‘Winding Up The Self-Righteous’: Humor Columnist Robert Kirby Looks Back At Career Built On Human Irony
Robert Kirby is something of a notorious writer in Utah. He spent 26 years as a humor columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune. In that time, he never shied away from lampooning the powerful, the self-righteous and more often than not — himself. His writing made a lot of people mad, but it also made a lot of people laugh.
Kirby retired last month, and KUER’s Bob Nelson sat down with him to talk about his career.
Bob Nelson: You started out as a cop and then became a humor columnist. You’ve said that both jobs required an appreciation for human irony. What did you mean by that?
Robert Kirby: What I was referring to is the basic human inability to appreciate how our behavior belies our intentions. In police work, it was easy to understand because you're catching people at their worst moments. Go to the worst family fights you've ever seen — where there's blood on the walls — and there's a picture of a temple marriage. I finally found a way to say what I wanted about the public without them having to “beef” me to the police chief.
BN: And you've talked about people just doing stupid things.
RK: Most of the time, people aren't aware of what's going on around them, because we really have, as a species, a very narrow focus.
I was parked on the side of the road one day when I saw this woman drive by. She had something hanging outside her driver's door. So I figured I'd pull her over and let her know what was going on. I got her stopped and I wasn't even out of the police car yet before she started yelling at me about she wasn't doing anything wrong, and why wasn't I out catching real criminals instead of bothering her? And she wouldn't shut up. So I finally opened the door and I said, "Excuse me, is this your cat?" She had slammed the car door on her cat's tail and drove off the market with it. She was really upset about that. That's a horrible way to come to find out that you're not paying attention like you should have.
BN: And what does it take as a columnist to make it funny?
RK: Mostly you make fun of yourself, because I'm just as guilty of what I'm talking about as other people. A true humorist knows that they're part of the problem.
BN: You've ticked off a lot of people in your 25 plus years at The [Salt Lake] Tribune, definitely afflicted the comfortable. But you were also temporarily suspended from the paper back in 2018 for some things you said in a public forum. Were there times you thought, "Yeah, I crossed the line."
RK: No. I can look at it and see where others might think that I crossed the line. But my job was always — as I saw it — to get people to laugh about themselves.
My suspension. Yes, I was guilty of the things that they said. I'd like to make it clear that I've never touched anyone. I never attempted to seduce anybody. But it was in the way I spoke to people — which is an attempt to be humorous and it wasn't taken as such. It's the same reason you have a lot of comedians not willing to perform on college campuses anymore — because of people who take their causes so seriously, they can't understand the irony of their own behavior in it.
BN: Does the role of the columnist change now with social media? Have you seen a change over your career?
RK: Social media did not change how I wrote or what I chose to write. It changed how I would interact with people. I had more readers and it was easier for them to fire themselves up in groups and scream for my head because they didn't like what I'd written — even if it was true. I wasn't really concerned about making people angry. Winding up the self-righteous or the self-important was always the fun part for me.
But you also have to factor in the effect that you're having on the general public. I attempted to write a column about getting a pilot's license. I went out to Salt Lake Airport and signed up. I got in the plane with a pilot and we took off. I even got to fly the plane a little while. Went home and I wrote a column about how bad of an idea was to give idiots like me the idea that they could get a pilot's license. I mean, we'd land on freeways, crash into mountains and buildings and fly upside down over schools and that sort of thing.
That particular column ran on 9/11. Yeah, woah. I got a lot of feedback about that. But I consoled myself by [saying], "Hey, if the CIA couldn't see that coming, how could I?" But it was still — yeah, there's one I wish I hadn't written.
BN: What is going on with retirement then?
RK: I'm not really going to retire. I'll find something else to do. I applied for a job as a part time background investigator with the West Jordan Police Department. They've accepted my application and told me I was hired, but I have to go through all these tests. If I was going to write a column about that, I would write a column about how, oh, they want a drug test. That's cool. I'll take all the drugs they want. Test whatever you want on me.
BN: Probably still think like a columnist always.
RK: No, I always thought as a cop — seeing people at their worst and trying to remind them in a funny way. That's what kept me going as a columnist for years and years. Now I'm going back to police work and see if it's still the same.