Let’s face it, humor writers are never taken seriously. The word “serious” is essentially the opposite of the word “humor”. But there are incredibly rare exceptions to that rule. I witnessed one with my own eyes about twenty years ago. A humor writer was taken seriously by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, at least for a few seconds.
The Pulitzer Prize winner was Mike Royko. The humor writer was me.
A friend of mine, the late Chicago sportscaster Tim Weigel, invited my wife and I to a party, and one of the other guests was Tim's best friend, Mike Royko.
I grew up reading Royko, and considered him one of America's greatest living writers, but even though his columns often had a humorous tone, he was not exactly known as a warm and fuzzy guy. I was scared to death of him. Whenever I got into a conversation anywhere near him, I just prayed I didn't say anything stupid. I respected his talent so much it would have killed me if he thought I was an idiot.
Therefore, whenever Royko was around, I was mute. I just stood near him throughout the night and listened to his stories. I was pretty sure he had no idea who I was, and I liked it that way.
Towards the end of the night I was talking to Tim about a bit we had done on the radio show I was producing (The John Landecker Show, which co-starred Tim’s wife, Vicki Truax). We had recorded a wacky parody song about John Wayne Bobbitt, the most famous man in America at that time. Tim really thought the song was funny, and asked me if I wrote it.
While I was in the middle of openly admitting that I had indeed written a wacky parody song about a guy who had his penis cut off by his wife, I didn't see America's most respected newspaper columnist walk up next to me. When I saw him, my heart sank. He was clearly listening in on the conversation.
"You wrote that Bobbitt song?" Royko asked me.
I gulped and braced myself for the slap-down king's inevitable slap-down.
"Yes he did," Tim answered for me. "Did you hear it?"
Royko nodded. "Yeah, my wife had it on in the car," he said. I could hear the disdain in his voice. I knew he wasn't a regular listener of the show.
Tim then asked him the one question I never would have asked in a million years: "What did you think of it?"
Royko looked at me, and just for a second, a crooked little grin formed at the corner of his mouth. "I thought it was genius," he said.
You read that correctly. The word “genius” was used in a sentence by a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist to describe something written by a very unserious never-won-a-prize-in-his-life humor writer. I have witnesses. On the other hand, as my wife always points out when I tell this story, "He was hitting the gin pretty hard that night."
As if that matters.