Tuesday, December 11, 2012

South Carolina Is a Funny Place

If it gets serious, Stephen Colbert should find out what happened to Al Franken, who gave up intentional comedy for the US Senate four years ago and hasn’t been seen since. Is there a protection program to keep professionals from being embarrassed by natural-born clowns like Mitch McConnell?

A poll favorite to replace hilarious Jim DeMint, Colbert has been tweaking Gov. Nikki Haley to add the part-time job to his resume in exchange for untraceable SuperPAC money, but she refuses to put him on the short list.

Just as well. Colbert has already been overshadowed on his own show by Newt Gingrich, who won the state’s presidential primary with money from Las Vegas showman Sheldon Adelson. 

Could he compete for comedy with Jenny Sanford, whose main qualification is that her former husband ditched her and the governorship to find true love in South America, or with current senior Sen. Lindsey Graham, John McCain’s bozo, for that matter?

The Palmetto state is a funny place, as I can testify from having spent formative years there involuntarily, first in World War II basic training eating the red clay of Spartansburg and later breakfast grits in Charleston’s Citadel, the West Point of the South.

My experience in the former place with another comic figure could serve as a cautionary tale for Colbert.

Zero Mostel had been at City College a decade before me and in the 1940s was getting known in Manhattan night clubs for political satire that would later fail to amuse the House Un-American Activities Committee. The night I looked him up at Camp Croft, he was on his way to becoming the pear-shaped presence that years later would charge around a Broadway stage and turn into a rhinoceros.

Sitting on his bunk, field jacket zipped to the throat, his big head seemed to be resting on a bulging bag of laundry. He was in his late twenties, but his eyes were a thousand years old. When I told him I was from the Bronx, he grabbed me as if I were a pastrami sandwich.

We went into town Saturday night to the USO, where local ladies entertained with doughnuts, coffee and Southern charm, and the troops entertained back however they could. When the hostesses heard Zero was a professional performer, they pushed him to the stage

He slouched up to the microphone with a shy smile and a glint in his eye, gathered his bulk, fixed his face into a scowl and suddenly emitted the roar of a deep Southern demagogue. To this audience of dewy damsels and redneck recruits, he was offering his rendition of Senator Pellagra T. Polltax, a raging parody of the Mississippi racist, Theodore Bilbo.

As Zero flung his arms in all directions and turned up the angry rant about niggers and kikes, I slid down in my seat, looking for an exit.

By the time he finished, I was crouching near the floor. Through the startled silence, I heard the start of a low rumble and sprinted to the stage where Zero was beaming and bowing, grabbed his elbow and shoved him through a door toward the bus that would carry us, untarred and unfeathered, back to camp. On the ride Zero seemed relaxed, a small smile on his face. We never went to the USO again.

South Carolina has changed a good deal since then, but not even Colbert with his classic comedy could possibly outshine what happens there naturally. Give it up, Stephen, and stick with the rest of us who appreciate you to the fullest.

1 comment:

Jo's World said...

If you want to meet a serious, hard working Senator, let me introduce you to a fellow Minnesota is very proud of, the Honorable Al Franken. He works hard, he knows his stuff, and he and Amy Klobuchar are a great team.
If you are looking for men who create trouble for themselves, their families and their party, the Rethuglicans are where you want to be looking. You'll find them.