Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Civil Tongue-Lashing





TV newsman Edwin Newman was born on this date in 1919, a year in which the average person wasn't listening to the radio, much less the boob tube. Perhaps I shouldn't call it that, at least not when the subject of this post is Newman, for the man was no boob. He was part of a breed that was somewhat common when I was growing up: the Wry Newsman.

There was David Brinkley, who deliberately paced his delivery for wry effect. When commenting about a drawing that had been produced by a computer, this back when a computer was an enigmatic, room-sized machine and not the much smaller, reassuringly cozy appliance you're likely viewing now, Brinkley refused to adopt the alarmist, apocalyptic oh-dear-man-will-be-supplanted-by-technology tone and instead, implying the robot-produced picture didn't look like much, wryly stated, "When we return...we'll look at some art...if you can call it art...and if you can't call it art...what can you call it?" There! The attempted computer coup against humanity foiled with a smirk and a few well-placed pauses.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus of Wry TV Newscasts may have been 60 Minutes in its 1970s-80s heyday. Yeah, it's still on the air, but current correspondents like Steve Croft and Leslie Stahl seem to grateful to have the gig to report on crimes and misdemeanors with anything but the sincerest consternation. Only octogenarian Morley Safer is still around to hold up the wry end, expressing perverse wonderment at the industrialist trying to tell him the fish in the river just outside his dry rot repair epoxy resin factory all committed suicide. Thirty years ago, however, Safer had such wry company as Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, and, best of all, the late, great Mike Wallace.

Here's Wallace interviewing a former Mafia hit man (wryness italicized):

WALLACE: Tell me, did you ever feel guilty about killing someone?

HIT MAN: No.

WALLACE: Can you think of any circumstances where you would have felt guilty killing someone?

HIT MAN: Well, I suppose if I had to kill an innocent person.

WALLACE: And who would you consider an innocent person?

HIT MAN: Well, you. I would consider you an innocent person.

WALLACE: Well, I would hope you would consider me an innocent person.

Ha! That Mike Wallace had one set of wry testicles on him, didn't he? I think in the same situation Steve Croft would have curled up in a ball and cried.

Now, wry shouldn't be confused with humorous. Yes, a person can have a "wry sense of humor" but the very fact that "humor" needs to be foreshadowed by "wry" proves its failure as a synonym. Or look at it this way, Moe could be funny on occasion, but I think he was able to successfully pull on Larry's hair without having to resort to wryness.

According to the dictionary, "wry" means "to pull out of its expected shape." That's the word's literal meaning as a verb. Of course, I using it as an adjective to describe a personality trait. Thus, it's further defined as "understated, sarcastic, or ironic". You can be those things without being funny. Of course, those things often are funny (italics no longer denoting wryness.) Though I can't quite pinpoint the punchline, I'm sure Brinkley decelerated discourse on the nature of art was meant to amuse, and Wallace's mock indignation that he should be considered anything other than innocent was a bit of comic relief in an otherwise tense interview (the mafia hit man actually seemed the more tenser of the two.)

The major risk involved in wry news reporting is that you can come across as unlikable. People back in that three-network era often looked to their broadcast personalities for comfort, hence the beloved Walter Cronkite. Because David Brinkley was around for so long, people did, finally, take comfort in him toward the end. He was popular at the beginning of his TV career, too, as one half of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, his acerbic wisecracks (trying to solve to controversy involving the renaming of well-known dam on the Colorado River, he suggested a former president should now call himself "Herbert Boulder") provided as color commentary to Chet Huntley's more straightforward reporting. The duo ruled the early evening news roost from the late '50s into the mid-'60s. Then CBS put Cronkite opposite them. With Vietnam heating up and all sorts of civil strife bedeviling the nation, people seem to want less comedy and more comfort, and headed toward Uncle Walter's warm embrace. Huntley soon retired, and Brinkley continued on alternately as a solo act or partnered with John Chancellor. Eventually his role was reduced to a three-minute commentary a couple times a week, his smirk hardening into a sneer as the television news parade largely passed him by. Brinkley's career was resurrected when he switched from NBC to ABC and network big shot Roone Arledge, who had earlier made an unlikely star out of Howard Cosell, gave him a Sunday morning political affairs program called This Week with David Brinkley. The show was a success, and he settled quite nicely into the role of Living TV News Legend. Brinkley still cracked the occasional joke, but he now seemed downright cuddly when contrasted to regular panelist Sam Donaldson, who was not so much wry as raw.

