ART of HUMOR
...an artist's view
Up close & personal with the late, great Buchwald
By GERALD NACHMAN
I met Art Buchwald in 1979, a few years after he had helped found the American Academy of Humor Columnists, whose main purpose was to give each other awards and keep out undesirables (other humor columnists). Mainly it resulted in a lot of funny memos among the membership--Art, Russell Baker of the New York Times (Buchwalds co-founder), Art Hoppe of the San Francisco Chronicle, and me, then of the New York Daily News, later also of The Chronicle.
The memos concerned such matters as whether allowing me into the Academy would be one Jew too many and create a Jewish bloc.
There was also great debate over whether we should allow anyone else into the group -- primarily women such as Erma Bombeck, whom Buchwald felt should not be allowed in because she was more heavily syndicated than he was. Hoppe and I were no threats. We happily blackballed any up and coming humorists.
We never actually all met as a group, but when Buchwald would come to San Francisco, he would call Hoppe to have dinner and one year they invited me to join them, along with Herb Caen. As always when Buchwald was around, he was clearly the center of attention. It was the only time I ever saw Caen play second fiddle to anyone on his home turf. He didnt seem to mind handing the spotlight to Buchwald.
Like any performer, Art craved an audience and most people in his presence functioned mainly as fans or straight men. Even in his dying days, he needed a crowd, and just a few weeks ago, at the hospice he lived where he lived, C-Span Books televised a reading he did of his final book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye, about his last year as an invalid, confined to a wheelchair after a leg was amputated due to diabetes. It was a brave performance, but hard to watch because he kept breaking down while paying tribute to the people who lined up to visit him and cared for him, literally and otherwise.
Art was born to play the clown. He looked funny, he talked funny, like Buddy Hackett, and of course he wrote funny. All of us were somewhat in awe of his ready wit and to be sure his huge success, with a long line of collected works rivaling anything by Benchley or Thurber. Even long after he didnt need the money, Art was constantly on the road as a much-in-demand lecturer. He was as much a stand-up comic as he was a sit-down humorist.
When I was just starting out as a humor columnist, at the San Jose Mercury, I remember reading an interview with Buchwald in which he said (or boasted) it only took him 45 minutes to write a column. I couldnt understand how he did it. It took me the better part of a day to crank out a piece. Later on, after Id been writing humor columns for a few years, I understood how he did it--by honing his style to the bone and learning to recognize a winning idea instantly.
Our first meal was, of course, at the fabled Sans Souci in Washington, D.C., which Buchwald put on the map as his favorite luncheon spot, much mentioned by him in print. To pay a call on Buchwald at the Sans Souci was like meeting the pope for a bite. The waters parted when he entered, maitre d and waiters genuflecting as he kidded them on his way to the table reserved for him for decades. I cant recall a thing he or I said; mainly I was aware of being on stage as VIPS and politicians came by to bow.
Later, I met Buchwald in New York with our wives at the Four Seasons, where he was equally welcomed as a visiting emissary. The owner came over to pay his respects. Buchwald never opened the menu, because the owner said the chef would whip up something he would like; I think it turned out to be a $20 omelet. Meanwhile, I tried to fake a casual perusal of the menu, with its stratospheric prices. I neednt have worried. Buchwald, of course, grabbed the bill, if one was ever presented.
As at Sans Souci, I cant recall a word that was exchanged, mainly because they were mostly Arts words. We listened, we laughed, we asked a few pertinent questions to provoke a story. He had a story for all occasions. I dont think he ever asked me anything, but I was happy--like most people--just to bask in his reflected glory at a hallowed watering hole. He was a superstar, he knew it, and he wallowed in it.
In his prime, which lasted a long time, over half a century from his days at the Paris Herald-Tribune as the consummate American in Paris, Buchwald was a great humorist, but he was equally skilled at hyping himself, even as he lay dying.
On his deathbed at the hospice, he eagerly granted--and perhaps even instigated--interviews with newspapers, magazines and TV shows, finding a final angle to promote. Hes finally gone now, having cheated death by a year when he took himself off dialysis, but hes likely somewhere joshing with his fellow departed, gathering stories and, to be sure, collecting a heavenly crowd around him for a few laughs.
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Jan. 22, 2007.
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