Robert Benchley (YGtCTO #9)

A scene in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle recounts the first time that Robert Benchley performed his magisterial comic monologue, The Treasurer’s Report. He repeated the performance many times in his life, including at least once for a movie short. His shorts were quite popular when people expected a cartoon, a newsreel, and other ephemera when they went to the cinema.

I have chosen to consider Benchley in my definition of “other” artists, but there’s the rub, he started as a writer, publishing numerous collections of short humor. Along with James Thurber, they charted the humor of American life in the first half of the twentieth century. While Thurber had a Midwestern looseness, Benchley had a more Eastern sense of the way things ought to be. In many of his pieces, he starts from a pronouncement of certain expectations which are subsequently dashed. Like S.J. Perelman and Thurber, Benchley does struggle in his relations with his spouse, though he does not quite see a forthcoming war between the sexes that Thurber illustrated. All three are afflicted by children, extended family, and pets, albeit accompanied by varying degrees of affection.

I discovered Benchley via the notorious Algonquin Round Table, a meeting place for the clever and artistic during the twenties in Manhattan. Harpo Marx frequented the group and I fell in love with the quiet Marx brother while a prepubescent because he expressed the perfect sentiment for every occasion. Parker, Benchley, and many others were regulars at the Round Table, literary knights tilting at the establishment. Fortunately, whatever book exposed me to the names of those in attendance contained excerpts from their writing, leading to months lost in the words of Parker, Benchley, and George Kaufman. A person could do worse than learn the best way to use the word horticulture in a sentence.

The modern exemplar of great humor short pieces is Woody Allen, though Ian Frazier, Paul Rudnick, George Saunders, and many others do brilliant work. Across all of them is a freedom of content and structure that well serves the particular piece. Thurber brought his drawings to the table also and those seemed to drive unusual flights of fancy. Famously, he documented the modern imagination at work in the common man. Benchley, on the other hand, seems almost trapped within a character that he found comfortable, the Everyman put upon by the world, yet a little too clever not to see the absurdity in whatever activity required his attention.

Even so, there is something more that I find so appealing. Beyond that character is one more person, the breaker of the fourth wall, the Robert Benchley portraying the character. That feels like the miracle of his humor. Compare the portrayal in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle of the Treasurer’s Report as done by an actor with that done by the real man. There is danger in that former that I wonder if Benchley would have countenanced. Naturely, it is a dramatic situation, but ultimately Benchley smiles at us from behind the curtain and says, “Surely, we have to laugh about this and then go around the corner for a good, stiff drink.”

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 291 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.

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