Fittingly, today you will be reading testaments to the brilliant career of Buck Henry, one of the truly great comedic minds of his generation. You will hear about so many of the iconic movies and TV shows that Buck created, wrote, and directed – groundbreaking movies and TV shows like The Graduate and Get Smart. I was privileged when I was so young, like all the rest of us, to get to know Buck who hosted so many of the early episodes of Saturday Night Live during the show’s first five seasons.
Buck played a unique role among those early hosts. He wasn’t a widely known star of anything. But he was a writer and performer and personality who inspired and grounded us at the same time. Buck was one of us. In those early years the cast consisted of just eight players – Jane, Laraine, and Gilda, and Belushi, Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Chevy. And then Bill Murray when Chevy left shortly into season two. The writing staff was much smaller than today’s show as well. We were less a cast and a staff of writers than a group of kids putting on a show. If there was a restaurant sketch, a writer played the waiter. All under the guidance of SNL‘s creator Lorne Michaels, who, of course, was 45 years younger than he is today.
When Buck hosted, the week was somehow different. He was just around, effortlessly teaching us the right attitude to write and play comedy. There was never any reason to panic and every reason to remain open to each other’s talent and inspired siliness. Buck was relaxed even when he knew full well that this week’s show was in real trouble.
He really was the show’s Uncle Roy who had a somewhat unhealthy but harmless, if somewhat mischievous interest in his young nieces, played with innocent excitement by Laraine. In Samurai Deli, Buck was the calm, deliberate straightman to Belushi’s Samurai even when John’s Samurai sword errantly sliced a bit of Buck’s forehead on live TV. Buck played the rest of the show with a prominent bandage on his pate – matched at the goodnights on the foreheads of every cast member and the musical guest.
Buck was always funny, even as he read each section of the New York Times from front page to back every single day. One day while chewing corn beef sandwiches in a delicatessen on the ground floor of 30 Rock, Buck let us in on the latest Hollywood gossip.Trotting out what I thought were my Midwestern values, I said, “I never gossip.”
“I only gossip,” he replied.
Buck was always funny. And always a mensch.
Reminds me, I really ought to make a point of paying a visit to Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks next time I’m on the West Coast.