Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald, by Michael Hill, Random House 2022, $28, 336 pages.
As Michael Hill hints in his sparkling new book Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald, one of the most remarkable things about the longtime Washington comedian (and longtime visitor to the vineyard) Art Buchwald is that he has always been able to have a career at all. Novelist Christopher Buckley points out in his preface to the book that Washington isn’t exactly known for its carefree camaraderie. Back-knifing and grudges are the most popular pastimes of the place’s longtime residents; in retrospect, it seems impossible that a satirist could be read with affection and derogatory laughter by members of all political tribes.
But three times a week, Buchwald did the impossible – and made it look easy. His Washington Post columns typically grabbed a detail or moment from the politics of the day, then stretched it almost out of shape with absurd humor and sweet satire. Each week, fierce haters from both sides of the aisle gathered to laugh at the exquisite nonsense they had read that morning in Buchwald’s latest column.
To say the least, the column was a success. It won Buchwald a Pulitzer Prize and, as Mr. Hill writes, at its peak it was read in 100 countries around the world in 550 newspapers. The collections that Mr. Buchwald amassed each year in books sold in the hundreds of thousands. He was a much sought-after speaker at events of all kinds. He was friends with the Kennedy family. The man whom Mr Hill describes as “columnist, playwright, pundit, lecturer, political commentator, sage, prankster, father, husband and friend” was just as much a literary star as any of the novelists who were his fans (PG Wodehouse, for example) or friends (the novelist Irwin Shaw, who wrote to Buchwald about the creative agony of producing his future bestseller, Rich Man, Poor Man).
Mr. Buchwald’s vast trove of papers and personal effects was opened to Mr. Hill by his son and daughter-in-law (Mr. Hill dedicates his book to the couple), and this enables him to paint what is sure to be the most complete table. of this figure that will never be made. In a very short time, readers get to know both the comedian (a playful perfectionist) and the man – talkative and unfailingly generous. It’s a remarkably hearty rendition, something Mr. Buchwald himself would have had great fun teasing.
Despite this wealth of raw material, it is still a miracle that this book has exceeded 100 pages. Every morning for more than 30 years, Buchwald read the morning papers in bed, got into a taxi (he never learned to drive), went to his office, wrote his column, ran it by his longtime secretary, tweaked it, filed it with the Washington Post and its syndication service, had lunch, chatted with some of his co-workers, answered a mail, and then went home for the dinner and chatted on the phone until bedtime. Add a speech here or an emcee concert there, and that’s about it. It’s not exactly the Battle of Borodino.
As you would expect when it comes to such a fun and awesome subject, Mr. Hill has written a fun and awesome book. But even so, there is a bit of darkness around the edges. In the 1990s, for example, Mr. Buchwald began telling investigators about his struggles with depression. He and William Styron and Mike Wallace gave a series of lectures about their experiences of periods of depression (they dubbed themselves “the Blues Brothers”), and Mr. Hill’s treatment is sensitive enough. His subject very intentionally presented a jovial face to the world, and he maintained it for so many decades that people assumed it was all natural – but Mr Hill expertly shows how that facade has sometimes had a high cost.
It also details Mr. Buchwald’s often contentious relationship with Hollywood, including “the lawsuit that wouldn’t die” with Paramount over Mr. Buchwald’s claim that the studio stole his cinematic treatment for the film. of Eddie Murphy Coming to America. Mr Buchwald won the case and received many accolades from his friends for securing a cash settlement from “those Hollywood bastards”.
But even so, it’s a joyful, cheerful book. Given how steeped it is in Mr. Buchwald’s humor, it could hardly be otherwise. His most melancholy is decidedly offstage, though I bet most readers of the book will think of that. Washington — indeed, the United States — in 2022 is so wildly polarized that things are much closer to civil war than civil discourse. It’s not a leap to wonder if Washington DC would have any use today for Art Buchwald’s dazzling laughter, even though we need him more than ever.