Frank Sullivan was the gentlest of humorists. This is not a polite way of saying he was unfunny. He was incredibly funny, in a sophisticated, sly, even subversive way. But there was an underlying sweetness in his work, no matter how deft his comments. He is usually compared to his friend, Robert Benchley, and, indeed, both were celebrated "wags," at a time, the 1920s and '30s, when that was highest praise. But what connected the two, besides long evenings spent in speak-easies together, was their lack of bitterness, the geniality in their work.
Sullivan began writing a regular humor column for the World newspaper in 1925, and the sunniness of his temperament made him unique among the caustic set at the Algonquin Round Table, the famed collection of wits and humorists, including George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker, who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. After the World folded in 1931, Sullivan wrote many of his brightest pieces for the New Yorker magazine, which had been started by his friend, Harold Ross. In fact, Sullivan's Christmas greetings poem, filled with the names of the year's noteworthy and notorious, originated in the World in the '20s but moved over to the New Yorker in 1932. There it became an institution, appearing annually for 42 years, until 1974, two years before Sullivan's death at age 83.
Sullivan spent most of that time in his hometown of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, though, as he wrote, "Once I visited New York [City] for 20 years." He possessed a wide-ranging charm, but he never traveled, largely because of an acute phobia involving transportation. But it did not limit his sense of humor. In a short piece, "A Visit to London (by One Who Has Never Been There)," the fog is first described as "pea soup." But then each time the fog comes up, the description shifts--from creamed cauliflower soup to borscht to lobster bisque with toast melba to oyster gumbo to Philadelphia pepper pot--until the narrator and his wife fight over whether it is more like mulligatawny or clam chowder.
Perhaps Sullivan's most famous creation was Mr. Arbuthnot, the noted cliche expert. In a series of pieces, Arbuthnot is grilled about a variety of subjects, including love, crime, Christmas, movies, health and gastronomy. His answers are the most perfect of cliches. This idea has been ripped off frequently, but only when you read what Sullivan did with it do you understand how sharp and funny it can be. Here is an interview from 1940, in which Arbuthnot discusses politics. It could have been written last month.
Question: Mr. Arbuthnot, I hear you've become a campaign orator.
Answer: Fellow American, you have heard correctly. I've been on the stump all fall.
Q: In that case you ought to be up on your campaign-oratory cliches.
A: Well sir, it is not my wont to brag, but I believe I may say with all due modesty that I can point with pride and view with alarm as sententiously and bombastically as any senator who ever thrust one arm in his frock coat and with the other called upon high heaven to witness the perfidy of the Other Party.
Q: Describe your candidate.
A: My candidate is a man four-square, a true representative of the people, a leader worthy of the trust which has been placed in him and a standard-bearer who will carry the banner of our ga-reat and ga-lorious party to victory.
Q: Is he a man of prophetic vision?
A: He is indeed. He is also a man of sterling character and a champion of the rights of the people.
Q: What kind of champion?
A: A stalwart champion.
Q: What is he close to?
A: The soil.
Q: Is his name Jones?
A: It is not. I have nothing against Mr. Jones personally, but I can't see where he's fitted to be president.
Q: Why not?
A: He may be a first-rate businessman, but what does he know about government?
Q: Then your candidate's name is Brown.
A: Not at all. I'm a lifelong Democrat and I've always voted the straight Democratic ticket, but this year I'm taking a walk.
A: Because old party lines are disappearing. What this country needs is a businessman in the White House.
Q: Then your man is Jones, after all.
A: Jones is all right personally, but I don't like the crowd he's tied up with.
Q: What crowd?
A: Oh, the public utilities, the Old Guard and so on. Besides, what does he knew about foreign affairs?
Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, I can't figure out where you stand. Let's get back to your campaign-oratory cliches. What kind of questions have you been discussing?
A: Burning questions. Great, underlying problems.
Q: What have you arrayed yourself against?
A: The forces of reaction. There must be no compromise with the forces of reaction.
Q: And now, Mr. Arbuthnot, may I ask you to characterize these times?
