• I got an e-mail last week from a priest I know who reads my Wall Street Journal drama column and likes it. At least I think he does. “So far,” he wrote, “you’ve managed to avoid pseudo-sophistication.” That dark qualifier–so far–made me smile. Has he detected a hint of phoniness in my other writings? Or is it merely that he knows most critics don’t feel comfortable unless they’re running with the pack?
Whatever he meant, I appreciate both the implicit warning and the explicit praise. I know what he means by “pseudo-sophistication,” though I can’t imagine falling victim to it. Perhaps because I took up drama criticism at a comparatively advanced age, I’m simply not interested in theatrical fashion. In fact, I often don’t know what it is at any given moment (though it’s rarely hard to guess). Even when I do know, I don’t pay any attention: I simply come home from a show, sit down at my iBook, and write what I think. Every once in a while I suspect I’m going to find myself way out on a limb come Friday morning, a prospect that neither pleases nor scares me.
• The Game Show Network’s nightly installments of What’s My Line? have now reached 1955, the year in which Fred Allen replaced Steve Allen as the show’s fourth regular panelist. I doubt that many readers of this blog know who Fred Allen was, since he died in 1956 and is now mainly remembered, if at all, for his long-running radio series of the ’30s and ’40s. Yet he was one of the best-known comedians of his day, and was widely considered to be not merely a radio comic but a full-fledged wit (James Thurber was one of his biggest fans). Among other things, he wrote two very good books, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me, and a posthumous collection of his letters was published in 1965. An anthology of his writings came out just four years ago. I wonder how many other people my age or younger have read any of these books, much less all of them.
Of all my peculiar claims to singularity, this one may be the most revealing: I’ve never met another person whose head was crammed full of so much miscellaneous information about people like Fred Allen, most of it utterly useless. To put it another way, I can be boring about more subjects than anyone I know. Fortunately, I’m painfully aware that I suffer from this chronic disability, and sometimes even manage to guard against inflicting it on my friends. I once had an insomniac significant other who claimed to find it tranquilizing to listen to me delivering impromptu lectures on random subjects (she claimed to be particularly fond of hearing me talk about the use of the rhythm guitar in swing-era jazz).
If only I knew half so much about making large amounts of money! Alas, none of my preferred subjects is more than modestly renumerative….