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Clarence Page: After P.J. O'Rourke, who can save conservative comedy now?

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Author P.J. O'Rourke at Book Soup in Los Angeles in 2007.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images/TNS

It was poignantly appropriate that the news of P.J. O'Rourke's death was broken by a tweet from his friend Peter Sagal, host of the Chicago-based NPR quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," where O'Rourke had been a frequent panelist.

"(O'Rourke) made his debut as a special guest on our first show after 9/11," the show's staff wrote, "when we needed someone to come on and be funny about terrible things, which, of course, was P.J.'s specialty."

Yes, it was, even for those of us listeners for whom the "terrible things" included his own deeply conservative views. His "whole purpose in life," he once joked, was "to offend everyone who listens to NPR, no matter what position they take on anything."

I'd say that he fell way short of offending everyone. We were too amused. As a longtime listener to his radio barbs and a reader of his essays and articles that he turned into 16 books since the late 1980s, I marveled at his ability to view the world with a bold, conservative audacity that usually didn't scare liberals half to death.

"He was that rare conservative who appeared to be having a better time, and doing better drugs, than everyone else," wrote The New York Times' Dwight Garner. "He was well-read; he was, it often seemed, the only funny Republican alive."

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His more quotable quotes show the spirit of a modern-day Will Rogers or H.L. Mencken:

On his libertarian leanings: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

On human rights: "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."

On the partisan political divide:

"The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."

On income redistribution:

"The good news is that, according to the (Barack) Obama administration, the rich will pay for everything. The bad news is that, according to the Obama administration, you're rich."

Sure, his sarcasm sometimes could get on my nerves. But, even for those of us who are not as far right as he was, he offered an illuminating glimpse into the world as seen by those who were.

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Ironically it was the excesses of some on the left that moved him to the right. At the end of the 1960s, a band of young Maoists called the "Balto-Cong" invaded the office of Harry, a lefty alternative publication in Baltimore where O'Rourke was a staff member. The protesters didn't think Harry was sufficiently left-wing.

"They were raving lunatics," he told the Chicago Tribune's Janet Cawley in 1991. "They came in with sticks and said they were liberating the newspaper. We said, 'You`re welcome to the whole package.' "

Yet, O'Rourke's swing to the right saw its limits with the rise of Donald Trump, when P.J. decided to vote for (gasp!) Hillary Rodham Clinton!

"She's wrong about absolutely everything," he said on NPR, "but she's wrong within normal parameters."

Trump, by comparison, seemed to be off his rocker and determined to take the country with him. "I mean, this man just can't be president," O'Rourke said. "They've got this button, you know, in the briefcase. He's going to find it."

Now the feisty humorist Patrick Jake O'Rourke is gone and a long simmering question takes on a new poignancy: Is this the end of conservative comedy?

I typed the question "are there no conservative comedians" into Google and my laptop almost overheated with a seemingly endless stream of articles and surveys on the question.

Fox News' Greg Gutfeld is on the rise but, to me, his late-night talk show exhibits the flaws that have killed similar ventures in the past: relentless jabs at the left for being left and too little self-examination or accountability of the right. Worse, too often, it's not that funny.

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But maybe that's a sign of the Donald Trump era. Even liberal comedians like Trevor Noah have praised his stand-up comedy skills in his rally speeches as excellent -- although frightening.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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