There comes a time in the life of every writer when he asks himself -- as Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Hemingway all surely asked themselves -- if he has any booger jokes left in him.
For me, that time has come. I've been trying to entertain newspaper readers since the '60s, when I wrote "humor" columns for the Haverford College News. I put "humor" in quotation marks because when I go back and read those columns today, I don't get any of the jokes. But at the time, they were a big hit with my readership, which consisted pretty much of my roommates.
After college, I got a job as a reporter at the West Chester, Pa., Daily Local News, where I was also allowed to write humor columns. I thought they were pretty good, but after my third one, an editor took me aside and told me -- this is an absolutely true quote -- "You used to be funnier."
That was more than 30 years ago, and since then hardly a week has gone by during which somebody has not told me that I used to be funnier. I sometimes got discouraged, but I kept at it, year after year, the past 22 of them at the Miami Herald. Why didn't I give up? I'll tell you why: I have no useful skills.
Also, this job has been a lot of fun. Here are just a few of the things that, as a professional humor columnist, I have actually been paid to do:
-- I picked up my son, Rob, at his junior high school in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. (Rob, now 24, claims he has forgiven me, although, to be safe, I'm still in the federal witness protection program.)
-- After I wrote a column suggesting that opera might be fatal to humans, I was invited to Eugene, Ore., to participate in the Eugene Opera's performance of the Puccini opera Gianni Schicchi. I played the part of a corpse.
-- An Air Force pilot took me for an F-16 fighter jet ride, during which, while hurtling through the brilliant blue sky high above the Straits of Florida at faster than the speed of sound, I threw up.
-- After I made fun of North Dakota, the city of Grand Forks, N.D., invited me up there one January, and, in a deeply moving (also deeply cold) ceremony attended by a crowd of dozens, the mayor of Grand Forks, Mike Brown, dedicated a new sewage-lifting station in my honor. (Mayor Brown's official proclamation very eloquently compared my work to the production of human excrement.)
-- I went on "The Late Show With David Letterman" and demonstrated to a nationwide television audience that it is possible to set fire to a pair of hairspray-soaked men's underpants using a Rollerblade Barbie doll. (To my knowledge, Rollerblade Barbie is the only Barbie ever recalled as a fire hazard, although I am not taking credit.)
These were all fun things to write about. But many of my favorite columns have been suggested by you readers, an amazingly alert group. If an important news event occurs -- a toilet exploding, for example; or a boat being sunk by a falling cow; or a cow exploding -- I can count on my readers to let me know about it. On the other hand, if I write something that turns out -- despite my relentless fact-checking -- to be inaccurate, such as that Thomas Jefferson invented the atomic bomb, I will receive dozens of letters, often very irate, correcting me. I cherish those letters most of all.
So this is a great job. And yet I'm quitting it, at least for now. I want to stop before I join the horde of people who think I used to be funnier. And I want to work on some other stuff. So for the next year, I won't be writing regular columns, though I hope to weigh in from time to time if something really important happens, such as a cow exploding in a boat toilet.
At some point in the next year, I hope to figure out whether I want to resume the column. Right now, I truly don't know.
So in case I don't get to say this later: Thanks to all you editors for printing my column, and thanks especially to all you readers for reading it. You've given me the most wonderful career an English major could hope to have. I am very grateful.
And I'm not making that up.