Russell Baker and the Fading Art of Laughing Instead of Crying

Russell Baker outlived his world, and for that we are all the poorer.

Baker, whose Observor column ran for decades in the New York Times, died Monday at the age of 93, from complications of a fall. In his younger days, he would have found something poignantly humorous to say about that.

Russell Baker.

It should be stressed that 93 years is a good run, and writing memorable essays is a good life. Russell Baker need not have left with any regrets.

No, the loss is ours.

Not so many years ago, one of America’s common grounds was essayists, humorists if you will, who looked at what we all saw and found a lighter, bemused and sometimes absurd side to it.

It relieved some of the pressure, helped us take a step back and exhale. It put a maddening world into a more manageable perspective and sometimes it even reminded us that in the greater game of life, we’re all on the same team.

Russell Baker was a master of that art, with a Pulitzer Prize and millions of appreciative readers to prove it.

He lived in a wide tent with folks like Art Buchwald, Calvin Trillin, Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, who had vastly different styles, but approached things with the same optimistic notion that sometimes it’s better to laugh than to cry.

To recount great Russell Baker lines could consume weeks, so here’s a short random sample:

“I gave up on new poetry myself 30 years ago when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens in a hostile world.”

“Like all young reporters — brilliant or hopelessly incompetent — I dreamed of the glamorous life of the foreign correspondent: prowling Vienna in a Burberry trench coat, speaking a dozen languages to dangerous women, narrowly escaping Sardinian bandits — the usual stuff that newspaper dreams are made of.”

“Objects can be classified scientifically into three major categories: those that don’t work, those that break down and those that get lost.”

“Is fuel efficiency really what we need so desperately? I say that what we really need is a car that can be shot when it breaks down.”

“Don’t try to make children grow up to be like you, or they may do it.”

“A group of politicians deciding to dump a President because his morals are bad is like the Mafia getting together to bump off the Godfather for not going to church on Sunday.”

“Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product.”

As that last one suggests, he had phases, sometimes within an 800-word column, when he got serious. But he rarely let it turn him hostile, and that’s the part we too often lose these days.

The 21st century version of long-form commentary — especially though not exclusively on television — has become louder and angrier. Or maybe it hasn’t, but it somehow feels like there’s less to balance it.

That’s ironic, too, because in Baker’s day, newspapers and magazines and television were our primary media platforms. These days it’s the Internet, a platform that stretches to Infinity and beyond.

More choices has also, however, spread media consumers out. We have less common ground, and whether it’s a consequence or not, that also seems to have left us collectively less interested in Russell Baker’s style of dry, broad-reaching observational humor. Whatever our politics, we could all laugh in agreement that people who write indecipherable restaurant menus should be forced to answer for their crimes.

Today, when a generation raised on smartphones needs a laugh, it punches up a 15-second video of a kitten playing with a tube of toothpaste.

More subtly, but equally dangerous, essayists today often have a harder time weaving their tale, because they are repeatedly admonished that if they don’t drop the hammer in their first sentence, they risk losing their audience.

Seriously. And furthermore, that mandate is reinforced by Internet technology. If you don’t use that key buzzword fast, Internet search engines won’t pick you up, which means you won’t be on the first page for Google or Yahoo or Bing or whatever, which means you’ll get fewer clicks, which is how most “journalism” is measured these days.

“SEO,” it’s called, for “Search Engine Optimization,” and it is worshipped in the media the way Allah is worshipped in the mosques of Istanbul.

It’s the kind of thing Russell Baker would have had a wonderful time parsing, over 800 lovely and leisurely words that might or might not be search engine optimized.

We will miss him. Even if he never did capture that precious moment when the toothpaste squirted out and startled the kitten.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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