LORD BUCKLEY, POPULAR AVANT GARDIST OF HUMOR
by Wayne D. McGinnis
Henderson State University
Sometimes the geniuses of a culture go unnoticed by the masses. Popular culture has its avant garde, too, only the inheritors of a popular tradition are not so apt--or perhaps not so able--to pay tribute to their precursors as are more traditional artists. One of the luminaries of modern humor has gone relatively unnoticed, an avant garde comedian of night club and theatre humor whose LP records attest that Richard "Lord" Buckley (1906-1960) was truly worthy of memory. His materials were popular--his tales were of Lincoln and Gandhi and Jesus and the Marquis de Sade--but his style, while accessible to the open minded, was perhaps too revolutionary to be mass marketed in the decade of the 1950s when all his recordings were taped.
In technique, Lord Buckley combined in his humor the manner and enunciation of an English lord and the style and buoyancy of a Negro hipster to produce one of the strangest but most humane American comedic personas ever. He created his own language and his own world in this mixture of the "up tempo language of 'The American Beauty Negro'" (Fred Buckley, notes to Buckley's Best), the delicacy and nobility of the English lord, and the mystic humanitarian vision of a 50s Whitmanian seer.1 His audiences were dubbed by him "lords and ladies of the royal court" because, as he said, "I'm a people worshipper, myself" ("H Bomb" on Bad Rapping). He was a student of black dialect long before it became linguistically fashionable, but for ethical and not scientific reasons: "Negroes spoke a language of such power, purity and beauty I found it irresistible. I could not resist this magical way of speaking, nor the great power it had for good in its purity and sweetness. A power that said by hip-zig-zag-urmph, everything is understandable" (from notes to Bad Rapping).
In subject matter, it was this view that "everything is understandable" coupled with its Whitmanian corollary, everything is holy, that made Lord Buckley the most benevolent of popular avant gardists. His message to his California audiences was love, and long before the flower children haunted San Francisco, he told them, "The flowers, the gorgeous, mystic multi-colored flowers are not the flowers of life, but people, yes people are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in your garden" (from notes to The Best Of). Buckley's special heroes were popular heroes; in his monologues he showed his audiences the humanity of Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi, Einstein, Cabeza De Vaca, even the Marquis de Sade. His readings in the "somatic of the hip" were of Poe's "The Raven," Robert Service's "The Ballad of Dan McGroo," the Gettsyburg Address and Marc Antony's Funeral Oration, and he retold the Jonah story and Dickens's A Christmas Carol. He was never far from religion in the monologues, and one of his most affecting short pieces is his simple retelling of the ending scene of Cary's The Horse's Mouth, in which Gulley Jimson says that laughing and praying are the same. Buckley believed that when a person is laughing "he's illuminated in the full beauty of a human being" ("Horse's Mouth" on In Concert).
No one could capture in writing the remarkably evocative language, the intonation and timing of Buckley's delivery, but some transcriptions from the records may help to define his humor more precisely. His language was in itself a poetry, his syntax masterful and creative. Telling a story about his riding the street car tracks of Chicago in an "elongated automobile," Buckley says, "Truth is strange to the ears, even wild truth, wild truth, things that happened that...they supercede and carry on beyond the parallel of your practiced credulity" ("My Own Railroad" on In Concert). His ghetto jargon is, inevitably, now partly dated, but only partly so, and his use of it remains tremendously creative. A sample from one of his earliest recordings: "Let me hip you that Nero was one of the wildest, gonest, freakiest studs that ever stomped through the pages of history. He's the kind of a cat that balled up a big, swingin', main day breeze all the time" ("Nero" on The Best Of). The tremendous power of invention Buckley had in language can be demonstrated by a transcription of the beginning of "The Train," a piece in which Buckley imitates the total effects of a journey by steam locomotive. Listen for a Joycean word-punning quality behind the train conductor's call: "Trains now leaving for Rosedale, Goldsdale, Flipsdale, Jam City, Rathscross, Crisscross, Ratitude, Latitude, Haditude, Nogsley, Dogsley, Frogsley, Homstom, Bomstom, Yourtown, Mytown, Wayplace, Sayplace, Gayplace, Rubney, Bubney, Fitney, Snicksnore, Crascrore, Assivore, Avalanche, Pomspay, Farsville, Darsville, Harsville, Parsville, Cremley, Bemley, Semhoff, and Crutney...now leaving on track twelve..."board" ("The Train" on Hip Aristrocrat.)
