Once upon a time, a Catholic-baiting/politically liberal/legendary Jewish comedian sat down across from a politics-obsessed/regally contemptuous/possibly anti-Semitic Conservative icon and engaged in a spectacularly uncomfortable one hour of banter. Yes, Groucho Marx and William F. Buckley actually did an episode of Buckley’s ‘Firing Line’, the televised debate show which always began with a question being posited that was meant to be resolved via discussion on the program. The question posed for Groucho’s visit was “Is the world funny?” Pretty lame, right? And the results are pretty lame too. Groucho is ill-at-ease and edgy–his wisecracks don’t land, his irritation with the line of questioning is obvious and his general displeasure with the state of the world (this is from the late 60s) makes him at best a cranky presence. Buckley is droll (sort of), slightly intimidated (in his own way) by Groucho’s presence, overly solicitous (in an effort to calm his guest?) and often unintelligible, using his speech affectations to obscure the not very interesting questions he’s asking. Groucho keeps bringing up his friendship with T.S. Eliot, just as Dick Cavett used to constantly bring up his friendship with Groucho. (Or as Buckley took to constantly bringing up his relationship with Ronald Reagan). We do learn a few interesting things though. One is that Groucho, a man of ‘liberal politics’ (as Buckley says with faint contempt) actually voted against FDR in 1940 and 1944 as he was very much against any President running for more than two terms. We also learn that Groucho was an occasional watcher of ‘Firing Line’ and admired Buckley for running for Mayor of New York, despite the fact that Buckley’s candidacy was more a bit of political snooker-playing than evidence of a real desire to preside over the city. (Indeed Buckley’s famous riposte when asked what he would have done had he been elected Mayor was “Demand a recount.”) In spite of the general discomfort though–and this really is a dinner party pairing gone awry (I found myself sneaking looks at my watch even though the two of them couldn’t see me) –there is something charming about the attempt the two men made to engage and it’s a little sad to see the opportunity flounder from the outset. But train wrecks can, I’m sorry to say, be fun to watch and personally I enjoyed taking my morning coffee over this strange encounter.


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