Tuesday, December 05, 2006

George W.S. Trow

Was found dead in his Naples, Italy apartment on December 1. He was 63.

If you know anything about written humor of the 1960s, or of the early National Lampoon, then you've encountered Trow's sensibility. He was, as the obits stated, extremely witty and elegant in tone, not the type of humorist or memoirist meant for the masses. Trow, along with Christopher Cerf, was the first Harvard Lampoon writer to bring R&B and rock music into that musty, elite circle, thus opening it up for the many talents that followed. Yet despite his love for the pop music of the early '60s, Trow remained wistful for a more refined time. He especially hated television, and counseled his close friend Michael O'Donoghue against taking the "Saturday Night Live" gig in 1975. Trow felt that TV would cheapen if not wreck O'Donoghue's comedy, and in a sense, he was right. But O'Donoghue, who at the time was very broke and had always desired a showbiz career, ignored Trow's advice, and the two of them, while remaining friends, went in different directions.

I got to spend a couple of hours with Trow while researching "Mr. Mike," and he gave me a very in-depth interview. We met at the Telephone Bar in Manhattan. He was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, gray hair close-cropped, a small man, but looking lean and strong. We sat at a corner table and had a couple of drinks. He spoke eloquently and emotionally about his own upbringing, his time at the New Yorker, how the National Lampoon came together, and of his relationship with O'Donoghue, one of the more meaningful friendships he said he ever enjoyed. A mutual friend told me that he thought that Trow was in love with O'Donoghue, and listening to Trow talk about his late friend while chain-smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes, I believed it.

Trow was an enormous influence on O'Donoghue, providing a stylish example to an outcast writer who dressed in ripped pants and worn Army jackets. They collaborated on "Savages", an early Merchant/Ivory film in which a tribe of mud people wander into an abandoned mansion and quickly evolve into upper-class sophisticates, reveling in a decadent manner before returning to the forest and their previous, primitive lives. Trow also appeared on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour" as Mr. Chatterbox, a Walter Winchell-type gossip monger who repeatedly implored his listeners, "Do try to mix with a better class of people." In April 1990, Trow and O'Donoghue appeared on-stage together in O'Donoghue's short play, "The Paris of the Prairie," a bizarre little act featuring two old geezers on a porch trading stories about how decent society had gone to the dogs. It was a theme that Trow knew well and explored in his seminal work, "Within The Context of No-Context."

After speaking at length about his friendship with not only O'Donoghue, but also with Doug Kenney and the playwright Timothy Mayer, Trow suddenly became very emotional and looked a bit lost. He stubbed out his cigarette as tears streamed down his face. "I can't . . . I can't . . ." he said to me, then began to sob. I turned off my tape recorder and tried to offer some comfort, though what kind I had no clue, since he didn't know me at all. Trow then stood up and quickly left the bar, his crying increasingly loud. And that was that. Weeks later, I phoned him, but there was no answer. Then his phone was disconnected. When "Mr. Mike" was finished, I was told that Trow was living in Texas, though my source wasn't fully sure. It seemed that Trow was wandering around the country, never staying in one place for too long. Whether or not he ever received my book, I have no idea. Indeed, I didn't know he was living in Italy until my friend Josh Karp told me that Trow had died.

One by one, the old Lampoon crowd is fading away. While not as flashy or extreme as some of his compatriots, George W.S. Trow was nevertheless a solid, significant part of the generation that changed American comedy. Rest in peace.