Calvin Trillin: “Writing casuals and free-lance pieces was a chancy occupation.”

From a Personal History column by Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker titled “Some Notes on Funniness”:

For those of us whose attempts at humor are mostly written rather than verbal, the audience is an editor—an audience we, unlike the standup comic, have to please without the tools of timing or expression. In the first decades of my time at The New Yorker, the pieces that we were trying to sell—the sort of light pieces that would these days run under the rubric of Shouts & Murmurs or possibly Personal History—were referred to around the office as “casuals.”

Some of the people submitting casuals were, like me, reporters who thought of casual-writing as a sideline. Some were fiction writers drawing a small salary that was ostensibly for writing Talk of the Town pieces. Some were people with no connection to the magazine who simply thought they had come up with something funny. Burton Bernstein, a colleague who published a biography of James Thurber, the nonpareil producer of casuals, wrote once that the casual, which sounds like something tossed off, is actually “one of the more difficult and painstaking forms of writing known to humankind.” Contemplating casual-writing over the past fifty years or so, I’m reminded of how I began a talk I once gave to people graduating from Columbia with master’s-of-fine-arts degrees. “When I tried to think of an appropriate subject for people going into the fields you’re going into,” I said, “the only thing I could come up with was ‘Rejection.’ ” It’s not that we didn’t sell some casuals. But what stands out in my memory is rejection.

Burt Bernstein, for instance, worked for untold hours on a palindromic casual. It was in the form of a play called “Look, Ma, I Am Kool!,” and it had characters delivering lines like “Nail a timid god on rood. Door no dog, dim Italian.” The New Yorker passed. The alternative market for palindromic casuals was not large. Some months later, Burt showed up at my office to announce that he was compiling and editing a book of casuals written by the generation that followed the legendary era of New Yorker writers like Thurber and Benchley and White and Perelman. He asked if I had any pieces that might be included.

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