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.
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.)
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.
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.