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Look at it this way The invisible audience heckles

December 30, 2018

A few years ago, Jerry Seinfeld listened attentively to fellow standup Robert Klein until Klein complimented Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, half of the quartet on the Mount Rushmore of newspaper humor columnists.

During the exchange on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Seinfeld pumps the brakes to essentially explain that print humorists are to comedians what draft dodgers with “bone spurs” are to Navy Seals.

“Let’s not put these guys out on too high a plain, Mister Klein.” Seinfeld says. “... Nobody hears the material that’s bombing when you write a ‘funny’ (he uses “funny” air quotes) column. ... What is that compared to getting a real laugh in a dark nightclub in front of a bunch of drunken strangers?”

Of course, comics parrot bits until they are battle-tested, while columnists are routinely tormented by blank screens. I’m no humor columnist (you already knew that), but I bet Seinfeld wouldn’t hit deadline chewing newsroom java while trying to bang out chuckles between bursts of police scanner static.

But he’s right. Columnists thirst for any reaction. When we get it, we sometimes wish we knew whether the commentator was sober (e.g., “I find the Greenwich Time editorial page often even wiser than that of the New York Times”). Here’s other feedback I got in 2018:

Feeding the ego: Yes, the invisible audience applauds. The highest compliment I got was several readers’ use of “balanced” to characterize my observations about Harbor Point. My favored cups of flattery are served with a spoonful of arsenic:

“It was a fair-minded article, a rarity in Stamford.”

One reader encouraged me to continue the quest for truth in a follow-up piece about church abuse but confessed “I won’t see it since I have canceled my subscription.”

The snipers: Supportive readers identify themselves. Those who disagree take cover in the shadows of the web. Anonymous online objections to criticism of President Donald Trump always seem to include familiar adjectives such as “sad!” and “pathetic!” which has left me to conclude the commander-in-chief is the one trolling our sites.

Columnists are all the same: When I referred to Hearst writer Dan Haar as a “ seasoned financial columnist ,” a reader from Fairfield called me a “smug yuppie.” Given that the “y” in the ancient term stands for “young” I took that as a compliment.

On another occasion, fellow columnist Kevin McKeever took a crack at the Stamford Town Center, drawing a response from a mall official who graciously countered that “I always enjoy your articles, reading about The Kid.”

The Kid, alas, is my son. As much as he likes to wander, I’ve never found him hiding in Kevin’s column (whose offspring are Thing 1 and Thing 2).

Speaking of whom ...: Every time I give The Kid a break, readers complain they haven’t heard from him in a while.

Even when he’s not on the editorial page, he sometimes interferes with it. After the recent death of former President George H.W. Bush, The Kid was watching televised funeral services.

Afterward, we were driving on an errand when my phone rang.

“This is John Breunig’s phone,” The Kid, 7, answered.

I couldn’t make out who it was, but my administrative assistant stalled.

“I saw on TV that a president died,” The Kid continued. “There was a flag on a box and people were crying. I’m sad.”

“Yes, I’m sad too,” the caller replied. “He was a nice man. He gave me my first job.”

The caller turned out to be Greenwich resident Patrick Durkin, who had just left the Washington, D.C., services and was calling to check on an op-ed he had written about his former boss.

A certain non-reader: I have yet to win over The Kid himself even though he likes to ride news cycles. The closest I came was in October, after I wrote that his favorite journalist was CNN’s Carl Azuz, who anchors news reports for students.

While waiting for the school bus, I noticed a Tweet about my column.

“Hey, we got a message from Carl Azuz,” I told him.

“What!” he shouted, as though I had just told him he was invited to tour with Kidz Bop. “What did he say?”

He wrote, “While I may be his favorite journalist for the moment, you’ll be his favorite dad for LIFE.”

Now he doesn’t trust Azuz’s news judgment either.

Hail Mary pass: I wasn’t surprised my column about the thread of Catholicism in Bruce Springsteen’s work drew thoughtful responses from readers of all faiths.

I was surprised to get a shout-out from a comic.

Greenwich stand-up comedian Jane Condon emailed “My default prayer is the ‘Hail Mary.’ But how interesting that Springsteen weaves the ‘Our Father’ through his work.”

I waited in vain for the punchline (though “default prayer” has possibilities).

Maybe she’s just holding back. Maybe she’ll try it out in a dark room full of drunks until she’s ready to deliver the perfect joke to Seinfeld from the passenger seat of a 1959 Buick Invicta convertible as they remind me to stay in my lane.

John Breunig is editorial page editor. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.

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