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Art Buchwald: Portrait of a Sometimes Unfunny Man

By Burton F. Jablin

Art Buchwald isn't funny all the time. In fact, when he isn't in front of a large audience, he can be remarkably unfunny. Boring, even.

Of course, it's asking a lot of anybody--even one of America's leading humor columnists--to be amusing every minute of the day. And, to be fair, Buchwald can be uproariously funny when he wants to be. It's almost as though he can turn his comic talents on and off the way he does his omnipresent tape recorder--which he uses to capture everything he says so that later he can incorporate a humorous off-the-cuff remark into a future column.

Buchwald and tape recorder were "on" a week ago, when he kept a Kennedy School Forum audience chuckling for an hour by casting caustic, comedic comments at some of his favorite targets--the presidential candidates.

"Carter has found Washington not as easy to control as he did when he first became president," Buchwald told the crowd. "He is faced with scandal in the White House: he hasn't solved the problems of Iran, Afghanistan, welfare reform and energy. But I don't feel sorry for him. As I told him the other day--after Bible class--we never promised you a rose garden."

Not since the Kennedy presidency has Buchwald seen the country so interested in every aspect of the president's family life. "You know, if you went to a T.V. producer and said you had this idea for a T.V. series--you have this crazy family from Georgia which moves into the White House. And the president of the United States used to sell peanuts, and before that he was captain of a nuclear submarine. And he has a redneck brother who owns a gas station and drinks ten sixpacks of beer a day. And he has an 80-year-old mother who used to be a member of the Peace Corps. And his 11-year-old daughter lives in a tree house. And one sister rides a motorcycle and the other-sister is a faith healer. Do you know what that T.V. producer would say?" Pause. "Get rid of the faith healer."

Buchwald expressed a similar passion for Ronald Reagan, calling him "a very honorable person," who because of his age "said he would be willing to be examined by a White House doctor, and if he found Reagan was senile or mentally incompetant he would resign from office. Now the problem with this is how would they know?--Anyone who wants to be president of the United States has to be crazy to start with."

But away from the podium, during an early morning chat with reporters, Buchwald spoke more thoughtfully--and seriously--about the candidates. He thinks people are just plain bored with them all: 'It's gotten to the point now where I just get the feeling people aren't that interested," Buchwald lamented. "To write humor you've got to have people interested in the subject to start with, and you find in this campaign that whatever humor there is is in the fact that nobody likes either candidate or gives any emotional investment to any of the candidates. That's what you deal with--the fact that nobody wants to even go vote on November 4 unless they're dragged there in chains."

Buchwald said he tries to avoid writing too many of his columns on the campaign not only because people aren't that interested, but also because the candidates simply don't have much potential for humor. The ideal candidate--and president--for comic exploitation was Richard Nixon, Buchwald recalled wistfully. "He was my favorite, my Camelot," he sighed, eyes misting over. Reminiscing about the days of Watergate, Buchwald said, "Everbody was lying. It was a running story. It ran for over a year. It was just beautiful--you didn't have to make anything up."

The Wahington-based humorist thinks the comic value of his work rises and falls to some extent with the material he's satirizing. "If the people are up on something and they're interested in it, then the humor of it works. If they're not interested, then the humor doesn't work," Buchwald explained. "It's like Johnny Carson--he'll tell a joke, and if the people don't know what he's talking about, it just lies there flat. And then he'll mention something about Billy Carter or something and he'll get applause. So when you're in the satirical business, you're as good as the story that you're making fun of," he philosophized.

But Buchwald hasn't always concerned himself with making people laugh. He was a student once. After a brief stint in the marines, young Art decided he should go to college. But because he hadn't graduated from high school, he wanted to find out from a university what kind of high school courses he should take to prepare himself for the heady world of higher academics.

So he went to the University of Southern California and stood in line with thousands of other registering students. When he got to the front a woman handed him a card to fill out. "She said, 'What do you want to take?' and I said, 'I don't care,'" Buchwald recalled during his K-School speech. "She said English, and I said that was good. Math? I said, 'Why not.' She said French, and I said O.K. So I went to the next desk and the man stamped it and I was in college."

