Laughter is the Best Medicine

Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Is the World Funny?

Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. Groucho Marx said about his pen pal T.S. Elliot after his death that he was a nice man ant that that was about the best that could be said about anybody when, 100 years from now, Groucho Marx dies they will say about him that he made a lot of people happy and that’s my version of the best thing that can be said of any man. The m movies are classics Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Go West. After the movies he went on to do a couple of scenarios and to act as quiz-master quiz-master of his own T.V. program which won all the awards. His specialty on that T.V. show was impudence and a fairly genial rudeness which he has practiced all his life and which he has collected in his most recent book, The Groucho Letters, in which we are made privy, a word by the way he doesn’t by the way like, to an exchange of lucubrations between him and the elite: artists, politicians, poets of the english speaking world In a letter to Eddie Cantor in that irresistible volume, he records that the two greatest laughs he ever got, or rather the most reliable laughs he ever got on vaudeville, were in response to the line: “The garbage man is here.” To which his reply was, ” tell him I don’t want any.” And to the line, “I’d like to say goodbye to your wife.” To which the reply was, “Who wouldn’t?” I’d like to begin by asking, Mr. Marx—do you mind if I call you Mr. Marx? Groucho: I’d wish you’d call me Groucho, and I’ll call you Willy. Groucho: It’s good enough for Somerset Maugham I don’t know why it isn’t good enough for you. Buckley: I certainly wouldn’t want you to start being polite on my show. Whether the laughs those two lines got on Vaudeville is a cue to the question, “Is the world funny?” Mediator: Ladies and gentlemen, in a moment we shall hear Mr. Marx’s answer to Mr. Buckley’s question. Mediator: My name is C. Dickerman Williams and I shall act as act as chairman of this discussion between Mr. Marx and Mr. Buckley the subject of the discussion will be, “Is the world funny?” Mr. Marx, will you answer Mr. Buckley’s question—is the world funny? Groucho: He didn’t ask me, you just asked me. No I don’t think it’s terribly funny. I don’t think it’s ever terribly funny sometimes there are isolated pieces of the world that is funny, but generally it’s a pretty serious world it always has been… people struggling for a living, and starving, and all kinds of riots and particularly a couple of weeks ago. No I don’t think the world is funny. That’s like saying is a man funny—even a professional comedian can be funny perhaps, eight minutes out of a twenty-four hours. But a comedian isn’t they’re the dreariest people in the world. You should talk to my wife sometime, which is more than I do (Buckley: Is that an invitation?). Mediator: Mr. Buckley what’s your view? Buckley: Well, I’ve read Mr. Marx’s book and—a couple of his books and I’ve seen all of his movies, and I think that he does his best to make the world funny and occasionally succeeds but it does seem to me that there is a strain of something going through your last book for instance all of those letters that you write to those famous people and all of those letters that your receive from all of those famous people and that theme is something very close to misanthropy, it’s related to the whole notion that everyone would like to say goodbye to their wives, that the world doesn’t appreciate you, that the world is like a perpetual ambush (Groucho: No, I never said that. No.) Groucho: Pardonne—that’s a french world isn’t it? No, I never said the world doesn’t treat me well. Buckley: Page 108 from your book: “The only reason my appearances are rare, and this is something I don’t usually disclose, is because nobody asks me oftener.” That sounds to me pretty plaintive, doesn’t it to your Mr. Chairman? ( Groucho: Yes it is. I am essentially a very sad man) Groucho: So why do you ask me if this is a humorous world we’re living in? Buckley: Well, because you’ve devoted your professional career to trying to stress the humorous aspects of it . Now, is this a circle squaring expedition? (Groucho: I have constantly failed in amusing the general audience) No, but you haven’t—you haven’t. Now maybe this is just you feeling sorry for yourself again, but when you get letters from perfect strangers, each of them celebrated as a— (Groucho: Threatening is the word) No , it’s hardly threatening when they ask you for their picture. (Groucho: No, I’m kind of a lovable old ****) Well, why are you so lovable? Groucho: It’s because I’m essentially a bastard. No, “seriously folks,” they always say that, you know. in television they always say, “seriously folks,” when the comedian has deliver and joke and hasn’t had a laugh, and he says “seriously folks” to try to avert this joke and get on to something more interesting, hoping the next thing will be a joke. I’m through for the day now you go ahead (Buckley: Well, seriously folks, what I’m trying to say is:) Buckley: isn’t it true, that this sort of spontaneous fraternity of Groucho Marx fans grew up on account of the fact that you successfully stressed certain aspects of the world and made them perhaps funnier than they are now do you regret having succeeded in doing so? Do you consider it a profanation of reality? I would say that I am a kind of a alter ego I think, between what I have invented myself and what the writers have written for me over the years, I have said the things that no one else has dared to say, publicly. Buckley: Why? why? (Groucho: because the audience loves it) Groucho: If you had a general, like I had General Bradley on the quiz show, he’s a nice man, a very nice man, and might even conceivably be a good general but I kiddin’ him all through the show because they don’t get a chance to do that to mayors, or politicians, or bank presidents, people like them—people enjoy that because nobody else does that (Buckley: Well…) it doesn’t even have to be funny has it has to be a lack of respect for somebody who is important Buckley: yeah, but it’s very healthy, isn’t it? (Groucho: Yes it is, there’s not enough of it) That’s right, because that is the way things in fact are, right? your point is that five star generals can under certain circumstances be ludicrous, right? Groucho: Well they are when they’re engaged in battle (Buckley: yeah, or on your show) Mediator: Mr. Marx, is your point that mockery is basically funny? Groucho: Is basically funny? (Mediator: yes) Yes, I think so, but I don’t think there’s enough of that—I think most comedians go on a stage in order to please their audience, and I never did. I said what I wanted to say and it was up to them if they liked it and if not go to another theater. Buckley: Yeah, but your point is that what you wanted to say was things about the world as you understood the world—roughly speaking, the truth, correct? (Groucho: uh huh) Why did you write in one of you letters, “Actually the cigar is a phony, so is the mustache, incidentally so am I”? Groucho: I don’t recall saying that and you as the judge here at this moment having a legal background I wish you—I’ll take a fifth on that Mediator: Are you going to object as incompetent an irrelevant? (Groucho: Yes, I’m saying, “Strike that out!”) Buckley: It was a letter written to Elaine Dundey (Groucho: I said what?) That’s right. That’s right. But anyway, maybe you were feeling, uh odd that day (Groucho: Particularly morose, perhaps) Which raises the interesting question, why did you include it a collection ten after you wrote it? Groucho: I don’t remember. I don’t remember how I felt ten years—I don’t remember how I felt this morning while I was waiting for a crust of bead in a Chinese restaurant they think a crust of bread is a bag of rice It may be true at a wedding but its not when you want to have breakfast Buckley: Well its terribly important to forget some of those things though, isn’t it? Groucho: To forget things? I think its one of the most important contributions you can make to your own existence.

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