RIP Buck Henry, Comedic Genius

Buck Henry in 1978. Photo by Alan Light.
Buck Henry in 1978. Photo by Alan Light.

I just a minute ago saw that Buck Henry has passed on at the age of 89. so let’s give him a proper tribute.

Lots of sites are going to talk about his major accomplishments: writing The Graduate, Catch-22, The Owl and the Pussycat, and What’s Up, Doc?, creating Quark, co-creating Get Smart, his many appearances in the early years of Saturday Night Live, and some might even mention his many contributions to the revolutionary and still-influential Steve Allen Show (which later became the Tonight Show).

What a lot of them might miss is his contribution as a wry satirist of modern culture and deadpan prankster of the media. But we won’t.

Back in the 1950s, Buck Henry had the unique ability to get on TV, say completely insane things with a straight face, and be taken completely seriously as he pulled the nation’s leg. Hell, he damn near yanked it off at the hip.

Working with notorious prankster Alan Abel (the ’50s equivalent of SoCal shenanigan-meister Obvious Plant), Henry got all over the TV as G. Clifford Prout, Jr., the spokesperson for SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. SINA was allegedly an organization that sought to put pants on both wild and domesticated animals, because “a nude horse is a rude horse” and “decency today is morality tomorrow.” Thousands of people signed up to support the mission, including one lady from Santa Barbara who sent a check for $40,000. (They sent it back.)

This prank ran for about five years and included a newsletter, staged protests, and several TV news appearances by G. Clifford Prout, Jr. Finally, after an interview with Walter Cronkite, somebody at CBS noticed that Prout bore an astonishing resemblance to CBS employee Buck Henry. The jig was up. But from 1959 through 1963, Henry and Abel had mercilessly trolled the moral crusaders of Eisenhower’s America, demanding that any animal that “stands higher than 4 inches or longer than 6 inches” needed to be decently attired so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of upstanding people, presenting illustrations of bermuda shorts for kangaroos and other absurdities.

Even if Buck Henry hadn’t written brilliant screenplays and created great TV series, hadn’t been the first person to host SNL ten times (in 5 years!),  that level of commitment to satirical hoaxing would be worthy of an obituary tribute all by itself.

So long, Buck, and thanks for all the laughs. Atomic Junk Shop salutes you.

4 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I first became aware if Buck through Saturday Night Live, before learning about all of his writing, directing and acting credits. I had no idea who he was but, every time he hosted SNL it had some of the funniest, and darkest stuff. At the time, I never understood why he hosted so much. Several years ago, they put out an interview/documentary piece on SNL in the 70s and Buck talked about how he was a writing consultant when they started , since they had a young crew of performers and writers. He ended up hosting a bit because the booked guest star host pulled out; so, Buck was kind of the designated fill-in host. He also remarked they would hang onto the really edgy stuff for him, because they knew he would do it. That led to the infamous sketch (think there were 2 of them) where he is an uncle babysitting Lorraine Newman and Gilda Radner, and is pretty much a pedophile. Of course, he was usually the feed man for John Belushi’s samurai skits. Who can forget Samurai, Big Man On Campus, where Belushi accidentally whacked him in the forehead with his katana and cut Buck, who finished the sketch and they got a doctor from the audience to patch him up. He had a big adhesive bandage on his forehead for the rest of the show; so, everyone else in the cast had one, too, and they milked it for laughs the entire night.

    I once came across an interesting article by Buck. He mentioned how he was acquainted with pin-up model Bettie Page. At the time, he was dating another of the Irving Klaw models, Joan Rydell, who was was also a stripper in NY nightclubs (several of the Klaw models were strippers or burlesque performers) and spent some time around Bettie. It was a short piece and he didn’t really give much insight into her, which eventually came out when she resurfaced and both her official bio came out and an unofficial, detailing her mental and legal issues.

    Buck was also the creator of Quark, the 70s sci-fi tv series, with Richard Benjamin. It had a rocky start but got better with each episode, until the network pulled the plug on it.

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