Arguably since the death of actor Tony Randall, there are no mainstream American raconteurs anymore. If you’re unfamiliar with the term raconteur, shame on you if you’re an American because this country turned out some of the greatest raconteurs ever, from Mark Twain and Will Rogers to Fred Allen and Orson Welles and Tony Randall.
I usually didn’t know why these people were famous; I just recognized that at a push of a button (or off-hand remark from a talk show host), they could tell long, complicated, outrageous stories that made all the grown-ups laugh. Most of the stories were risque and most involved a world of glamour with names of well-known celebrities and political figures casually mentioned.
Tony Randall was such a character, and a young person watching Johnny Carson or David Letterman in the ’80s and ’90s would have no idea why this erudite, fussy and funny man was famous, but they recognized him whenever some scheduled celebrity failed to appear because they’d been arrested or sent to rehab. (I don’t know if this story about Randall is true or if I just made it up, but someone once asked him how he could be so smart without a college degree and he answered that he just made sure he never forgot anything he learned in high school; I’ve always thought that a brilliant insight.) When I was a kid and saw Orson Welles, I didn’t recognize him as the director of Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, but instead the spokesman of Gallo Wines.
The closest America now has to a raconteur is Garrison Keillor, but restricted to the Minnesota/National Public Radio ghetto as he is, most people who don’t endure pledge drives have no idea who he is. And I doubt Jay Leno calls him up to fill in when Lindsay Lohan can’t make it to The Tonight Show.
The Brits, of course, have Stephen Fry as the ultimate example of a man of letters who can discourse entertainingly on any subject, to say nothing of the surviving members of Monty Python. And waiting in the wings are David Mitchell and Eddie Izzard. The closest America can offer is Nathan Lane, but he’s too busy being in every Broadway revival.
I’m not sure why the American raconteur has disappeared. At one time we even had a breeding ground called the Algonquin Round Table and we even used to recruit them from abroad, for instance Alastair Cooke. We still have (or had) some political pundits, but they’re a dying breed as well and now that William Safire is dead, we really need to hug George Will and remember to take him on long walks in the park.
Perhaps we ruin our nascent bon vivants, wits, pundits and humorists by giving them talk shows before they’re ready, or perhaps the industrialized nature of stand-up comedy ruins them for anything else. Perhaps it was better when comedians were free range in the Catskills and were fed on a steady diet of Borscht. Instead, I fear we must make do with Alec Baldwin when he’s in-between schticks. Or perhaps as Tina Fey ages she can be the rare female raconteur.
Sigh. I want to sit around and sing sad songs about the deaths or raconteurs, but perhaps instead I’ll find that DVD of Victor Borge’s greatest hits. They don’t even show him anymore on PBS on those pledge drives where the closet thing to a raconteur is Suze Orman.