There’s a great passage written by pre-Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth that was published in an article in The Nation in 1957 lamenting the death of “politically radical humor” and the rise of “New Yorker humor,” which he described as humor that invariably hinges on “the whimsical disaster[s]” that beset those who attempt to “do something as elemental as driving a nail or mowing a lawn.” That was 50 years ago and, true to Rexroth’s foreboding, New Yorker humor has pretty much become the yardstick with which we mismeasure our cultural funny bone, even though so many lampoonable imbeciles rule the land.
In fact, as society retrogresses further into the ridiculously class-conscious oligarchy of its own pre-Revolutionary beginnings and fewer people mow their own lawns, New Yorker humor has expanded way beyond merely describing whimsical disasters, of which there are fewer, to describing political disasters, of which there are an increasing number, leaving only those who were alive and working in the earlier part of the 20th century to know how to actually create politically radical humor, albeit with less ferocity and considerably more weariness than then.
I met one of these few remaining 20th-century radicals last month — Paul Conrad, a man who Time magazine called “an acid-penned liberal” in 1960 — and had a conversation with him that was not particularly radical or even humorous and was barely political, but why should it have been? Why should any artist be expected to mirror the heightened fury or the magnanimous joy of his art when he’s not actively engaged in creating it? I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s surprising description of Groucho Marx upon meeting him at a restaurant in the late 1970s, which went something like this: He was no funnier than anybody’s elderly uncle whom you might get stuck talking to at a family reunion.
What was remarkable, I told myself after meeting this 20th-century radical and recording two hours of a conversation filled largely with meandering twattle and reminiscences so worn out that much of their exquisite detail had been obliterated by years of affectionate caressing, was Conrad’s deep humanity, infectious calm and endearing exhaustion, which is precisely where the greatest art, radical or otherwise, is supposed to eventually lead all of us — isn’t it? Aside from his white-hot contempt for television, George Bush, the death of the environment, the gun lobby and the war in Iraq, this 20th-century radical was at peace, finally.
That said, asking Conrad, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes as staff cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, to talk about his cartooning is like asking Miles Davis to talk about his musicianship: It’s stupid, particularly because a cartoonist, like a musician, has already found the most eloquent means of expressing himself, and it’s definitely not through conversation with a stranger.
Conrad used the word motherfucker better than any octogenarian whom I’d ever hung out with before; that is, sparingly, and only when he felt he couldn’t make his point by using sonuvabitch, asshole or shithead. Similar to the way he drew his cartoons, he was about as obtuse as a very dark line drawn on a white piece of paper in permanent ink, even captioned for the politically impaired.
He said he hadn’t yet read his new autobiography, I, Con, as he led me through his Palos Verdes home, the décor a finely aged 1970s amber and chrome, the light poor, everything smelling like pipe smoke, old dog and gray coffee. The clutter of the place, which was substantial, spoke of an insatiable mind that sought nourishment in devouring everything that it could, whether it was the most recent news hyenaed from exploded newspapers or more bric-a-brac and knickknacks than his sudden death would be able to prevent from turning an otherwise dignified estate sale into something vastly more attractive to the flip-flop crowd, a sprawling Saturday bazaar of not for sale gimcrackery.
On pedestals scattered around the sunken living room were his sculptures, old and new, and parked at the base of the steps was a 1924 Steinway that was as big as a Buick Skylark, its enormity making the room feel a little bit like a garage, the pretentiousness of such a grand piece of furniture mollified by the happy mess surrounding it.
“I understand that the first thing to go on a person is his hands,” I said, patting the piano as I passed it. “How are yours holding up?”
“Oh, fine. She’s the joy of my life,” he said, his obvious affection for the instrument at once moving and mundane, like a marriage ground into a kind of rote elation. He didn’t slow down on our way through the room.
Covering every inch of wall space were paintings, many of them done by his recently deceased twin brother, Jim (like the piano, also born in 1924), family photographs, framed awards and certificates, all of them fitted together like Scrabble tiles with no room left to brag about the fullness of an old man’s life. In fact, the only thing free of the cacophony of stuff was the ceiling, left open, I imagined, to allow Catholicism to flow massively either in or out of the room, depending on who was judging the world that day, God or Conrad.