After a year, though, the authorities caught up with him and reminded Buchwald that he did not possess a high school diploma. But instead of kicking him out of school, they made him a "special student," forbidding him to work for a degree. That was just fine for the young scholar, who told his superiors, "I don't have a high school diploma; there's no sense having a college degree."

Three years went by, and Buchwald still did not have either a high school or college degree. But he left USC and went to Paris on the G.I. bill, ostensibly to write the Great American Novel. Now he admits forthrightly, however, "That was just something to tell everybody." Unlike the generation before his, Buchwald said his contemporaries in Paris "never considered ourselves a lost generation because we were getting $75 a month from Uncle Sam. If things ever got rough you could always get a job with the Marshall Plan, "which started up so quickly and needed so many workers that you could get a job as an office boy or a mailroom clerk and two weeks later be in charge of the coal and steel industries for the Benelux countries."

Buchwald failed to become one of the fast-rising young stars in the Marshall Plan, though, and in 1949 he went to the managing editor ot the International Herald Tribune in Paris and told him he wanted to do a nightclub and film column. "He said if they wanted someone to do it, they'd find someone and it wouldn't be me, and he threw me out of the office," Buchwald recalled. Two weeks later, the intrepid would-be columnist heard the managing editor had left town for a while, and he went back to the Tribune to see the editor. After Buchwald explained that "the managing editor and I have been talking about me doing a film and nightlife column," the editor decided it was a good idea and hired him. "In French, it's called chutzpah," Buchwald said of his job-hunting method.

It paid off. The cigar-chomping humorist is now syndicated in 550 newpapers. Occasionally the USSR's Pravda or Izvestia prints one of Buchwald's columns--they especially like ones critical of the administration. "Every once in a while I get an angry call from the State Department, and they'll say, 'Do you know the Soviets used your column this morning?'" To which Buchwald said he always replies, "Stop them."

Even after more than 25 years of writing a syndicated column three times a week--and tussling occasionally with the State Department--Buchwald said he doesn't think he's become stale. "The most dangerous thing about anything you do for awhile is predictability, and the worst thing you want to happen to you is for the reader to know what you're going to say before they read the column; and that's why I try to mix up my columns so much and I won't necessarily stick with political stuff because people can get tired of that," Buchwald explained during one of his serious moments.

In the years since his Paris days some outrageous and inflamatory--and sometimes dull--680-word satires have rolled off his typewriter. But Buchwald thinks the news that appears in the papers every day is much stranger than anything he creates. Some examples:

"Take Jimmy Carter's interview in Playboy in which he said he had lusted after women in his heart, but God had always forgiven him--I could not make that up. We now have a bumper sticker in Washington that says, 'In his heart, he knows your wife.'"

Or: "Take the FBI's recent sting operation when they caught Congressman Kelly of Florida with a bagload of money in the trunk of his car, and his explanation for this was that he was hoping to catch the person who gave it to him--I could not make that up."

And finally: "Consider what happened a couple of years ago when Senator William Scott of Virginia was listed in the magazine New Times as the dumbest senator in Washington. Now, New Times has a circulation of about 40. But Senator Scott called a press conferenced to deny it--which made him the dumbest senator."

If truth is wilder than Buchwald's fiction, then some of his ideas approach the ludicrousness of reality. He predicted, for example, that by next year "the Post Office will deliver mail only one day a year. It'll be called mail day and it'll be a holiday like Christmas. And you'll decorate your post boxes with holly wreathes and mistletoe, and we'll all come down in the morning and open our bills together."

After so may years of coming up with ideas like that--5000 columns, a novel and a play--Buchwald has no desire to write something serious: "I find that whatever you can do seriously, you can do humorusly and make the same point. The thing that has saved me I think, is that I've refrained from getting on the soapbox, though may times I'd like to."

And so, he still enjoys his job, which he called the best in the newspaper business. "I don't live in fear of somebody taking a dislike to me and saying, 'Get rid of him.' I have a better job than Fred Silverman--and safer...You've got to add about $150,000 a year onto that--being your own boss--it's great."

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