PW met with Charles Osgood in his modest office in the CBS Broadcasting Building in Manhattan. Wearing his customary bowtie, Osgood ignored the incessant ringing of the old-fashioned phone on his desk and talked about the book he has edited, Kilroy Was Here: The Best American Humor from World War II.
PW: How did the idea for this book come about?
CO: The idea was Bill Adler's. He's a fount of good ideas for books. As soon as he brought it up, I instantly remembered some stuff myself, some war humor, and that got everything started.
PW: How did you like editing the book?
CO: It was the first time I had actually attempted to edit anybody's work but my own. And it was an embarrassment of riches. There is so much war humor that it was hard to pick what to use.
PW: Where did you find the excerpts you used in this book?
CO: Various places—army publications like Stars & Stripes and Yank, which was an army weekly; cartoons from the national press; even memoirs from entertainers who had worked overseas during the war, performing for the troops.
PW: You aren't old enough to have served in World War II, yet in your introduction, it sounds as if you vividly remember what life was like during war times. Have these memories stayed fresh, or were they revived as you researched this book?
CO: I was only nine when the war began. But you have to remember that in war times, everything is changed and affected—every aspect of life, and it was a big part of life at home, too. It was the top priority for the country, and everywhere you turned, there were new manifestations of it. It was very much a part of my life growing up, and I've always remembered it.
PW: A cynic might say you're riding the wave of all the World War II books that have been published over the past few years and continue to be published, especially with the upcoming Pearl Harbor movie. How does Kilroy Was Here fit in with these other books?
CO: It's absolutely true that there's a lot of interest in the subject right now. But there had not been another book on WWII humor yet, so when Bill approached me with the idea, it just worked. And if you were enlisted during the war, there wasn't a whole heck of a lot that was funny about it. War is pretty grim business. But the humor that came out of that time had not been collected and presented in this way before, and we thought it would be great to do it.
PW: In a recent New York Times editorial, Maureen Dowd calls those who lived and served during WWII "the gabbiest generation." She laments the transition from the "Unsung Generation" to the "Singing Generation," noting that since they were encouraged to share their stories, vets "can't stop gushing and celebrating themselves." What do you make of Dowd's observations?
CO: I think nobody was going back to these people to get their stories, and now they are. So the simple reason that they're talking is because people are asking! Really, though, it's an idea whose time has come. Tom [Brokaw]'s book was terrific. It's about my parents and the people they spent their lives with. Taking it a step further, I think you can learn a lot about someone by looking at what they think is funny.
PW: What is it about these essays and jokes that allows even a person who didn't serve in the war (such as yourself) to find them humorous?
CO: The humor in Kilroy Was Here is definitely not today's humor. But it goes beyond funny—there's insight here. You get a sense of the character of the time. The GIs were kids, just 17, 18, 19 years old. A lot of this humor carries a certain kind of playfulness about it. It's that playfulness and naivete that we find so captivating now. Those people knew their lives were on the line, and they kept a very American attitude about them—a sort of "can do" attitude that needs to be remembered today.