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One On 1 Profile: Writer Calvin Trillin Takes His Humor Very Seriously

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Author Calvin Trillin is known for decades of musings on humorous matters, food, civil rights, his family and love, and while he is at home in Greenwich Village, he still is inspired by his Midwestern upbringing. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Calvin Trillin often makes his readers laugh, but making himself laugh is a different story.

"I actually make myself laugh about once every year or two," he says. "I think if I ever got taken as a hostage, I wouldn't be totally without resources. I could give myself a little smile every year or so."

Trillin seems almost incapable of saying or writing something that isn't clever in his books, his articles in The New Yorker and his poems in The Nation.

His most recent work, "Quite Enough Of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years Of Funny Stuff," is a compilation of pieces from his long and successful career.

How does Trillin describe going back and reading some of the old pieces?

"There's an old Midwestern phrase: 'Haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate little sister,'" he says.

But Trillin has also written about serious topics. His first book, "An Education In Georgia," dealt with the integration of the University of Georgia in the early 1960s.

In 2011, he wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, a civil rights story he covered for Time magazine in 1961.

Yet many admirers focus primarily on his writing about food.

"Partly because there were books made of these pieces, there are some people who think that's what I do and all that I think of," says Trillin. "People started calling here and saying, 'I'm in Chicago, what is the best restaurant?' I have no idea."

Trillin has often written about his family, especially his wife Alice, who died in 2001. The effect on readers has been deeply personal.

He once received a condolence card from a woman who sized up her boyfriend and asked, "But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?"

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Alice on Trillin's writing. He wrote in a dedication, "My wife Alice appears as a character in many of these pieces. Before her death in 2001, even the pieces that didn't mention her were written in the hope of making her giggle. This book is dedicated to her memory."

Alice Stewart Trillin died of heart failure stemming from radiation treatment she had received for lung cancer in 1976. She died just after midnight on September 12, 2001.

A few years later, New Yorker editor David Remnick asked Trillin if he would ever think about writing about Alice.

The resulting article, "Alice, Off The Page," and the book "About Alice" were widely read in New York literary circles and beyond.

"I found doing it helpful, rather than destructive. I thought it helped me think about her and organize my thoughts," says Trillin.

One surprising thing about Trillin, is that he is known to many as "Bud," with only one "D."

Asked by NY1's Budd Mishkin why he doesn't spell "Bud" with two Ds, Trillin responded, "I would say two Ds is putting on airs."

Trillin was actually "Buddy" to some of his friends growing up in Kansas City, and he recalls, "I had a very happy childhood. It's not something you admit readily in New York, but it's true."

On another occasion, Trillin says, "Unfortunately for any best-selling memoir, it was a very happy home. I had no glue-sniffing grandmother, no bestiality, no incest."

Trillin's grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to the Midwest. He likens his upbringing to an episode of "The Brady Bunch" played by actors from "Fiddler On The Roof."

He recalls one time visiting a friend in first grade.

"His grandmother gave us milk and cookies and she was a gray-haired lady of some age and she spoke regular English and I was astonished. I didn't know older people could speak English," Trillin says.

His father owned a few grocery stores, and then a restaurant where every day the lunch menu included an original poem.

"My favorite one of his poems was 'Eat your dinner, mom said gently to her little son Roddy/ If you don't I'll break every bone in your body,'" says Trillin

Years later, Trillin wrote about his dad in "Messages from my Father."

"He somehow, without piling it on, and I can't remember any 'I'm proud of you son' stuff or anything like that, took it for granted that I was a special case, which is the greatest thing you can give for your kids," Trillin says.

Trillin went to Yale, worked for Time magazine and in the mid-1960s came to New York, where he and his wife Alice raised two daughters.

He says writing about your family is tricky stuff, especially when people have been reading your work for 40 years.

"My younger daughter, she didn't like to go to Chinatown unless she was carrying a bagel. 'Just in case,' she said. She's sort of a picky eater," says Trillin. "Well, she has two children of her own now, so when people ask her, 'Do you still carry a bagel to Chinatown,' she's a little irritated."

Trillin has been part of the New York cultural scene ever since he got here. But Kansas City is never really far away. Interestingly, it played a role in his choice long ago to live in Greenwich Village.

"You could see the sky and the scale was different from uptown. Seemed to me, even though people felt a lot of unnatural acts happened in the Village, there was nothing as unnatural as getting into an elevator in order to go home," he says

Trillin has written memorably on a number of subjects — food, family, civil rights and even the quest for a parking space.

"It's all writing. It's like a pianist playing classical music and playing jazz, it's all the same muscles," says Trillin.

But he will always be known primarily as a writer who makes us laugh and smile.

"People sometimes ask people who write humorous articles, 'Do you find it pressure to be funny when you're with people?' I find that there is pressure to be serious. I have that turn of mind that makes jokes," Trillin says. "The eastern interpretation, the more analytical interpretation, is 'Humor is a defense, blah blah blah.' But if it's what you do, it's just the normal way of talking."

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