Will Durst’s historic joke

UncleWill-Durst-cropI need to see Will Durst again.

The “modern-day Mort Sahl or Will Rogers” came into my life in the early 1980s. (That, by the way, is a wonderful yet horrible description of his style. We will get into that later.)
I can date my Durst experience to the early 1980s because he told a great joke about Reagan’s skin flapping in the breeze. (The joke was solid enough for Greg Proops to repeat it on his podcast 30 years later. It played with people who remembered the origin of Proops’ reference. Which is to say it played solid to me.) It was in one of those 1980s appearances that the reason for me wanting to see Durst again arises.

The setup is a deep-south Texan is on the campus of Harvard, and asks a passerby, “‘Scuse me, can y’all tell me where the library is at?” The native responds, “Here at Hah-vahd, we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.” The Texan considers, then says, “All right — can y’all tell me where the library is at, ASSHOLE?”

A co-worker was criticized on social media for what the critic perceived as a grammatical error. Technically, and in a specific period of historical time, that critic was precisely correct. But the language has evolved and is evolving to allow the use in the fashion my co-worker used. It looks like shorthand to older viewers, but younger people understand (generally) that while the language is not perfect, the point gets across, and only that matters.

(That’s the logic I tried to use in math and bookkeeping classes when I was in high school. I didn’t realize the classes weren’t about getting the right answer. The instruction in the classes was about learning the language of how the problems are solved.)

I told my co-worker the Will Durst story above, and got a laugh.

The first time I saw Durst compared to Mort Sahl and Will Rogers, I thought, “Well no, that’s not right.” I didn’t (and don’t) even think it’s fair to mention Sahl and Rogers in the same sentence. The similarity between the two, it seems to me, is that they make jokes about politics and politicians. But Sahl couldn’t approach the popularity Rogers enjoyed in his time. And Rogers’ populism precluded him from being as blunt at Sahl, even if his era would have accepted it, which it probably wouldn’t have. They were both almost certainly best enjoyed in their own times, and if we weren’t there we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

I think I made an impression on Durst when we first talked, a telephone interview. My first question was, “Why are you playing this place?” It wasn’t a condemnation of the venue, which I enjoy and to this day go a couple of times a year. It was a statement of where I saw him on the pecking order of club comedians.

I’d like to tell him about repeating his decades-old joke to my co-worker. Will Durst wrote a joke that was still alive 35 years later. That’s some George S. Kauffman shit right there.
Or, yes, Will Rogers.

(You may have noticed that this wasn’t about music. I’m expanding the reach of this a little bit. I don’t know if it will work or how long it will last. But I’m planning to write both music and comedy here for a while as I step back into it. I hope you feel like coming along for the ride even if you’re not wholly interested in both.)



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