Comedy writer and blogger Mike Gerber honored humorist Robert Benchley on his 113th birthday (Benchley is, sadly, not alive to enjoy it):
- Happy Birthday Robert Benchley!
Today would’ve been humorist Robert Benchley’s 113th birthday. He’s one of my all-time favorites. Anyway, while we’re raising a glass of soda pop to Bob—he died of cirrhosis of the liver–you can read my short bio/appreciation below…
With his breezy, conversational style mixing high culture and low, Robert Benchley (1889-1945) is the first modern humorist. We’re still using trails he blazed: while an undergraduate at Harvard, he “invented” the magazine parody. Although he has never quite reached the New Yorker-fueled respectability that James Thurber or fellow Algonquin Round Tabler Dorothy Parker achieved—you’ll never find Benchley in a high school textbook, for example—his contemporaries considered him incomparable. And as far as The New Yorker is concerned, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, were there no Benchley to add star-power to its staff, that magazine might not have made it through its lean beginnings. Beginning in the late Twenties, more and more of his time was spent in Hollywood, writing, then acting in, movies. Though he dismissed his movie work as puerile, he won an Oscar in 1935.
Mirabile dictu, his stuff is still funny today. I spent many a happy night as a kid reading pieces, laughing and taking mental notes on what I could steal later. I’m not the only one, either—every newspaper humorist has a dash (or a dollop) of Benchley in their prose. Dave Barry, for example, strikes me as Benchley under the influence of cheap beer instead of bootleg gin.
Benchley’s humor came from an easy, seemingly effortless voice, coming closer to the naturalness of conversation than any humorist had before. It seemed to flow from who he was, and mimicked the style of a particularly witty and avuncular friend. Benchley is the humorist you want to have a drink with (and he’d take you up on it—more about that later). Perhaps that’s why his material has aged better than any of his contemporaries; S.J. Perelman is so crammed with then-topical references he’s almost unreadable today; and though Thurber’s legacy has been exquisitely maintained, great swaths of his work—his “little man” character fighting the War Against Women, for example—is so dated one wonders what planet many of his stories occurred on. But Benchley endures. Here’s an excerpt from a frequently-anthologized piece—I selected it mainly for its brevity, but it should give you some idea of the writer’s style.
“MORE SONGS FOR MELLER
by Robert Benchley
As Senorita Raquel Meller sings entirely in Spanish, it is again explained, the management prints little synopses of the songs in the program, telling what each is all about and why she is behaving the way she is. They make delightful reading during those periods when Senorita Meller is changing mantillas, and, in case she should run out of songs before she runs out of mantillas, we offer a few new synopses for her repertoire.
1) Voy Bien? [Am I Going in the Right Direction?] When the acorns begin dropping in Spain there is an old legend that for every acorn which drops there is a baby born in Valencia. This is so silly that no one pays any attention to it now, not even the gamekeeper’s daughter, who would pay attention to anything. She goes from house to house, ringing doorbells and then running away. She hopes that some day she will ring the right doorbell and will trip and fall, so that Prince Charming will catch her. So far, no one has even come to the door. Poor Pepita! if that is her name.
2) Caminetas de Flanela [Flannel Vests] Princess Rosamonda goes nightly to the Puerta del Sol to see if the early morning edition of the papers is out yet. If it isn’t she hangs around humming to herself. If it is, she hangs around humming just the same. One night she encounters a young matador who is returning from dancing school. The finches are singing and there is Love in the air. Princess Rosamonda ends up in the police station.
3) La Guia [The Time Table] It is day of the bull fight in Madrid. Everyone is cockeyed. The bull has slipped out by the back entrance to the arena and has gone home, disgusted. Nobody notices that the bull has gone except Nina, a peasant girl who has come to town that day to sell her father. She looks with horror at the place in the Royal Box where the bull ought to be sitting, and sees there instead her algebra teacher, whom she had told that she was staying at home on account of a sick headache. You can imagine her feelings!…
…6) Abra Ud. Esa Ventana [Open That Window] The lament of a mother whose oldest son is too young to vote. She walks the streets singing, ‘My son can not vote! My son is not old enough!’ There seems to be nothing that can be done about it.”
If some of that reminds you of Woody Allen, well, you win a prize.
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