IN 1913, THIS city was treated to a humorous newspaper column called "This and That (With Sometimes a Little of the Other)," which appeared in a daily called the Washington Times. It was written by a 23-year-old pundit who signed his offerings G.S.K.
The job was, as we would say today, a fine entry level position for George S. Kaufman, who would become known in the quarter-century to follow as the "gloomy dean of Broadway wits."
The Library of Congress has preserved the early columns on microfilm, and Kaufman's wit and wordplay deserve to be exhumed and shared, particularly now that "Animal Crackers," which Kaufman wrote with Morrie Ryskind, has opened at the Arena theater.
Kaufman would usually begin "This and That" with light verse: TWelcome Congress, on the hill Back in labor with a will; Though your efforts total nil, We declare you welcome still.
Or a song parody: My country 'tis of thee Tariff and currency, Of thee I sing. Land where we don't get sore At paying something more Than we're supposed to for Ev-e-ry-thing.
The column bloomed with puns and definitions:
CONFERENCE: From the Latin "fero," to carry or bear, "con," or "cum," meaning with. Hence: something to bear with.
LOBBYIST: Any one endeavoring to approve the passage of legislation to which one is opposed.
Readers were encouraged to contribute; Kaufman would edit and polish their solicitations and work them into the column as he saw fit.
"This and That" also thrived on Kaufman's annoyances. Tourists, for example, gave him distemper. A reader once wrote: "Sir: I know a stranger who came to Washington and didn't ask, 'What is that searchlight on the Washington Monument for?' " G.S.K. quipped: "Perhaps he didn't see it."
And he had an aversion to certain words:
Go search each nook and cranny
Gird the everlasting globe--
You'll find no more obnoxious word than "probe."
Another theme that runs through "This and That" is G.S.K., Oppressed Columnist. Witness the following selections:
"I need nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours," says Mr. Wilson.
Then never run a column, Woodrow.
WHY COLUMN CONDUCTORS TAKE THE VEIL: "You ought to meet my brother, Tom. You could get a lot of good ideas from him; he's funny as anything."
The great difference between man and the animals, points out a writer in the New York American, lies in the man's power to stick at one thing until it's finished.
A rhinoceros, for example, probably would do about half a column and let it go at that.
And when a reader submitted the query: "G.S.K.: Is columning 10 percent as hard as you let on?" He countered: "Yes, exactly 10 percent."
During his tenure as Broadway's leading comedic playwright and the diatribal leader of the Algonquin Round Table, his comebacks, which were always delivered with perfect timing, became the talk of the town. Once Kaufman was dining with Harpo Marx at the Colony Restaurant in New York. Startled by the exorbitant menu prices, Harpo declared: "What the hell can you get here for 50 cents?" Kaufman snapped: "A quarter."
Another time George was watching leading lady Leonora Corbett give a superbly bad performance in one of his musicals. Gallantly, he asked her, "How'd it go?"
"Fantastic!" Corbett announced.
Kaufman turned to co-author Nunnally Johnson and remarked, "You've heard of people living in a fool's paradise? Well, Leonora has a duplex there."
Those early days of column writing in Washington put Kaufman well on the road to developing the wisecrack into an art form. Brooks Atkinson has said that George S. Kaufman was "the master of the destructive jest"; he "made the wisecrack a part of our language." Kaufman incorporated the wisecrack, in one way or another, into most of his 45 plays. The quips we remember now are mostly those delivered by Groucho Marx ("I never forget a face. But I'm willing to make an exception in your case"); indeed Groucho was probably the only person who could deliver a Kaufman stage line with the intimidating curtness that Kaufman himself used.
While at the Times, Kaufman also learned how to jab at the establishment. He became a competent deflator of that most respected of individuals, the politician. Of the president, Kaufman wrote: "Mr. Wilson's mind, as has been the custom, will be closed all day Sunday." And he had this to say of the Senate's schedule: "Office hours are from 12 to 1 with an hour off for lunch." In the majority of Kaufman's plays, one sees a genius for creating chaos out of order. What better playground could the young man have had to temper this genius than Washington, D.C.