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[fa:p:a=72157594270496732,id=235372545,j=r,s=s,l=p]John Kelso is one of our local treasures here in town. The column he writes at the Statesman is the reason I pick up that paper. I have always wondered why he writes for The Statesman and not The Chronicle, which seems to be more akin to his style. A friend cleared that up by telling me that he stands out more at The Statesman. And standout he does. He kept us laughing during this conversation. Enjoy.

AUSTIN DAZE: So how did you get involved with the Statesman?

JOHN KELSO: It was out of desperation, actually. What happened was, I had a boss in Florida who was the editor in West Palm Beach, did the paper there, The Palm Beach Post, and I was his outdoor writer and he liked the way I wrote about the outdoors, because I really didn’t know anything about the outdoors. I used to go outside occasionally, but I really didn’t know much about fishing. I volunteered for the job because I thought it would be more interesting than covering baseball. So the way I got around not knowing anything about hunting or fishing and writing about it was to go out with all these characters and interview them. My boss thought I was a pretty funny writer because of that. After he became the boss here, I had gone up to Wisconsin to get a job, I worked up there and hated it so I called him up and screamed for help and he brought me down here. That was in 1976.

So I guess you could say I got involved with the Statesman because I didn’t know anything about fishing.

AD: How did your column come about? Did you always know you would be a humor writer?

JK: No. I was interested in it because…I don’t know why I was interested in it. I liked comedians when I was a kid, I used to watch the Honeymooners and George Gobel and I used to like all the funny shows and I used to gravitate towards comedy. But not from the performance sense– I could never be a stand up comedian– I just enjoyed funny stuff. But the idea of writing comedy, of writing funny stuff, didn’t strike me until I was in the army and I was working for a troop newspaper in Germany and the Colonel who was in charge of this little troop newspaper, asked me to write a weekly and a then a bi-weekly column and the only thing I could think of to do that would be interesting at all would be to write in a funny way because just being there in Germany in the Army wasn’t funny. So that’s how I turned into a humor columnist. In the army.

Basically, I learned how to write comedy at the Government’s expense.

AD: Where do you get your ideas and your inspiration for your column?

JK: The best columns are ones that are based on topics that are number one, local, and are about subjects that everybody in town is talking about. First of all, you’ve got to find that subject and you know the way you do that is just instinct and listening to people and seeing what’s in the paper and kind of knowing what grabs people by the crotch. And then finding the funny twist on that, those are the best calls. The example I use on that is that a few years ago there was a big flap over an art museum because the Board of Regents didn’t like the new design he came up with from the architects in Switzerland–they thought it was too artsy-fartsy and the Board of Regents turned it down. They said we want an art museum that is a design that is familiar to all Texans. So I said, if they want something that’s familiar to all Texans, they should find an architect that will build an art museum that looks just like a Dairy Queen.

That’s an example I use–you take a topic that everyone is talking about and put a funny spin on it. Those are the best ones. But the way I get my ideas mostly is just by following the news. And people call in with stuff too. Some guy called a friend of mine who told me about this guy who is ninety-five years old who is running for Congress. This guy named Sid Smith who is just really funny. I said, “So why do you want to run for Congress?” he says, “Well to make a long story short I just want to kick Tom Delay’s ass”. He said, “I want to beat that stooge that Tom Delay put up that’s running for Congress”. I said, “What’s the name of this stooge”? He says, ” Who the hell knows! Who the hell cares?” He was very funny. Very intelligent too.

So that’s another way I get ideas, is people call them in.

AD: How do you deal with deadlines?

JK: Well you know, in a funny sort of way, I generally wait until the day before a column is due to write it because, like I said, you’re best offer is whatever everybody’s talking about. If I write a column on Tuesday for Friday, it’s three days of hang time there–Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday–when people might have lost interest in that topic. So I wait for deadlines. Unless I’ve got a timeless thing that doesn’t really matter when you run it.

AD: Have you ever gotten into any trouble with any of your columns that you’ve written?

JK: Oh yeah. In fact, the more trouble you get in, the better it is. You know, unless someone is holding you up by the scruff of your ass and threatening to kick your butt…you know, you want to get people out of their chairs.