A: These are troubled times, sir. We are met here today in an hour of grave and national crisis.
Q: What do you, as a campaign orator, propose to do in this grave hour?
A: I shall demand, and denounce, and dedicate. I shall take stock. I shall challenge, pledge, stress, fulfill, indict, exercise, accuse, call upon, affirm and reaffirm.
Q: Reaffirm what?
A: My undying faith in the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers. And I shall exercise eternal vigilance that our priceless heritage may be safeguarded.
Q: Admirable, Mr. Arbuthnot. And that reminds me: What is it you campaign orators rise above?
A: Narrow partisanship. We must place the welfare of our country above all other considerations, including our desire to win.
Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, how do you campaign orators dedicate yourselves?
A: We dedicate ourselves anew to the task that lies before us.
Q: How does your party approach this task?
A: With a solemn realization of the awful responsibility that rests upon us in this hour of unprecedented national stress.
Q: When our country is--
A: Sore beset by economic ills.
Q: How else do you approach the task?
A: With supreme confidence that our ga-reat party will prove worthy of its ga-lorious tradition.
Q: And if your party failed to approach the task in that spirit, Mr. Arbuthnot, would you say that--
A: It would indeed be recreant to its sacred trust.
Q: Ah. But you feel that it won't be recreant?
A: No, my fellow American, a tha-a-o-u-sand times no! The ga-reat party of Washington, and Jefferson, and Lincoln, and Wilson, and Roosevelt, and Cleveland, and Grant, Garfield, Hayes and Arthur will not fail our country in this, her hour of need.
Q: Hurrah for Jones!
A: The candidate of Big Business?
Q: Then hurray for Brown!
A: He wants to be a dictator.
Q: Then three rousing cheers for Green!
A: If elected, he couldn't even control his own party.
Q: Then hurray for Smith!
A: Elect him and you'll never get rid of him.
Q: I'm afraid there's no pleasing you today, Mr. Arbuthnot. Would you mind telling me who's to blame for our country's hour of need?
A: The Other Party.
Q: What has the Other Party proved?
A: Its utter incapacity to govern. Its record is an unbroken record of failure, of forgotten campaign pledges, of callous disregard for the welfare of the country.
Q: What is the Other Party undermining?
A: The American way of life. It is spending vast sums of the taxpayers' money.
Q: For what?
A: To build up a huge political machine. It has aroused class hatred. Fellow American, in this solemn hour, when the sacred institutions of democracy are challenged on every side and the world is rent by strife, I charge the Other Party with having betrayed the pee-pul of the these Yew-nited States.
Q: What must the pee-pul do?
A: They must rise in their wrath and elect my candidate.
Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, perhaps you'll tell us just what kind of leader the hour calls for?
A: A leader who will lead this country out of the wilderness, eliminate waste and extravagance in government, do away with red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency, solve the problem of unemployment, improve living conditions, develop purchasing power, raise the standard of living, provide better housing and insure national defense by building a navy and air force second to none.
Q: What about the farmer?
A: The farmer must have relief.
Q: What kind of relief?
A: Farm relief. Labor must have the right to organize. Economy must be the watchword. Mounting deficits must cease; so must these raids on the public treasury. I view with alarm the huge and unwarranted increase in our national debt. Generations yet unborn! Those who would undermine our sacred institutions! Bore from within! Freedom of speech! Monroe doctrine! I call upon every patriotic American--
Q: Regardless of race or creed?
A: Be quiet! . . . regardless of race or creed, from the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies--
Q: To the pine-clad shores of Maine?
A: Shut up! . . . to the pine-clad shores of Maine to have faith in the American way of life. Subversive doctrines! Undesirable aliens! Lincoln!
Q: What kind of Lincoln?
A: The Immortal Lincoln. The Immortal Washington! The Immortal Jefferson! The time for evasions has passed. We must face the facts, put our shoulders to the wheel, put our house in order, meet the challenge of the dictators, carry aloft the torch of liberty, fulfill our high destiny, face the future with confidence and march forward to victory at the polls in November.