Rolling with the punch lines
References to Rotary and Rotarians have appeared in a number of Hollywood films, including Back to the Future, Wayne's World,
and King Kong. Digital illustration by Deborah A. Lawrence
Pop culture is notoriously fickle and unfair, always looking for the cheap, obvious laugh. Rotarians make a big, inviting target. They are numerous, they rarely take the attacks personally, and they are everywhere. Poking fun at Rotarians is a bit like poking fun at the Pacific Ocean – they know how to take a punch. There is indeed something about the words Rotary and Rotarian that is infinitely more appealing to wiseguys and smart alecks than Lions, Elks, Kiwanis, or even the Order of Knights of Pythias. This is almost certainly because journalists, novelists, screenwriters, and stand-up comics are incredibly lazy, and like to seize on words and catchphrases that convey a prefabricated image to readers and audiences so that they don’t have to go out and do the work themselves.
Taking a shot at Rotarians is basically a harmless form of cultural shorthand. Everyone knows, or at least thinks they know, what the word Rotarian means. Rotarians, like “city fathers,” “the powers that be,” and “captains of industry,” are the kinds of good-natured, well-intentioned local businesspeople and civic leaders who hold communities together all around the world by filling the gap between the public and private sectors. They are gregarious and industrious, but never flamboyant. They try to avoid controversy but are not afraid to let their opinions be heard. If they had their druthers, what Rotarians everywhere would really prefer is that a pool hall not open its doors right here in River City. The same would hold true for tattoo parlors. It’s nothing personal. We’re not going out of our way to be mean. It’s just that pool halls and tattoo emporiums don’t fit in with the Rotarian vision of the world.
Rotarian describes a kind of person everyone can immediately identify, but for a long time, few people under the age of 35 would wish to identify with. This is because many Rotarians are stolid and staid, qualities the young profess to eschew – until they move to a small town, have kids, and join a Rotary club. But the image of the Rotary club also feeds on generalizations and misperceptions. The Rotary club is thought of as small-town, even though it is found in big towns everywhere. The Rotary club is perceived as being middle-American, even though clubs can be found in places as far-flung as Lesotho and Sri Lanka. The Rotary club has been viewed as being anything but hip and trendy. A phrase like Better Yossarian than Rotarian, the battle-cry in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, says it all. John Joseph Yossarian, Heller’s protagonist, is outspoken, subversive, a loner. He is just not Rotary club material. Whatever else it is, the Rotary club is not subversive. It does not appeal to loners and mavericks. It is not downtown. It does not invite Björk to entertain at its annual gatherings. Hipness is not in its mission statement. Better Rotarian than Yossarian could easily be its battle cry. If anybody still remembered who Yossarian was.
The boosterish, back-slapping image of the Rotary club in popular culture got fixed a long time ago and has pretty much stayed there. Yet after a drubbing by the truculent misanthrope Sinclair Lewis in his brilliant, if somewhat monochromatic, 1922 novel Babbitt, the abuse rarely rose to that same hyperbolic, vitriolic level until Aaron Sorkin went totally off the rails in an episode of The West Wing several years back. This was a misstep for which he soon profusely apologized. For the most part, the gibing directed at Rotarians over the years has been harmless, knee-jerk, generic, and indeed almost good-natured, with Rotarians serving much the same function as “Mr. John Q. Public,” “the Great Unwashed,” “the hoi polloi,” and “those bleeding-heart liberals” as a universal target for gleeful but unfocused ribbing. A 1925 New Yorker short story proposing that Rotarians try to improve the quality of crime in New York City by developing a set of ethical standards for burglars served as a template of sorts for Rotarian-directed humor for the next eight decades. The words Rotary club are just precise enough to provide a convenient target, but just vague enough to avoid singling out anyone in particular. Rotary is a one-size-fits-all term for small-town, civic-minded, respectable. It is infinitely more colorful than its metaphorical cousin, the chamber of commerce.
Rotarians may be called small-minded, but they are never wicked. One of the best punch lines about Rotarians was supplied by a character in the book that inspired the HBO series True Blood, who lamented that her boyfriend could never appear in direct sunlight and would never join the Rotary. There you have it. Rotary, without actively discouraging the membership of vampires, werewolves, succubi, witches, and wraiths, is simply not the type of organization that would appeal to predatory creatures that roam the earth at night. It just isn’t.
I had no idea what a Rotary club was until I moved from New York City to a small town up the Hudson 28 years ago. I lived in Tarrytown for the next few years and still didn’t know what Rotary was. But as soon as my pathologically altruistic wife became involved in public service, running a senior center in a pro bono capacity, Rotary entered our life. If you wanted to get things done in a small town, you got involved with Rotary clubs. If you wanted to improve the quality of life in town, you got involved with Rotary clubs. If you needed funding for your programs, you got involved with the Rotary club. If you wanted to know people who knew people, you got involved with the Rotary club. One day my wife and I looked at each other and realized something about Rotarians that we had never realized when we lived in cool, trendy, attitude-driven New York: They walk among us.
I have addressed the Rotary Club of The Tarrytowns on three occasions. For whatever the reason, people in this part of the world really like satire. It helps that I work cheap. Twice I was a lunchtime speaker invited down to a local eatery to amuse the troops. The other time I was asked to provide the witty introduction the day my wife was honored as the club’s Person of the Year. She deliberately let me go to the wrong hotel; I think she was afraid that I would use the speech as an opportunity to make fun of a couple of local civic leaders I do not hold in high esteem. Hard as it may seem to believe, there are individual members who are not the salt of the earth, not pure as the driven snow, not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Not many, but a few.
Recently, when discussing the Republican Party debates, New York Times columnist David Brooks cited the difference between a fire-breathing pol like New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the more staid, sober Mitt Romney.
“I agree the Republican primary electorate wants the guy with the leather jacket,” Brooks said. “But I think the country wants the guy from the Rotary club.”
Take that, Sinclair Lewis.