Thirty years of writing columns, with a sick sense of humor
This is the 30th anniversary of my first column. I don’t want to come off as some old fogey stuck in the past, because I was only 10 when I started.
I’ve been a newspaper junkie all my life, as was my dad. I had a dual passion, sports and humor. The great New York newspaper columnists are the stuff of legends. Red Smith of The Times, perhaps the greatest, won a Pulitzer. He was at his best writing about horse racing. Hell, it’s probably his fault I got hooked on the ponies. He probably owes me 100 grand. I liked Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young. Even though Young was a bit of a scoundrel he had the ability to unnerve you, to get your goat, to tweak you where it hurt. But you always came back for more.
There really weren’t any humor columnists of note. I have a rather sick sense of humor. I like to walk out there on the edge and see how far I can go. Occasionally, as regular readers know, I’ve fallen off.
Art Buchwald was probably the funniest of the bunch, a master of one-liners who didn’t mind lifting a joke or two from the comedians (and vice versa). Erma Bombeck was too smarmy for me, and Andy Rooney was too much of a curmudgeon.
I drew comic inspiration from the naughty boys with the blue albums. There was no one filthier or funnier than Red Foxx. The fact that he cleaned up his act enough to get a TV sitcom (“Sanford and Son”) was a miracle. Tom Lehrer, the delightfully slick piano player with a deliciously sick sense of humor, was so deft at double entendre, he could play a filthy song in a nunnery and no one would notice.
My biggest inspiration, though, was Lord Buckley, a scat-singing smooth-talking hipster whose freeform dialogues were like jam band improvisations. No two were ever alike.
I learned right away that you can’t be someone else. Only Lord Buckley could be Lord Buckley.
It took one column to get in trouble. I was writing for The Sag Harbor Herald, and I noticed the jaw of a whale framed the front door of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. At the time Paul Sidney, the voice of WLNG radio, was in all his glory and a constant presence in Sag Harbor. I nonchalantly interjected in my column that it was his jawbone framing the entrance to the museum. Letters came pouring in. The phones rang off the hook. How dare I insult this man who did so much for so many? I figured my first column would be my last until Paul himself stopped by the Herald office. “Kid,” he said reassuringly, “always make sure you spell my name right.”
Years later, when I was in hot water again, I sought direction from someone who has been there and done that, Howard Stern. “Rick, take my word for it. These things always blow over — sooner or later.” And it did — much later than sooner.
Years later, I was interviewing Stern about a house he was trying to buy. It was extremely expensive, and Stern was sitting on a ton of money — shares of Sirius radio — but no one knew it and he wasn’t allowed to discuss it. It seems the seller of the oceanfront mansion was concerned because Stern was getting divorced and stood to lose a ton of cash.
“Have you ever been really in love?” he asked me.
I told him that I was divorced.
“It hurts, doesn’t it? It really hurts. I’m hurting now, Rick.”
“Take it from me, Howard. Someday you’ll meet someone. Someday you’ll fall in love again.”
“That’s not what hurts,” he responded, clearly moved. “It’s having to give her all my f**k**g money!”
I’ve been around the block. Low Tidings, Rick’s Place, Rick’s Space. I did a long stint in The East Hampton Star under the “Relay” heading, pretty much monopolizing it when I worked there. I’ve never written about the soup of the day. Jerry Della Femina and I wrote columns for 16 straight years and we never once wrote about the same topic.
Kavanaugh, Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Megyn Kelly, and so on. These things monopolize the news for a few weeks, and every columnist feels the need to jump on the bandwagon. They almost always pile on and write the popular thing; they crave and need recognition. When someone says, “good column” to them, they think it is a compliment. But people say that to a columnist when they agree with it, not because it was a well written column. That’s the biggest misconception in the business — that content buys quality.
It’s called pandering. That’s ok when a little kid craves mommy’s attention, but out here on the edge, there’s no room for pussies.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.