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From Left to Write

Libertarian curmudgeon and author P.J. O'Rourke muses about fatherhood at 50, the politics of cigar smoking, and why economics is funny.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

O'Rourke stresses the importance of the techniques he learned at Lampoon. "Parody comes from knowing how to write well. You learn that in order to make fun of something, you have to be able to take it apart. I always thought that if I ever wound up teaching a creative writing class, that's what I would have the kids do. I would have them do nothing but parodies for a semester, because in order to do a parody you have to understand how the writing is done."

Satire, on the other hand, O'Rourke sees as a dying art. "Satire is technically comic writing with a moral point of view, and I think that it is hard to do because not many people have the confidence in their moral point of view anymore. We're in this sort of period where people say: 'Not that there's anything wrong with that!'. I don't think people are afraid to have opinions. People have endless opinions. But I think they're afraid to have a logical and consistent morality which they believe should be applied to others as well as themselves. It's like, 'Well we don't believe in that, but not that there's anything wrong with other people who do. No, we don't eat babies at our house. But I'm not saying anything against people who eat babies.' It's a bad symptom of a good thing."

Returning to his house to help with dinner, O'Rourke is greeted by Elizabeth, his adorable eight-month-old daughter, who is sitting in her high chair as the high priestess of the kitchen. The Barney tape is cued up in a vain attempt to distract her long enough for her mother, Tina, 36, to feed her strained peas and carrots. Much to Elizabeth's continued delight, and O'Rourke's mock horror, the large purple dinosaur launches into yet another annoying chorus.

It was from the helm of the National Lampoon during the 1970s, a decade when you could still get away with being politically incorrect, that O'Rourke established his unique take on the world. But he sensed the need to explore other kinds of writing. And it was time to grow up.

"Basically, a thing like National Lampoon was all about making fun of institutions and fads and so on. I thought to myself that it was basically a job for adolescents and people in their 20s, people who aren't part of any kind of establishment. The grown-ups are sitting around having dinner in the dining room and the kids are out in the flower garden making faces. So at age 33, you start to think: 'I'm taller than the rest of these people and maybe I should be inside having something to eat. Maybe I should be doing something that somebody else can mock, rather than mocking everything.' "

So the "something" he chose was a move to Hollywood and a brief stint as a screenwriter. O'Rourke found the Left Coast experience both baffling and unpleasant. "I did some movie writing off and on between 1981 and the mid-'80s, and I didn't like it at all. Besides [the 1983 film] Easy Money, I worked on four scripts, one of which got made, and it was so bad I took my name off of it. It's not a good job for writers--hardly anybody in the business can even read. All writers do is dig a foundation for a movie--usually they dig a bunch of foundations, all over the yard, while the director, producer, actors and so forth decide where they want the house. I'd write a script, take it to the producer, and he'd say, 'I love it. It's great. But it needs an Eskimo.' And I'd say, 'An Eskimo? The movie is set in the jungles of Belize.' The producer would say, 'I know. But I just have this It-needs-an-Eskimo gut feeling.' 'OK,' I'd say, 'it's your money.' And I'd rewrite the script, bring it back to the producer and he'd say, 'I love it. It's great. But what the hell's the Eskimo doing in there?' "

It was during this time that O'Rourke's first two books of social satire were born: Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People in 1983, and The Bachelor Home Companion: A Practical Guide to Keeping House Like a Pig in 1987. But it was a 1982 magazine assignment that ultimately set O'Rourke on a different course.

That year, Michael Kinsley, then editor of Harpers, sent O'Rourke to Russia to write about a group of old American left-wingers who were taking a Volga River cruise. The resulting article, titled "Ship of Fools," was the hilarious marriage of the comedic techniques he honed at Lampoon and his journalistic skills. The next phase of O'Rourke's evolution as a writer had begun. And he was enjoying himself.

"The minute I did that Russia thing, I realized that here was something that I could do that would be a lot of fun to do and that the readers would get something out of. I would tell the readers a lot of the stuff that other reporters were telling me around the bar at night. Just let me do funny stuff and give the readers a little bit broader picture of the situation than they'd be getting from the very serious, worthy stuff. I can use all the stuff that I've been using as a humorist for the past decade to report real things. It's most interesting to cover stuff that a) other people aren't being funny about, and b) that really have some meaning, things that are a big deal. Wars, revolutions, political crises--stuff like that."

O'Rourke's pieces, culled from such eclectic publications as Harpers, House & Garden, Car and Driver and The Wall Street Journal, formed his 1987 book, Republican Party Reptile, proving that the phrase "Funny Republican" was not an oxymoron. His reputation as a "trouble tourist" or, as his Rolling Stone editor Bob Love so aptly put it, "shithole specialist," was solidified by his 1988 book, Holidays in Hell, in which readers joined him on such unlikely adventures as a ramble through war-torn Lebanon and Christmas in El Salvador.

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