I remember one time, early 90s, there was a KKK rally at the state capitol the next day and I had written a column about how much I didn’t like the Dallas Cowboys. It wasn’t really a great column, I didn’t think, it was just usual whiny bulls**t, sports. The editor at the time was this guy who was a big Cowboy’s fan and also the next morning he had to be running the paper and sending the reporters to the KKK rally. He didn’t want to deal with it. He said, “people are going to be calling all day long b**ching about your Cowboy article and we don’t have time–we’ve got to work”. I said, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we use this fancy new voicemail system we got, you know we never really used it, we just got this thing, let’s put it to use. Put my phone number at the bottom of the column, let people call up and complain that way you don’t have to answer the phone.”

It’s like a novel idea, you know?

So they did and Monday when I came to work I had, I think, over 300 phone calls on my voice mail and the first one set the tone for the day. I had said in my column that I was hoping the 49ers would win the game in this playoff game against the Cowboys and this redneck guy, this first caller left a message and said, “Why don’t you go back to San Fran-sissy-co where you belong”?

The worst thing you can do as a columnist is be ignored. That’s the absolute worst.

AD: What do you think about Kinky?

JK: In what regard?

AD: Running. Running for Governor.

JK: I think it’s great. I hope he has a chance. Like he says, how difficult could it be? I don’t think he would be any worse than anybody else that we’ve ever had.

AD: What do you think his chances are?

JK: I don’t think his chances are much because he doesn’t have much money.

The thing is, they are using a method of trying to get him elected that was used by Jesse Ventura. In fact, his campaign manager, who is Dean somebody, was Jesse Ventura’s campaign manager, I think, and they are using the same thing. What they are trying to do is get people to vote who don’t usually vote. Well, see, in Minnesota you can race to vote the day of the election, you could when Ventura ran and that’s why he won. I think, because all these new comers came, and said, oh, he’s a wrestler, ok, that’s funny and they go vote. You can’t do that in Texas. You can’t race through the day of the election. So I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as it was for Ventura, but that’s the method they are using– they are trying to get the new voters out. And if they can actually do that, he stands a chance, but that’s what’s going to have to be done to beat the Republican machine now.

I like Kinky, he’s a funny one.

AD: There seems to be so many hoops that he has to jump through.

JK: Right. I think he’ll jump through the petition hoop–I think he’ll get the signatures–I think they’ll get that figured out. That’s not easy. But the big hoop, getting those new voters out, who knows.

AD: Well you’ve been in Austin for a number of years and have seen a lot of changes over those years. What would you say the best addition to the local scene is? What do you think is the biggest loss?

JK: The biggest addition is probably the same thing as the biggest loss. It’s really a whole lot of good restaurants that are here now that didn’t used to be. When I first got here the only seafood place in town served fried fish and they had a little wedge of iceberg lettuce salad and the waitresses had little sailor suits. That was right down on Town Lake. That’s the biggest gain–is all the newest restaurants. But the biggest loss is it’s now easier to find a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup than it is a bowl of chili. Our biggest gain is also our biggest loss because in a lot of ways we are losing our local culture–or it’s at least changing in a lot of ways with that one.

AD: Tell us about your book, “Texas Curiosities”

JK: It’s a funny travel book. It’s a collection of short articles about museums and characters and funky little towns and yarns and historical bits from all over the state of Texas. And the way I describe it to people is instead of just having the regular Alamo in it, its got the guy in Hamilton who built his house to look just like the Alamo and now can’t figure out why it’s been on the market for eight and a half years. That’s the kind of book it is. I called a guy today trying to put him in the book who has a business in Hereford which is up there in the plains–big cattle country. Supposedly, he had a business called Maggot Mothers where if your cow dies and you want to get rid of it, they come pick it up and turn it into dog food. He wouldn’t talk to me.

AD: How come?

JK: Cause he’s got a lot of money and he doesn’t want to lose it all.

AD: What prompted you to start the “Texas Curiosities”?

JK: I got a call from the book company that put it out and they asked me if I wanted to do it. I had to think about it for awhile because it sounded like a lot of work and it was. I think I’m updating it again right now.

