Will Durst with Bob Somerby
Comedian Will Durst is on the phone, announcing that he is "Y2K complacent." This is the only sensible reaction to what seemed like a century of millennial disaster hype -- all of which proved as perceptive as "Dewey Defeats Truman."
"I'm still waiting for the `Apocalypse Not' headline," chuckles Durst.
But at least one glitch did occur. Wishing to capture every nuance of the political humorist's razor-sharp insights into human folly, I taped our conversation, only to discover later that I am not as competent as Linda Tripp because my cassette yielded only garbled static -- a shameful admission I find nearly impossible to bear. (Note to Maryland state prosecutors: I did clearly warn Mr. Durst that I was recording, and he willingly agreed. Please, no subpoenas.)
But a swift second phone call averted calamity and it can be reliably reported that Durst greeted the new century as host of Public Broadcasting's millennium show. He also hosts that network's program "Livelyhood," a witty look at the world of work. For the election, the comic will become "Citizen Durst," again for PBS, and bravely venture into Iowa and New Hampshire to bring the "Gush and Bore" campaigns into proper focus.
"I've pretended to be a journalist so long that now I are one," he says modestly. Durst's early assessment is that the 2000 elections prove that "anyone in America can become president -- if their father was a senator." Sizing up Sen. Bill Bradley as "the product of reverse taxidermy," and Vice President Gore as "the human dial tone," Durst wonders, "If Al Gore's campaign collapses, will anyone hear it?" That smart line is typical of Durst's style. It builds on previous jokes about the Veep's woodenness and makes you think a second. It's piling up instead of merely piling on.
But just because he works so often for public broadcasting, don't think Durst is some stodgy, pledge-beseeching snob. True, his is comedy "for people who read -- or know someone who does." But that's at least most of us, certainly. Isn't it? Calling himself "the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Confusion" ("If you're not confused, you're not paying attention," he declares), Durst is one of a dwindling band who follows in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers -- taking politics seriously enough to intelligently mock its inherent absurdities.
But Durst doesn't limit himself strictly to politics. The country's social life also comes under his gimlet gaze: "To me, Las Vegas is America, because there's money everywhere; and none of it is yours." After mastering his own eponymous Web domain (willdurst.com), Durst attempted to create a more general political comedy Web site but has yet to shake loose enough venture capital greenbacks. When it is suggested that he needs to get a catchy e-name, he muses, "I should become `DurstSoft.' " Then he laughs, "but I've heard that about me before."