They say that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Ever an original, Art Buchwald made comedy look easy, and dying look hard. It was a year ago that he decided to forego dialysis (nine hours a day, three days a week—you call that living?). By last summer, he was telling an NPR reporter he felt great—he’d expected to go to heaven and instead, he was going to Martha’s Vineyard. When he died today, he had outlived himself by at least that year.
I met Buchwald twice, both times glancingly and in passing, but enough to convince me that what they say about him is true. That is: Buchwald liked being the center of attention, and who could blame him? He was the center of attention almost everywhere he went, for more than 40 years. The odd part is that for all this, he wasn’t really full of himself: he seemed to take himself with the same twinkling detachment that he visited on the rest of the world.
Buchwald is certainly getting plenty of acclaim tonight, for the charm of his living and the grace of his dying. Yet for all of this, I think he is the kind of comedian who is easy to underrate. In this respect he is like Johnny Carson. For both, the point is the sheer dailiness of it all. Buchwald was funny not just once in a while by three times a week. Most of us find hard even to be civil three times a week, saying nothing about funny.
Another thing about Buchwald is—well, there are two kinds of comics: those you laugh at and feel soiled by, both at the same time, and those who make you feel more cheerful and generous. Most comedians fall in the first category: it doesn’t mean we don’t read, or watch, or listen, but it’s a guilty pleasure at best--mean and snarky are more fun than we like think. Bill Cosby is perhaps the most noteworthy example of the second category, the “generous,” crowd, but he had to surmount the poisonous issue of race, which makes his achievement especially remarkable. Buchwald’s Washington world is not quite so naturally toxic as Cosby’s racial divide, but Washington is full of mantraps nonetheless. For his 40-plus years, Buchwald did it, being funny without being sappy, yet at the same time without being mean. It’s not only hard, it is a lot harder than it looks.
I will permit myself one Buchwald story—not quite typical, perhaps, but’s one that still makes me laugh, all these years after I first read it. The subject is Charles deGaulle, brilliant, riveting, difficult, and in the end, the saviour of modern France. So, why was he so hard to get along with?
The reason, said Buchwald, was that deGaulle was tall. And he had an Adam’s apple. And he wore a tunic around his neck. As you conversed with him, you found yourself addressing the Adam’s apple, which bobbed up and down as he talked: your head bobbed up and down with it, and deGaulle thought you were agreeing with him.
I did not ever see, but I cannot help believe that I did see, Buchwald and deGaulle, face to face—no, make that face to Adam’s apple—deGaulle with his nose in the air like he’d just scented a slightly off cheese, and Buchwald, short, fat, and more than a little goofy, nodding in apparent agreement. It’s a memory I might as well cherish because of Buchwald, there won’t be any new ones.
Update: An NYT video interview can be found here.