The Style, Snark and Substance of Mike Royko
How the career of one of Chicago’s all-time great columnists inspired a young, inexperienced writer in the suburbs
By: Brett Grega
In the Summer after my senior year of high school, I decided to try my hand at journalism. It was the kind of career change that came out of the blue with the lack of planning or experience to show for it. To help make up for that inexperience, I began seeking out writers who I felt had the certain kind of wry wit and unabashed confidence that I wanted to convey in my writing. It wasn’t until my dad suggested I research Mike Royko though, a columnist of wide acclaim in the city of Chicago most known for his work from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, that I really found the exact kind of writing that I could only dream of recreating.
I started reading through all the columns I could find online from Royko, many of which were re-published decades after his passing or kept in appreciation on internet repositories. This was the body of work that really encompassed why I wanted to drop everything and be a journalist. To me, Royko’s columns were the perfect introductory course in journalism.
How to Get a Reaction 101: Royko’s Sinatra Letter
Back in 1976 as a writer for the now defunct Chicago Daily-News, Royko wrote a piece criticizing the incoming arrival of the incomparable Frank Sinatra for a concert in the city. Sinatra’s appearance in Chicago rivaled that of an in-coming head of state which made the singer into the perfect fodder for one of Royko’s columns.
Royko skewered Sinatra’s set-up and appearance in a hilarious column. Sinatra subsequently responded with a letter directly addressed to Royko absolutely lambasting the columnist for virtually everything he wrote. “I will allow you to pull my ‘hairpiece.’ If it moves, I will give you another $100,000; if it does not, I punch you in the mouth. How about it?” Sinatra wrote to conclude the letter. Royko was undeterred though.
Instead of wavering or begging for forgiveness, Royko published the frankly insulting letter in full in a responding column in which he broke down the information he received for the initial column and his legitimate gripes with Sinatra’s appearance step-by-step in hilarious, oftentimes self-deprecating, fashion. In other words, those Sinatra pieces were the perfect examples of why Royko was a master of the columns section.
The Entertaining Opinion Piece by Slats Grobnik
Although it was clear that Royko had no fear when it came to publicly calling out some of the most powerful and famous in Chicago all by himself, he also liked to provide the perspective of one Slats Grobnik in his columns who, by all accounts, was the epitome of the stereotypical south-side Chicago native. That’s because Grobnik actually was Royko’s entirely fictious persona embodying Chicago’s everyday working class.
Royko’s columns oftentimes included insights and stories from Grobnik’s “life” that served as perfect vehicles for not only humorously taking down the established elite, but also providing a sort of overarching voice for the everyday people that Royko oftentimes found himself cast as. By blending parody and humor through Grobnik, oftentimes with a certain level of self-deprecation, Royko was able to excel at the balancing act between both entertain his readers and get his more high-minded points across.
A Crash Course in Royko-Style Sports Writing
Royko wasn’t always about taking the highest and mightiest down a peg, however. Sometimes, he just talked about sports, especially his favorite Chicago Cubs. One of the most well-known features of these columns was Royko’s references to the Ex-Cubs Factor. It was a theory proposed by a longtime reader about the futility of Cubs players even after they left the oftentimes inept team. Royko adopted the theory and turned it into something of a local sensation along with the infamous “Billy Goat Curse” to describe the Chicago Cubs seemingly perpetual failures. Those gimmicks were perfect for making a somewhat depressing subject for local sports fans into a fun and entertaining read while also establishing a level of rapport and dedication with his readers.
How Mike Royko Continues to Inspire Today
Altogether, Royko’s career didn’t just showcase the kind of swagger and substance that I ideally hoped to emulate in my own fashion, it also helped prove it was possible to create a unique style of delivery and still be successful. Much like Royko’s readers, I would hope anyone who came across my opinion pieces today not only remembered the purpose of the piece, but also the entertaining and inventive delivery that brought out that purpose. To me, that was Mike Royko’s expertise, and hopefully one day my expertise as well.
About the author: Brett Grega is a freelance writer covering everything from global poverty to pretend punches on television. His work has appeared in publications like The Chicago Tribune, Polygon, WhatCulture, The Borgen Project and more.
This material was written for and provided by AGENZ PR, a student-led PR firm specializing in matters of diversity, inclusion, and the Gen Z perspective. AGENZ teams are comprised of PR students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, all of whom are dedicated to providing clients with insightful and digitally innovative work products to enhance business practices. Students learn and excel by getting hands-on, professional experience in the public relations industry.