television celebrity can be intoxicating.

Indeed, some critics say Plimpton should have learned from his own experience and taken a broader, more inclusive view of humor. Mark Steyn, writing in the New Criterion, suggests that the Paris Review focused on predictable New York writers while ignoring bigger media names like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Why not ask them for some laughs?

Plimpton wrinkles his nose in disdain, asking what material he could have possibly used from "Rush Lambo." As for Stern, Plimpton says he tried to include an Elvis Presley monologue that the talk show host once delivered. It was a brilliant performance, Plimpton concedes, one that had him in stitches. But it didn't translate well to the printed page.

"That's what the fellow from the New Criterion doesn't understand," he says. "We're talking primarily about written humor. In that sense, we were very much down-to-earth."

Also very much in character. The Paris Review crowd remains literary to the core, and when he's asked for one of his favorite moments in the special edition, Plimpton quickly mentions an obscure news clipping from the Edinburgh Evening News that was read to him by Mortimer:

While they were waiting at a bus stop in Clerimston, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Thirsty were threatened by Mr. Robert Clear. "He demanded that I give him my wife's purse," said Mr. Thirsty. "Telling him that the purse was in her basket, I bent down, put my hands up her skirt, detached her artificial leg and hit him over the head with it. It was not my intention to do any more than frighten him off but, unhappily for us all, he died."

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