“Some Elements in a Dispute”

February 20, 2006

September 30, 1974 Assertion: Insofar as the CNY will (or can) be a notable factor in boosting the reputation of any contributor — this is open to debate — Calvin Trillin is one whose reputation will spike. You may think of him as that folksy urbanite, specialist in whimsies and drolleries, author of jocular opinion pieces and political doggerel in The Nation — I did, anyway — but the diffident facade cloaks a reporter of rare gifts. This was a surprise to me.

I could back up this position in any number of ways, but I would simply ask any skeptic to type “trill” up at “Author/Artist” and examine any ten of his abstracts at random, and then ask further if the skepticism remains.

His beat is, to be brief, America, and he has covered a bewildering variety of subjects with uncommon originality and wit. He has shown creativity as much in finding interesting subjects as in making dull subjects interesting. Not only is his easy prose style deceptively trenchant, it’s also remarkably unshowy, given his aims. Your favored wry deadpan scribbler may be Garrison Keillor or Fran Leibowitz; meaning neither an iota of disrespect, I wouldn’t trade Trillin for the both of them.

The short article featured today actually bears the title “Some Elements in a Dispute that Resulted in the Closing of Schools, the Shutting Down of Industry, the Wounding of Men, and the Cancellation of Football Games.” It’s a story that feels like a harbinger of our own outrage-fueled time, as it is about some innocuous schoolbooks that were (on slender provocation indeed) deemed to be irreligious by some parents in West Virginia. What seems less of our time is Trillin’s choice to explain the parents’ ire rather than to belittle them for it.


“Jim Peck’s Cabaret”

February 6, 2006

February 4, 1980 I’ve always felt that Michael J. Arlen was one of the New Yorker‘s most underrated writers; he’s always been a favorite of mine. He was the New Yorker‘s first real television critic, and in my opinion he remains one of the best TV critics who ever wrote. He released three books of his New Yorker criticism: Living Room War, The View from Highway 1, and The Camera Age. He started reviewing TV in the 1960s, and many of the first reviews are really about the presentation of the Vietnam War on the news. In my opinion his best work came in the 1970s, when he covered more mundane fare — crime series like “Baretta,” miniseries like “Shogun,” stuff like that.

In 1980 he reviewed a game show called “3’s a Crowd” hosted by someone called Jim Peck. The show was a clear copy of “The Newlywed Game” — only with that extra tacit acceptance of extramarital affairs that makes you wonder how this show ever got put on the air. Arlen’s is an indelible piece that describes a truly ridiculous artifact of TV history. If you needed any confirmation that the battle of the sexes has changed, read this. I find myself wondering whether Arlen was making the show up, but he wrote plenty of satirical pieces, and he wasn’t generally shy about showing his hand in such cases.