John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 made headlines across the globe. Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? Why didn’t Jackie Kennedy take off her blood-stained pink suit for the rest of the day? What role did communists play in the plot? What would Lyndon B. Johnson do as President?
For most journalists, these were the obvious questions to pursue.
But one journalist had zero interest in the obvious. Jimmy Breslin was a college dropout turned newspaper columnist. He had a knack for spotting perspectives that other journalists missed. “Newspapers are so boring,” Breslin once lamented. “Media,” he added, “is the plural of mediocrity,” in case his point wasn’t clear.
When it came to writing a column about JFK’s assassination, Breslin decided to eschew mediocrity and tell the story from the perspective of an unlikely person.
That person’s name was Clifton Pollard. The day after JFK was killed, Pollard woke up at 9 am and was eating his Sunday breakfast when he received a phone call. It was his supervisor from work—a call that Pollard had been expecting. “Polly,” his supervisor said, “could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning? I guess you know what it’s for.”
Pollard quickly finished his bacon and eggs. As Breslin describes it, Pollard then “left his apartment so he could spend Sunday at Arlington Cemetery digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
Yes, Pollard was a gravedigger. And Breslin’s masterful column told the story of JFK’s assassination from the perspective of the man who spent his Sunday preparing JFK’s final resting place.
“He was a good man,” Pollard said, referring to JFK. “Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up. You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this,” he added. Pollard didn’t get to attend JFK’s funeral. When the procession began, he was already hard at work in another part of the cemetery, digging graves for $3.01 per hour and preparing them for their future occupants (Pollard himself later became one of those occupants and was buried at Arlington Cemetery, just about 100 steps away from the grave he dug for JFK).
The column about JFK’s gravedigger became a signature one for Breslin, who made a name for himself by covering unusual angles of mainstream news stories. Breslin’s knack for spotting the non-obvious led him to win the Pulitzer Prize, host Saturday Night Live, and become the celebrity spokesperson for Piels beer.
It’s exceedingly difficult to notice what everyone else misses. We’re wired to follow the crowd. We look to what our peers are doing and follow their lead. Journalists pursue the same stories as other journalists and businesses copy each other’s marketing strategies. It’s like that Chinese proverb: One dog barks at something, and a hundred others bark at that sound.
Jerry Seinfeld knew the importance of not barking at the same frequency as other comedians. When Seinfeld started doing stand-up comedy, he told himself he wouldn’t pursue the obvious sources of laughter. He wouldn’t joke about sex. And he wouldn’t swear. Instead, his stand-up comedy is about the minutiae of life that most of us find boring. “I do a lot of material about the chair,” Seinfeld says. “I find the chair very funny. That excites me. No one’s really interested in that — but I’m going to get you interested. It’s the entire basis of my career.”
Here’s the thing: A comedian who jokes about sex isn’t remarkable. A columnist who covers the usual angles of a political assassination isn’t worth talking about. Everyone is rushing to that same center, grasping for that low-hanging fruit.
Remarkable happens when you reach for the fruit that others ignore—the one obscured by all the leaves. A columnist who covers an assassination from the gravedigger’s perspective or a comedian who can do a 15-minute routine about a chair?
Now, that’s something worth talking about.
[Inspiration: My podcast interview with Rob Walker, the author of The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday].