Robert Benchley at the Crossroads of Comedy
By David Trumbull, Chairman of the Robert Benchley Society
Given October 13, 2007 in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Biennial Meeting of The Wodehouse Society.
[The theme of the meeting is “Divine Providence” and the speakers are all billed as fictitious Anglican clergymen. “The Reverend” Mr. Trumbull walks to the speaker lectern wearing a dark suit of clothes; his shirt is topped off with a detachable high wing collar and a four-in-hand that discerning persons will recognize as that of the Drones Club. As he begins to speak he removes the necktie and rotates his shirt-collar fore-to-aft with the button in the rear and plain white in the front after the manner of a cleryman’s “dog collar.”]
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You see, I actually am an Anglican clergyman. Not exactly Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. but with one of those break-away Anglican groups. You’ve heard about the ones recently that broke away over the ordaining of men who like men, and earlier over the ordaining of women. Well, now, we didn’t break away over those sorts of issues. It was a over a more subtle theological point regarding whether the rubrics in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were prescriptive, proscriptive, or merely permissive with regard to the number of times, and manner, of crossing oneself at the [sings while elaborately crossing himself] libera nos a malo in the canon of the Mass.
I’ll be available in my hotel room later to hear confessions. We’re offering a special this month for anyone who can come up with a new deadly sin. I’m also available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and snake handling.
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“What is the news this morning, Mr. MacGregor?" I asked, peering around from behind a hangover.
That's the opening line from the Benchley essay, “MacGregor for Ataman!” The Mr. MacGregor in Question was a real person, a bit of an odd duck, and a good friend and personal secretary of Robert Benchley.
Benchley knew many odd ducks; and he had an inexhaustible supply of friend. If we conceive of twentieth-century American humor as a city full of witty, funny people, Benchley would be the intersection of 42nd Street and Broadway in that town. Or perhaps he would be the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which, by the way, is where Benchley's star is placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It seems that just about every witty or humorous writer crossed paths, but never swords, with Sweet Old Bob (S.O.B. to his friends). Benchley knew everyone. And he was friends with everyone.
Humorist Will Rogers famously said, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” but when you read his comments on the men of his age, especially politicians he disagreed with, you will find that he had a pretty low opinion of many men, or at least of their intelligence and integrity. Benchley, on the other hand, really does seem to have never met a man he didn’t like. It is true that the bias, as Benchley believed it, displayed by Judge Thayer during the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trial, could work Benchley up to a righteous anger worthy of the Old Testament Jehovah. But Benchley, even when roused to the strongest of emotions over the actions of men, never indulged in personalities.
But to go back to the beginning.
Benchley was born in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts, a small industrial city. His New England roots remained with him through his career first in New York and later in Hollywood, and account for a certain puritanical disposition. He didn’t take an alcoholic drink until well into his thirties. It was during prohibition and the drink was an Orange Blossom.
“he tried one sip, then put the
glass down and looked around the room, ‘This place ought to be closed by law,’
he said and everybody fell off their chairs with laughter.
He went on to have rather too many drinks over the next 20 some years. And he did deliver, but not write, the line:
“Why don’t you slip out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”
which is followed in the movie, The Major and the Minor by the line
“I’d offer you a whiskey sour, but that would mean thinking up a new joke.”
Although he seldom wrote about New England, he frequently peppered his essays with New England place-names… And, by the way, welcome to New England, or as Benchley put it
“New England, that ‘vacation-land of America,’ where the
business slogan is ‘The customer is always in the way,’”
Of his childhood in Massachusetts he wrote:
“When I was a child I was of an affectionate disposition,
but not enough to get arrested.”
For those who find in the comedian some desperate longing for escape from personal pain through humor, you will find much to work with in one incident from his youth. Robert's older brother, Edmund Benchley, died in 1898 in the Spanish-American War when Robert was only nine. Upon learning of Edmund's death, his mother cried out “Why couldn't it have been Robert?” To this day, Edmund is better memorialized in Worcester than is Robert.
Benchley left Worcester for school, including Harvard College where he worked on the Harvard Lampoon. After college and a few unsatisfying jobs, his professional life took off when he started, in the late nineteen-teens to write for various New York publications, including, Vanity Fair, where he filled in as theatre critic when Wodehouse left to pursue screen-writing.
And so we come to the Benchley/Wodehouse connection.
Frits Menschaar, writing in Plum Lines (Vol. 15, No. 2) in 1994, points out that Benchley’s essay, “The Social Life of the Newt,” was first published in Vanity Fair in 1919, at which time Plum was a frequent contributor to, and, presumably reader of, that periodical. Our New England chapter of The Wodehouse Society will gladly fill you in on the newt as a motif in Wodehouse. And David McDonough, also writing in Plum Lines (Vol. 25, N. 4), in 2004, takes up, at length, the professional and personally affinity of Benchley and Wodehouse.
Again, Benchley was friend and admirer of many of the writers of his time. In fact he was so gregarious that it got in the way of his already poor work habits and contributed to his small literary output compared to Wodehouse. The distractions of friends from the Algonquin Round Table—that gathering of New York wits that lasted from 1919 to 1929—got so bad that he finally took rooms across the street at another residential hotel, the Royalton. But the friends followed him there (and brought with them “presents” that over-filed the place and made work just about impossible. Benchley writes of his digs at the Royalton in his essay “No Pullmans, Please!”
It began with little articles to line up on top of a bookcase, miniature geese, little men with baskets, shells with eggs in them and broken stags. I also was not averse to hanging oddments on the walls. My friends entered into the spirit of this admirably. Every one had fun but the lady who dusted.
Then people began looking around town for heavier gifts. It got to be a game. Trucks began arriving with old busts of Sir Walter Scott, four-foot statues of men whose shirtfronts lit up when attached to an electric connection, stuffed owls and fox terriers that had lain too long at the taxidermist's. This phase ended with the gift of a small two-headed calf in a moderate state of preservation.
From then on the slogan became: "Send it to Benchley!" Wrecking concerns were pressed into service, and chipped cornices from the old Post Office, detached flights of stairs, hitching posts and railings began pouring in. Every day was like Christmas in Pompeii. The overflow went into the bedroom and I started sleeping under an old spinet, covered over with a set of bead-curtains which had been brought to me from a bordello in Marseille.
Noel Coward, a Round Table semi-regular, at least when he was in New York, upon visiting Benchley at the Royalton said:
“I must say, it looks lived in.”
Benchley’s other literary friends included
S. J. Perelman
H. Allen Smith
and, of course, Dorothy Parker, who co-founded the Round Table with Benchley.
It was in New York that Benchley first performed “The Treasurer’s Report” live on stage. The skit, which I’ll not read because I simply do not have the talent or discipline to carry it off, presents a woefully unprepared and nervous assistant treasurer delivering the most fractured financial report ever [uhm] delivered. It was widely successful and soon Benchley was off to Hollywood to film “The Treasurer’s Report.” It was the first all-talking picture (people forget that most of The Jazz Singer was silent with dialogue cards).
Benchley went on to a successful career in the talkies (eventually quitting writing entirely). His How to Sleep won the 1935 Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Many of Benchley’s ‘shorts” are available now on DVD. He also played supporting roles in several feature-length films, usually type-cast as a society drunk or writer with a less than admirable work ethic.
His death in 1945 can be traced, ultimately, to his heavy drinking.
This brings us to Benchley’s lasting influence.
In his day, Benchley was one of America’s most well-known and loved humorists. Today he is largely forgotten by the general public. But among professional, or serious amateur humorists he is revered as the master.
After his death the Benchley character of the confused “everyman” was taken up by such writers as:
The Robert Benchley Society keeps alive the Benchley tradition of warm, genial, witty humor through an annual writing competition. For the past two years the judge has been Pulitzer Prize winning humorist and Benchley devotee, Dave Barry. In the spirit of promoting today’s humor writers who best exemplify the Benchley manner, here are the opening lines of some winning entries:
Research is going swimmingly on my new book, Why We
Sleep, (it's really more of a pamphlet). It seems all animals sleep, especially
those enrolled in night classes but little is known about sleep. First-hand
scientific study is difficult because people who sleep are not awake while they
The other day I had the afternoon free, so
I decided to take a couple of hours and master golf.
There couldn’t be a better time for you to write a book because nobody reads anymore (I certainly don’t).—Daniel Montville, 2007 Winner
For more information about Benchley, the Society, or rules for entering the competition, see our website www.robertbenchley.org.