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Friday, February 02, 2007

Writing a humor column for Ms. magazine always sounded like the punchline of a joke to me.

That's one of my favorite lines from Molly Ivins, who was one of my favorite columnists when I was growing up. My grandparents used to clip her column and send it to me. This is an excerpt of "A Texas Treasure: The Wit and Wisdom of Ann Richards" (from Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?). Richards was at the time the Texas state treasurer and had just given her famous speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention about George Bush's being born with a silver foot in his mouth. I thought of Ivins' work when Richards died earlier this year.

Richards' humor has several dimensions. She has the timing to do jokes well. She's a fine storyteller, with a particular gift for spotting what is ludicrously charateristic about people's behavior. She's also a good mimic, delivering memorable impersonations of Texas political personalities, and sometimes does characters of her own invention. Given a setting for a women's political group, Richards will occasionally don a rubber pig-nose, put a cigar in her mouth, and become Harry Porko, the classic Texas sexist. Harry heads Porko Electronics an has often observed, "I believe that the success of my bidness is because I have always been good to my girls. I say to my managers, 'Be good to your girls, give 'em a little praise and a pat on the fanny, they'll work like dogs.' We've done a lot for our girls at Porko Industries.... We were the first to give our girls real-hair hairnets and we started the Yellow Rose Award. Give years of work without an absence and you get a little yellow plastic rose on your polyester uniform. We were the first to put daily horoscopes on the bulletin board--'cause wimmin like stuff like that--little things mean more to them than all the money in the world.

"We've got a li'l motto in all our shops that says, 'When better wimmin are made, Porko Electronics will make them.' 'Course, part of the credit goes to my ball-and-chain, Gladys...." Harry can carry on like this for hours. He enjoys repartee with women candidates who come to Porko Electronics seeking his support: "What's a nice-lookin' woman like you want to do somethin' like this--you hate your father or somethin'?" I understand Porko once appeared in the halls of the Chase Manhattan Bank when the treasureer of Texas, who had come to New York on a multimilion-dollar deal, was left waiting for a long time.

Richards is one of those people who think of, on the spot, what it takes the rest of us two weeks to come up with. You sit bolt upright in bed, well after the fact, saying, "You know what I should have said?" Ann Richards always said it.

On that note, whenever I have gotten in mild, understandable trouble for running my mouth off, it's usually because I've conjured up Molly Ivins or Katha Pollitt and imagined them saying the same thing.