One of the many things that set Lord Buckley apart from the more widely known comedians of the 50s was his uninhibited treatment of the bizarre and the "evil" in human nature. In "Nero" he deals with the torture of the Christians; the run in "The Train" ends in disaster ("twenty-seven dead and fourteen injured") with no comment from Buckley. "Murder," one of his best monologues, is actually the revenge fantasy of a hen-pecked husband, a fact unknown to the listener until the "murderer" is awakened by his wife and told to "put on your pants and clean the henhouse before breakfast" (on Blowing His Mind). "The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade" is perhaps his best treatment of the theme of evil. It is actually not so much about the Marquis (a "hero in evil") as about "Prince Minsky," a multimillionaire who "had the pay off paid off" and who considered himself "the baddest cat in the whole world." Minsky takes four "Buddy cats" of the Marquis to his hidden palace, where he inveigles them into eating a banquet of "the human flesh." The monologue ends with one of the obsequious debauchees finally observing, "Well, I suppose it can't be no different than stuffed chicken.... Pass me that rump of small boy over there" (on Hip Aristocrat; a version is also on Bad Rapping). Buckley succeeds brilliantly in humanizing evil in this routine, making it at once more understandable and more awesome through his humor. One may be reminded of the comment of another avant gardist, Artaud, about the theater: "The theatre will never find itself again--i.e., constitute a means of true illusion--except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior."2
Lord Buckley recognized the value of the kind of theater of humor he was constructing in his own right: "The theatre came to me as a very religious work. It's a work of complete dedication. It's a dangerous work" (from notes to Hip Aristocrat). His admirers, too, apparently recognized the honesty and compassion behind this man and his work. It seems that a number of Hollywood celebrities were fond of Lord Buckley, as well as jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Henry Miller praised him. He undoubtedly influenced younger humorists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Ken Kesey mentions him in his Garage Sale book, and Mother of Invention rock musician Frank Zappa edited one of his latest records. Lord Buckley's appeal was not limited to one group of people; his dislike of greed and hypocrisy and the inhumane gathered him a popular following of all kinds. As the producer of his first two records wrote, "He touched an enormous number of lives and encouraged self repect, taught of the responsibility of respect for others, and preached love" (Jim Dickson, notes to Blowing His Mind). Bringing with him a higher sanity in his fanciful flights, Lord Buckley contributed immensely to the future of humor in America.
1 Factual matter and transcriptions in this article are based on the following 33 1/3 rpm records and their liner notes:
The Best of Lord Buckley, notes by Charles Tacot. Crestview CRV-801. Recorded in Los Angeles, 1951.
A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat, notes by Richard Selinkoff. Straight Records STS 1054. Recorded 1956.
Lord Buckley in Concert, notes by Dan James. World Pacific 1815. Recorded at the Ivar Theater, Hollywood, California, Feb. 12, 1959.
Blowing His Mind (and yours, too), notes by Jim Dickson. World Pacific 1849. Recorded Feb. 12, 1959, and 1960.
Buckley's Best, notes by Fred Buckley. World Pacific WPS-21879 (Stereo). Recorded Feb. 12, 1959.
Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade, notes by John Carpenter. World Pacific WPS-21889 (Electronically Simulated Stereo). Recorded in Oakland, California, 1960.
2 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 93.
[ Reprinted from AMERICAN HUMOR: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY NEWSLETTER. Volume II, Number 1, Spring, 1975. ]