Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald

From the Washington Post review by Eric Weiner of the book by Michael Hill titled “Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald”:

Asked if he ever read the humorist Art Buchwald, Richard Nixon replied: “No, no I don’t think he is funny. He is certainly not serious.”

Nixon was wrong — on both counts. Buchwald was funny and serious. In the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, he concealed deep wisdom in the seemingly silly and farcical. As for Nixon’s potshot, Buchwald was not the least perturbed. “As a humor columnist, I need Nixon,” he said. “He’s been great for me. I’m going to run him for a third term.”

Over the decades, Buchwald was equally grateful for many other presidents, including Jimmy Carter (“I worship the very quicksand he walks on”) and Bill Clinton (for obvious reasons). Only George H.W. Bush let him down. “Nothing to write about, everything was dull,” Buchwald is quoted as saying in Michael Hill’s brisk and engaging biography, “Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald.” Meticulously researched and delivered in a taut, almost staccato style, “Funny Business” glides along the surface of Buchwald’s remarkable life, venturing wide but not especially deep.

In his column, published for decades by The Washington Post and, at its peak, syndicated to 550 newspapers around the word, Buchwald often crafted creative, tongue-in-cheek solutions to the nation’s problems. Gun violence out of control? Impose a federal mandate to cut off all Americans’ trigger fingers at birth. (“The Constitution gives everyone the right to bear arms. But there is nothing that says an American has to have ten fingers.”) Bogged down in the Vietnam War? Instead of dropping bombs, drop American autos that had been recalled. The unsuspecting North Vietnamese “would proceed to kill each other” with the faulty cars, he quipped.

Some of Buchwald’s satires were so spot on they were mistaken for truth. When in 1964 he wrote a column titled “J. Edgar Hoover Just Doesn’t Exist,” many Americans believed him. Hoover, clearly not amused, called Buchwald “a sick alleged humorist.” John F. Kennedy briefly canceled all White House subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune, at the time the newspaper that carried Buchwald’s column. Lyndon Johnson, irked by Buchwald’s criticism of the Vietnam War, ordered the National Security Agency to secretly surveil the humorist. Buchwald took heat from both ends of the political spectrum, but he found “the extreme Left” pricklier. Satirizing them, he said, “takes a little more guts.”

For the most part, though, those on the receiving end of Buchwald’s “Buchshots,” as his barbs were called, took it in stride, or even played along. Buchwald’s satire was biting, but the bites were delivered so slyly that recipients rarely objected — or even knew they had been bitten.

A young Buchwald articulated the satirical strategy that he stuck with throughout his long career: “The writer must be careful he is not accused of being a hater of mankind. The best way to do this is to abuse people and make them laugh while you’re doing it. It indicates that the writer is just having a good time and he’s really your friend. The abuse will stick.”

The first two-thirds of “Funny Business” reads like a journalistic fairy tale. There is Buchwald in Paris dining at the city’s finest restaurants and rubbing elbows with Lauren Bacall and a young Robert Redford. There he is at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, and on Broadway, watching “Sheep on the Runway,” the play he wrote. There he is receiving the Pulitzer Prize. And, all the while, there he is hunched over his trusty Olivetti typewriter, chomping on a cigar and making it look oh so easy. Life was good, or so it seemed.

The truth is that Buchwald, like so many comedians, had a dark side. When the black dog, as Winston Churchill called his depression, nipped at his heels, Buchwald turned to humor, “the greatest defense in the world.” And it worked. Until it didn’t.

In 1962, he suffered a debilitating bout of depression and was briefly hospitalized the following year. For many decades, he kept his struggle secret. Finally, in 1991, he went public, teaming up with fellow celebrities and depressives Mike Wallace and William Styron — the “Blues Brothers” they called themselves — to raise awareness about the disease.

Hill skillfully chronicles Buchwald’s ups and downs, relying heavily on a treasure trove of correspondence he unearthed: letters between Buchwald and A-list celebrities on both coasts, including Ted Kennedy and Charlton Heston. Some of these missives are more illuminating, and funnier, than others. At times, the book reads less like a biography and more like a document dump.

“Funny Business” contains plenty of laughs but also elicits pangs of sadness. The reader feels sad for Buchwald, who for so long felt compelled to hide his struggle with depression. Sad for the passing of an era when the nation had a common conversation, even if it was one conducted in raised voices. And sad for today’s comedians, inheritors of the Buchwald tradition, who must find ways to be funny when the news satirizes itself.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Buchwald suffered several setbacks, including a bitter and protracted lawsuit over the movie “Coming to America,” a film that Buchwald claimed was his idea. Next followed a series of painful health crises until, in 2006, he entered a Washington hospice. His days were numbered, but that number turned out to be much higher than anyone suspected.

Weeks, then months, went by, and Buchwald was still alive and funny. His kidneys began functioning again. He actually gained weight. From his hospice bed, he conducted radio interviews (“I had nothing else to do”) and welcomed visitors to what became known as Buchwald’s hospice salon.

When he finally did die more than a year later, Washington A-listers gathered to honor him. But it was fellow humorist Dave Barry who best captured the big-hearted comic genius that was Art Buchwald. “He talked funny, he wrote funny, he lived funny, and damned if he didn’t find a way to die funny.”

Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of “The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers.”

Speak Your Mind