As for Mike Wallace, really, how likable was he? I remember reading one press account that described him as a knight out to slay a dragon. Made you feel occasionally sorry for the dragon. Especially if the camera lingered a bit too long into the stare of the beast's frightened eyes, a standard 60 Minutes technique. It actually made the bad guy seem like the underdog at times.  There's been more than one program where, against my better judgement, I felt like saying, "There, there, corporate polluter, it's gonna be all right, the nasty reporter is going away now," or "Oh, corrupt politician, my heart goes out to you! Have a good, long cry during the commercial break." Not exactly the response that was expected of me watching 60 Minutes, a show that never actually questions or challenges the status quo itself, but merely goes after the endless stream of nogoodniks who always seem to find exciting new opportunities within it.

That leaves us with Edwin Newman, who actually was likable. Instead of Brinkley's smirk and Wallace's sarcastic gape, there was a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. He could be funny, often dropping a joke into his reporting or commentary, as long as the subject matter wasn't too serious. And he knew his grammar, putting several books--humorously written but expressing concern nonetheless--about the deterioration of the English language on the best-sellers list (God knows the problems he would have found with this post.) On top of all that, he even hosted, on Eddie Murphy's last regular show yet! That had to be some kind of honor.


Newman was such an amiable presence on the various NBC news shows in which he appeared (usually those hosted by others) that some might say wasn't wry so much as folksy, a la Charles Kuralt who did the popular "On the Road" segments on the CBS news, driving around the country to one backwoods local after another looking to interview a man who a treehouse out of old Yellow Pages or the town that threw a party to commemorate the invention of pull-open beer can tab, touting it as a real example of Americana. Newman could never have done such a program. The first time some hillbilly said the word "ain't" in his presence he would have hightailed it back to the big city to write another book.

Besides, Newman was just too irreverent to be another Kuralt. Here's his deadpan joke-filled description of the 1964 World's Fair:


"Cluster's Last Stand." As much as a stickler Newman may have been when it came to the English language, he was also a sucker for a good pun.

Here's Newman in a more serous moment, on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed:





"Our image is not good...We do not appear as an adult nation...grossly diminished people" Folksy Edwin Newman is really laying it on the line here! Of all the video commentary from the day of the assassination or shortly thereafter, this has got to be the least sentimental. David Brinkley, in his commentary, kind of ducks the issues Newman raises, even suggesting that to talk about them might be in bad taste. Other than that, Brinkley tells viewers that the events of the day are shocking, which I'm sure they already knew. Newman, meanwhile is not telling people what they already know, or what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. Something in the culture broke down, and that's where the ultimate bad taste lies. What I find amazing about Newman's commentary is how contrary it is to the way the Kennedy assassination has been handed down and explained to me, as a sudden and dramatic loss of innocence. Newman, on the day of the assassination, will have none of it. It's not innocence but childishness we have too much of it. True then, true now.

Newman's commentary is of course not meant to be funny. Should it then be considered wry? There are hints of understatement, sarcasm and irony, but I'd go for the first definition, you know, wry as a verb: to pull out of its expected shape. Newman was probably expected to do a nice little eulogy on the day's tragic events, giving lip service to our greatness as a nation and how we'll emerge from this ordeal stronger, blah, blah, blah, and instead told some harsh but very necessary truths.

All with a wry sense of drama.

6 comments:

  1. I'm wondering what interested you in approaching this subject in terms of wryness? I'm thinking you did a lot of research for this article and it was well worth it. So interesting!. Those news clips really took me back, especially the assassination of Kennedy. I was a sophomore in High School and I remember being glued to the TV in disbelief.

    Have you ever considered submitting your articles to any other online sources, like The Huffington Post? You have such a unique approach and interest.

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  2. Kass, that's something I noticed way back when I was in high school, though I didn't consciously attach the word "wry" to it. I could have easily used the word "dry", as in "dry sense of humor." Some network newsman back in the day were just like that, and noticing Edwin Newman had a birthday coming up gave me an opportunity to write about it.

    As for the Huffington Post, so far no takers.

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  3. As usual nicely done, well researched and written.
    Wry or dry sense of humor is not something one sees or hears a lot of today.
    It seems to be all words are used for the full shook value or making fun of, hurtful or slanderous humor.
    I think one need to read to open the mind more than a video game of killing zombies or people.
    We have become truly a third world in the reading, writing and arithmetic.

    cheers, parsnip

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  4. You comment reminds me of a joke I heard somewhere once, parsnip.

    In a third-world (or undeveloped) nation, you can't drink the water. In a first-world (or developed) nation, you can't breathe the air.

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    Replies
    1. Perfect !
      Are you snowed in ?
      Since you replied back I know you have power so that is great.
      Keep warm.

      cheers, parsnip

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  5. The weather's not great here, Parsnip, but the bad stuff you've been seeing on the news is a couple of states to the east of us.

    ReplyDelete