On July 7, 1967, Groucho Marx appeared as a guest on William F. Buckley’s current affairs show Firing Line to debate the topic “Is the World Funny?” Firing Line had been in existence only for about a year at that point, broadcasting on WOR channel 9 in New York City; four years later, the show would move to PBS.
Groucho was there to promote his new book The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx, in which he reproduced selected correspondence with figures like Jerry Lewis, Irving Berlin, E.B. White, Peter Lorre, Edward R. Murrow, David Susskind, Booth Tarkington, Harry Truman, and James Thurber. The book is still in print today. Contrasting himself with Bob Hope, whom Groucho regards as possessing a quasi-pathological need to perform in front of audiences, Groucho asserts at one point that if he weren’t promoting a book, he’d never appear on a show like Firing Line.
Presiding as a kind of arbiter was C. Dickerman Williams, an attorney who had once been director of the American Civil Liberties Union and had defended Buckley’s National Review in a number of free speech cases.
Groucho discusses an appearance he made two years earlier, at a memorial service for T.S. Eliot that was organized by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan and held at the Globe Theatre in London on June 13, 1965. It turns out that T.S. and Groucho had a prickly frenemy relationship for a few years. On Firing Line, Groucho asserts that Eliot was probably jealous of William Shakespeare.
Groucho’s freeform and scattershot mentality isn’t well suited for a true debate on the nature of comedy and he actually upbraids Buckley whenever he tries to stay on point. During a discussion of ethnic humor, he states that “I don’t regard myself as a Jew when I’m publicly performing,” which is interesting because it’s mainly true, Groucho’s humor might have been generally Jewish as a matter of lineage but not particularly Jew-ish as such.
Groucho also says that he would have voted for Buckley when he ran for mayor in 1965 (he got 13.4% of the vote, not bad at all).
This episode of Firing Line is actually available on DVD too.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Huey Newton compels William F. Buckley to side with George Washington, 1973
Turn on the tube: Timothy Leary and William Buckley arguing about L.S.D. on TV
Paul Krassner: I dropped acid with Groucho Marx