A fine facsimile of President Reagan stands on the stage, trying to get black votes by showing that he, too, can rap. Ah, he beams midway through, "we're in a grove now." An aide murmurs: "Sir, that's groove ."
Thus begins "Rap Master Ronnie," a satirical revue. Its tone is light but its message is . . . well, it portrays Reagan--and much of his constituency--as genial and unthinking, insensitive to the poor and black, positive about the rich and white and amiably blithe about such matters as nuclear war, women's rights and El Salvador.
Some say that "Rap" is too cutting, others say it doesn't cut deep enough. "But that's the given with this kind of show," sighs the author, often identified as no fan of Ronald Reagan.
The author, who actually is no fan of Ronald Reagan, is Garry Trudeau, 37, the mild-mannered Yale graduate who begat the syndicated, occasionally controversial "Doonesbury" cartoon strip and then the short-lived 1983 Broadway musical based on it.
A Reagan skit from that musical led to "Rap," for which Trudeau wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Elizabeth Swados, composer for the earlier "Doonesbury."
A 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner, Trudeau avoids the publicity ramble. He does interviews about as often as the sun rises in the west. But he made an exception to help promote "Rap," now on the boards at the Backlot Theatre in West Los Angeles.
Thus it came to pass recently that he was interviewed by phone during a working vacation at his father's small farm in Saranac Lake in Upstate New York, where he was semi-relaxing with his wife, NBC "Today" co-anchor Jane Pauley, and their two children.
In the course of the interview, Trudeau, in addition to rapping about "Rap," also:
--Fretted that the kind of robust satire that accompanied the eras of Eisenhower and L.B.J. seems absent from the Reagan years. He theorized that nowadays "true satire--that is, satire guided by a moral purpose--is more difficult to take, and people at this point want comedy that's mindless. . . . I think it's part of this long national nap we're engaged in."
--Lamented that NBC's "Saturday Night Live," after a barbed, promising start in 1975, subsequently "seemed to have degenerated into kind of a nihilistic, hipper-than-thou exercise."
--Said the only idea that young, would-be satirists seemed to have gotten from that late-night show is "to be funny at all costs. . . . Today, the closest thing we have to regular satire is the (Johnny) Carson monologue (on NBC's "Tonight Show"). And there again, the joke's the thing. . . . The gag is more important than any sustained point of view."
--Said he was startled when some critics said his Broadway "Doonesbury" was not political enough. He said he didn't consider the strip on which it was based "to be as political as reputed, but more involved in the lives of its characters than in the body politic."
--Said he doesn't regard it as censorship when newspaper editors won't run a "Doonesbury" strip they consider too controversial, too one-sided, or--as in a recent refusal by The Times to run a segment dealing with Frank Sinatra--potentially too difficult to defend in court should a libel suit be filed.
"No, it doesn't concern me at all," he said of editors who balk, momentarily or permanently. "I consider it an enormous privilege to think about things, put them into my strip, and then have those particular concerns show up in 800-some newspapers.
"So if it doesn't make it into each paper 365 days a year, it's nothing I worry about. I certainly don't characterize it as censorship. I believe that editors have a right and a responsibility to delete features from their newspaper that they deem inappropriate for their readers, for whatever reason.
"Now I don't always agree with their reasons for so doing. But I certainly have to respect their right to do it. So, no, it's not something that agitates me as much as one might think."
Trudeau has agitated others since 1970, when "Doonesbury" and its countercultural cast first materialized, a satirical strip that still alternately needles and savages the Establishment, his own generation and the Fourth Estate, to list a few victims. The list of notables is quite varied--Richard M. Nixon, former Yale President Kingman Brewster, Vice President George Bush, Amnesty International, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
The Fourth Estate spoofees range from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to network types to People magazine. And once, in making sport of the New York Daily News' all-out coverage of the "Son of Sam" murder case, Trudeau even ignited sort of a media range war by enraging columnist Jimmy Breslin, the tough but tender bard of the blue collar.
Cited in Trudeau's jibes, Breslin later replied in kind. He sneered in print at the cartoonist's work as a momentary columnist covering the 1980 Republican convention.