But the best way Robert Benchley – who went on to inspire and influence such comic folk like S.J. Perleman, Bob Newhart, Dave Barry, and many more — can be appreciated is in print, whether you flip through for one-liners, or immerse yourself headfirst. There’s a lot to savor, especially now when The Athletic Benchley offers a considerable share of material that has never been reproduced in other Benchley collections, appearing here for the first time since its original publication. Not only are the articles in their original presentation and with the original artwork, you’ll feel like you picked up a Vanity Fair or New Yorker from the 1920s or ‘30s.
All the while, Benchley’s humor holds a timeless appeal, with no flagpole sitters on the horizon and little trace of flappers flapping, arms akimbo.
They shoot anachronisms, don’t they? Benchley does. In “’Bicycling,’ The New Craze,” a wry take on Gay Nineties gone bust, an upper-crust go-getter bicycle enthusiast (“And what a lark it is too!") seems to be getting increasingly sadistic during the riding instruction: “Once you have fallen over to the right, try the left. This will even things up and make you less lame the next day, or, at any rate, lame in nicely-balanced areas.” And the end result of the first lesson in “taking up with the first crazy fad that comes along”?: “…I am sure that the results in improved circulation and general health will more than repay you for the embarrassment for being a pioneer and a cripple.”
Mostly though, Benchley writes contemporarily and conversationally, if often refreshingly eccentrically, as when he states his case that we should be “Bringing back the Morris Dance.” I have friends involved now in this 15th century English folk dance, so I have no doubt that in June 1929 when Benchley wrote this piece, even more strongly and in a visceral, heartfelt sense “it seems a shame to be devoting ourselves to golf and tennis and drinking when we might be out of doors prancing around a pole and falling down every few feet.”
Beyond that kind of shovel-ready depth, whether literal and figurative, the humorist goes on to chronicle the history and cultural aspects of the Morris dance itself — and Morris chairs and William Morris, sure, why not? Perhaps more significantly, though, is the breadth Benchley takes on the subject of folk dance in general, by citing other civilizations and philosophical summations.