AD: I was reading an excerpt and I can’t believe there is a statue of Lenin in a hamburger place.

JK: Well, sadly, there isn’t anymore. That guy retired and sold the thing, I heard. That’s a loss. That’s going to be a tough item to replace. This guy drove all the way from Heidelberg, Germany with a buddy of his to the Ukraine and bought the statue of Lenin, not John Lennon, Vladimir , and had it shipped back at the cost of several thousand dollars. It took him a long time to get it back and after he got it back he put it in front of his cheeseburger place with a sign on it that said, “America won”.

It was right after the Berlin wall fell that he made this trip.

AD: I was reading what you had to say about the duck tours. I was wondering about that.

JK: I thought it was pretty interesting because it hit a lot of things that I didn’t know anything about. A lot of little irrelevant, but interesting, historical tidbits about Austin. So it was different because you would go by a building and they’d say well this is where they had the first ice machine in Texas and this kind of stuff. A lot of it wasn’t very important but it was just interesting. Like the ransom museum, they said they had the first photo ever taken for ransom. That kind of stuff you learn on that tour.

AD: Is there anything else?

JK: If anyone ever has any ideas they can always call me up and tell me or email at jkelso@statesman.com or (512) 445 3606 because I really appreciate people calling me and leaving me ideas.

There are a lot of things I wouldn’t know about if people didn’t help me out. **

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2 comments

  1. Ed tarbutton

    Hello John, Last night my wife and I attented the Van Morrison concert and it left alot to be desired.After paying over $300 for a pair of tickets, someone was sitting in our seats and the lady that seemed to be in charge over the regular ushers said that she really souldn”t anything about it.She ask us to sit in different seats and gave us two drink tickets for the inconvience . The bar closed rather early and that didn”t happen either. Also, I ask her what time it was over and she said around 10:30p:m. Well things started at exactly 7:00 and was over at exactly 8:30. Van Morrison
    walked off the stage and didn”t even return for an encore..And on top of all of that, the accoustics in the building was pittiful. The sound guy never did have things tight. Very disapointed with the venue and probally will never go back. Even if Elvis were to return and play there. Thanks

  2. Gary Powell, Composer/Producer » Gary Powell Awarded “2008 Austin Toastmasters Achievement in Communications”

    […] 2008, Gary Powell – Composer/Producer 2007, Ronnie Earle – Travis County District Attorney 2006, Sarah Weddington – Attorney, Leadership Philosopher 2005, Judy Maggio – Anchor, CBS-42 K-EYE News 2004, Kinky Friedman – Humorist, Performer, Mystery Writer 2003, Liz Carpenter – Author; Lecturer 2002, Admiral Bobby Inman – Venture Capitalist, Austinite of the Year 2001, Kirk Watson – Mayor, Austin Texas 2000, Chuck Meyer – Minister; Author 1999, John Kelso – Humor Columnist; Author 1998, Marion Winik – Author; Lecturer 1997, Willie Kocurek – Community Leader 1996, Toody Byrd – Humorist; Lecturer 1995, Lloyd Doggett – U.S. Representative 1994, Cactus Pryor – Humorist 1993, Brigid Shea – Director, Save Our Springs 1992, Nick Barbaro – Publisher, The Austin Chronicle 1991, Molly Ivins – Syndicated Columnist 1990, Ben Sargent – Political Cartoonist 1989, Wally Pryor – Sports Broadcaster (”Voice of the Longhorns”) 1988, Gonzalo Barrientos – Texas State Senator 1987, Jodie Conradt – U.T. Women’s Basketball Coach 1986, Barbara Jordan – LBJ Centennial Chair on National Policy, UT Austin 1985, Jim Hightower – Agricultural Commissioner, State of Texas 1984, Ann Richards – Treasurer, State of Texas 1983, Ron Mullen – Mayor, Austin Texas 1982, Neil Spelce – TV News Anchor Mr. Powell has agreed to terms with his estate and airs to make the video, which was recorded during his speech at the Austin Toastmasters Club, available for release to the public 25 years after his death. […]