Without Royko's satire, life with be more bland and boring

By Bill Granger
Updated 4/25/2012 3:31 PM

Editor's Note: This column originally published May 6, 1997.

The Broadway saying is that satire is the thing that dies on Friday night.

In fact, satire died in Chicago last Tuesday.

His name was Mike Royko.

I knew Mike for 38 years, including the years when we didn't speak to each other and including years of snarls.

Like the time he brought in ringers to play on the old Daily News softball team in our Sunday morning media league.

I was pitcher on the Sun-Times and I resented heavy-hitting thugs who were not reporters and who played for the Royko-managed Daily Newsers.

So one time I decided to walk them. Believe me, giving them just one base was better than them taking three. Even my teammates booed my decision. After all, this was 16-inch slowpitch Chicago softball. Nobody walked. But we did have an umpire, so why not use him?

The Daily News beat the Sun-Times anyway. At the end of the game, I said congratulations to Royko. He snarled some unpleasantly about me being a loser. It made me mad at the time.

Now I just think it was funny, the wholly serious way he took winning and the equally serious way I tried to stop his fiendish plans. I think, in a sense, it was a moment worthy of satire, if anyone was around then to write it.

Then there was the time, after I was fired from my first tour of duty at the Sun-Times, when I went back in the shop to get some clips in the dead of night for a book Lori and I were writing on Jane Byrne. I was a casualty of the merger of the Sun-Times/Daily News staffs and Royko was there on the foreign paper, late at night, worrying over a column. I said "hi."He said "hi" back and wondered if I still drank. The night ended with us closing several saloons up and down the streets of the North Side; him recalling the stories of his life and me doing the same thing. It was fun, particularly our several imitations of editors we had known and stupidities in the business we had known.

He said, in regard to softball, I took things seriously and got mad. He was right. I thought he did the same thing. I was right as well. He wouldn't admit it, but he bought most of the drinks.

What no one ever took seriously in the salad days of Royko's growth to mythical status was humor in print. The pages were full of it, had been for decades. What do you think Ring Lardner was doing at the Trib or Finley Peter Dunne was doing when he created Mr. Dooley? Royko wrote satire. It was cutting and vicious and right on the mark.

His ancestors included Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote a classic called "A Modest Proposal" which is mostly not taught in schools anymore because it is just too hurtful and too cruel. Swift proposed that the perennial Irish problem be solved by killing and cooking Irish babies to be served to the English working class, which also had a problem in getting enough food. Swift's satire devastated British society and even then, some people didn't get the point of it.

That satire is now officially dead was made clear in the week following Royko's death. More than one pious mourner in print suggested Royko had just gone too far in poking fun at the end of his life. It was all wonderful satire when the subject was Mayor Richard J. or Jesse Jackson or Walter Jacobson, but those times had passed and Royko had taken to goring sacred cows. We cannot make fun of ebonics or dozens of other sacred cow subjects. Some Tribune staffers even petitioned that Royko be censured or fired six months before his death. They thought his satire was mean.

R. Bruce Dold, an editorial writer on the Trib, wrote a fine column on Royko last Friday in which he also decried the p.c. takeover of newsprint by tongue-cluckers who would have boiled J. Swift in cholesterol-free oil for suggesting the poor Irish babies be parboiled to feed starving English workers. The politically correct poobahs have intimidated the journalism profession, which met last week in Chicago to wonder anew what was ailing newspapers. The sad thing -- from the standpoint of readers and writers -- is that Royko's death represented a temporary victory for those who want blandness.

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