Heroes and Other Funny People

I am not much of a hero worshiper. It’s too disillusioning and I’m a little too cynical. Things fall apart, and so do heroic images. Even lovable human beings are fallible, leaving you with their clay feet and messy imperfections, along with your own shattered ideals. You grow up, you get a little wiser, you move on.

Still, I was once young and worshipful and haven’t entirely escaped my childish excesses. When I saw Fess Parker a few years ago, I swooned. Who cared about the other arts honorees who’d probably won Pulitzers, Nobels, Oscars and Emmys, for all I cared? I was in the presence of greatness, I was in the presence of Davy Crockett, and all of a sudden that Born-on-a-Mountaintop song unspooled in my mind and I once again wanted a coonskin cap and fringed jacket more than anything else in the universe. (Those unfulfilled dreams — they never let you go.)

Unfortunately, Fess died and now, everybody knows that Davy Crockett might not have been the great hero who succumbed at the Alamo, fighting back to back with his friend Georgie Russell. In these matters of childhood worship, though, I’m more of the frame of mind expressed by the journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(My husband, an unsentimental sort who didn’t grow up reading and watching Westerns the way I did, is highly critical of the Alamo as an incubator of heroes. “The Texans were just a bunch of land-grabbers,” he’ll say complacently, while I begin to scream in a semi-deranged way that Spain and Mexico didn’t really own the land, either, since they’d stolen it from the Indians, which I, as a one-quarter, card-carrying member of the Chickasaw tribe harbor great resentments about. “Well, anyway, they were stupid to die there,” my husband will continue complacently and infuriatingly, which almost always leads to one of those Shut Up, She Explained imbroglios. Why, oh, why?)

Even at my advanced age, though, I have to admit I still veer into dangerous hero worshiping territory now and then. Not of politicians, of course — I do have rational limits. No, I’m finding myself a little too worshipful of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (This is not as completely irrational, blind and pathetic as it might seem; as a matter of fact, I once sat next to Colbert at a Broadway play and we talked for a good 45 seconds, as I recall.)

But, still! I know I’m on dangerous turf here. I watch these two guys a few times a week, laughing and bursting with admiration, trusting them because, after all, who else is there to trust in this uncertain and miserable world? I know I’m risking heartbreak and loss of my illusions and I live in fear that one or both of these guys will get caught doing something heinous and then what will I do?

My heroes have always been cowboys, but now they’re comedians. You have to stay flexible in this world, I tell myself.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

21 comments… add one
  • Janet Kilgore Link

    I was right there with you with my coonskin cap and Fess Parker mega-crush. Thanks for reminding me. I married a non-Texan the first time around. Had the sense to switch to homegrown for the long run. I figure I save 2 hours a day in explanations alone.

  • Roy Link

    Ms. Pennebaker, are you sure that you remember Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and not Daniel Boone? You ain’t old enough, hon.

  • Ruth,
    I grew up in a house where the humorists were on top.
    Although i don’t watch those guys on tv, I do think the great wits and humorists are our truth tellers. I’m with you, Ruth.
    xo nancy

  • Cindy A Link

    The Daily Show helped me keep my sanity during the Bush years. At least, I think I still have it. And Colbert is a rock star.

  • I like a woman who can quote Willie Nelson.

  • marnie whelan Link

    I am right there with you, about Stewart and ColBear. . .these are my intellectual heroes, along with Elizabeth Warren and Reich, these days.

    I’m not totally sure, at this vantage, but I THINK it would not matter if one, or two, or even all of them TOGETHER were discovered in flagrante delicto w/ a cheap (or v v expensive, even) call girl in some hotel somewhere.

    I just dont care.

    If they were discovered to be raiding my pension plan – of course I would have to rethink this.

    In the meantime this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Bonehead Link

    Love the idea; don’t worry too much about the person, not too many saints walk among us. I started with Richard Pryor and George Carlin who helped me square reality with the BS you’re trying to keep your head above in youth. I do remember a cowboy that was a bit of a wit, Will Rogers.

  • I too adore Stewart and Colbert, and can often be heard telling people that Colbert is one of my TV husbands (Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights is the other). I am hoping they are both just regular guys, but who knows? I recently read a biography of Colbert that shed some light on his background and didn’t disillusion me. Once one of them gets divorced though, I will feel the halo is askew.

  • My heroes are still cowboys – the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and Sky King (an aerial cowboy). Thanks for reminding me of that.

  • So funny! I must admit to admiring Stewart and especially Colbert in the same reluctant way. The world has changed, hasn’t it, since we were kids who watched westerns?

  • My heroes: still Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Dorothy Parker, the others at The Algonquin Round Table and my father.

    I know everyone loves Steward and Colbert, but I am not
    a television watcher.

  • They are both amazing, Ruth. You have good taste. I wouldn’t call them my heros but I admire Jon Stewart especially. He’s just so funny, smart, and charismatic. I don’t watch much TV but my husband and I are never sorry when we watch an episode together. When my book comes out, I want to be on Jon Stewart. I’d love to try giving him a run for his money. Larry King interview was my favorite ever. So so funny!

  • Sheryl Link

    Jon Stewart spoke at my son’s graduation, and he was so likeable and genuine. Your hero worship is in the right place.

  • Have you heard any of Terry Gross’s interviews of Jon Stewart–she’s just dripping with unveiled admiration when she talks to him.

  • I have to agree with you on both Stewart and Colbert. And my husband STILL watches westerns. I’m hoping one day, the western channel will fade away. 🙂

  • Wait, what? You sat next to and conversed with Stephen Colbert? I bow to you, my friend.

    However, ever since I became an entertainment writer and talking to Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts is just another Tuesday, my heroes are now just normal people making a living as best they can. Plus, the whole Travolta thing lately is depressing me (even though I fully realize that most guys in Hollywood are gay – and really, what does it matter anyway, unless they’re cheating on their wives, but I digress).

    I’m sure I would have fallen over at the presence of Fess Parker. My brother had a faux coonskin cap and one of those suede shirts with the lace-up section at the top.

  • Hi Ruth, Just finished your book WOTVNB and enjoyed it immensely. Think I might turn into Ivy someday, except I’m planning on toting a paintball gun. As for coonskin caps – I remember my brother wearing one when he was little because my mother had to shave his head when he got the worst case of lice on the north side of Houston. My family has thick hair (2 heads of hair to every family member) a parasite’s haven. As for Fess . . . well, he didn’t hold a candle to James Garner, but what a sweet smile! I’m new to your blog world. Thanks for letting me in. Again, loved your book!

  • merr Link

    The whole hero worship thing is dicey, I’ve found. Too much recovery time when the person, famous or not, is “discovered” to be what they were all along, human, like the rest of us.

  • What a great post! I guess I belong to the same house of worship 🙂 Two of my other favorites: Andrea Bocelli and Jon Hamm!
    Best, Irene

  • Merr, you said it! I feel the same way and I didn’t even fall for it when Elvis shook his pelvis. However, my fantasy ( an idea to worship) is sitting in a think tank circle with the likes of Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, John Hughes, Dana Carvey and Phyllis Diller. If only they’d let me talk . . . the fantasy would be complete. I tell you what though, I would worship the person who invents a cure for cancer and the rest of those life sucking aliens!

  • Since I’ve interviewed a few so-called heroes in my day and found them to be, well, all too human, I gave up putting people on a pedestal years ago.

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