Kangaroo Joe

By Adam I. W. Schwartzman ‘13

In February 2011, the Wall Street Journal editorial board curated a list of their all-time favorite films. One editor chose Ben-Hur. Others, On the Waterfront and The Lives of Others. All told, the films on the Journal’s list garnered 85 Academy Award nominations and won 48. Joe Rago’s selection won only one prize. The film was Kangaroo Jack, its prize a Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Fart in a Movie. The online Journal displayed a picture of the coy, bespectacled kangaroo, his red sweater bulging with $20 bills. Beneath it was a write-up in unmistakable Rago prose: “An allegory about the obsessive pursuit, through the Australian Outback, of an elusive marsupial with a fortune hidden in its pouch. You might call it the thinking man’s ‘Moby Dick.’”

Six weeks later, Joe won the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing. The prize board wrote plainly that his work on healthcare reform was impossible to ignore. Many remembrances will focus on this accomplishment—as they should, it was a bright star in his spangled career—but I smile widest when I recall Joe’s jokes.

They aren’t hard to find. A film review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is too jam-packed to pull any single quote. A 2008 op-ed savages a professor-cum-madwoman with reference to Mad Libs and “Pimp My Ride.” Another article written in the same year tracks the political history of the mustache, and calls a recent uptick in D.C. facial hair “conspicuous, if not bristling.”

In a 2016 fiction chronicle for the New Criterion, Joe cited 19 examples of the word “girl” in recent titles to demonstrate the word’s vogue in pop fiction. Two weeks after he shared that chronicle, I read an article in FiveThirtyEight that asked, “Why are there so many books with ‘girl’ in the title?”

That’s the thing about Joe’s writing: even his tiny absurdisms were constantly being proven and reaffirmed.

He wrote on February 1, 2017 about a profusion of wrongheaded think pieces tying dystopian novels to the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Joe focused on 1984, with nods to It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America. Joe made the point that drawing such parallels was foolish and, in the case of 1984, reflected a poor understanding of the text.

On February 20th, the New York Times ran “A Different Kind of Dystopian Novel.” Its author begins by making a point similar to Joe’s, focusing on The Plot Against America. He then spends seven paragraphs drawing such parallels anyway. When I sent Joe a picture of the headline, he responded via text message: “BOOOOORRRRRRINNNNGGG.”

So many articles deserve mention and examination (some are collected in the online Journal as “Joseph Rago’s Wit and Wisdom”). In “Dartmouth Psycho,” a rare Rago fiction, Joe sent up fraternity pledge term as thus: “In order to become a brother, I was forced to drop a quick six from goblets made of human skulls. The pledges were commanded to swim in a kiddie pool filled with organs and disarticulated limbs. Alongside the vomit-omelets—a playful but mysterious little dish—we were served, well, the Bloodiest Mary I’ve ever had.”

Joe Rago was not just funny, he was a laugh riot. His writing was not just good, it was the best. He would never say this, would never mention his Pulitzer Prize or any other awards. But if you stood vigil until the not-so-early hours of the morning, he might crack a lopsided smile and tell you about Kangaroo Jack.