Robert Benchley Society


The Robert Benchley Society announces its "top ten" list of short humorous summertime readings. Following each entry is a brief description and a quotation from the piece. Enjoy!

(1) "Political Parties and Their Growth," Robert Benchley
While at the beach avoiding the Democratic National Convention in Boston (the near occasion of sin) and the Republican National Convention in New York (no worse than a bad head cold), you might bone up on American political parties with this classic Benchley essay.
    " must bear constantly in mind the fact that there are two separate and distinct parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The trick comes in telling which is which. As a general rule, the Republicans are more blonde than Democrats."

(2) "See the USA First! (While We Still Own Part of It)"
from Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need, Dave Barry
If you're traveling this summer, be sure to slip this slim volume into your carry-on or beach bag. In his inimitable and outrageous (Benchley-influenced) style, Barry provides vital information (Ohio's Official State Literary Device is the metaphor ) and rules of travel ("Never go outside the hotel") on everything from traveling with teenagers to having fun with airport security personnel.
    "Iowa's Official State Motto is 'You Bet,' which is what everybody there automatically says in response to any question."

(3) "But the One on the Right," Dorothy Parker
Born August 22, 1893 and died June 7, 1967, Mrs. Parker entered and exited this world in the summer. In between she suffered fools (not gladly) and many a disappointing partner --dinner and otherwise.
    "I could do a little drinking, of course, all by myself. There's always that. Oh, dear, oh dear, there's always that."

(4) "Vacations" from Mr. Dooley Says, Finley Peter Dunne
While not so highly regarded today, dialect has an ancient pedigree in English literature from Shakespeare to Dickens. Here's America's own contribution to comedic dialect -- Mr. Dooley.
    "An' summer is th' best time iv th' year f'r news. Th' heat an' sthrong dhrink brings out pleasant peculyarities in people."

(5) "Our Mrs. Parker" from While Rome Burns, Alexander Woollcott
Okay, we admit it, this selection has no connection to summer. But when a RBS member suggested it, we just knew we had to include it. Those who know their Scriptures will laugh out loud about Mrs. Parker's canary, named Onan.
    "I pointed out celebrities in the manner of a barker on a Chinatown bus. Young Bill seemed especially interested in the seamy lineaments of a fellow Harvard man named Robert Benchley... Seated beside him was a little and extraordinarily pretty woman with dark hair, a gentle, apologetic smile, and great reproachful eyes. 'And that, I suppose,' said the lad from Emporia, 'would be Mrs. Benchley.' 'So I have always understood,' I replied crossly, 'but it is Mrs. Parker.'"

(6) Rhubarb, H. Allen Smith
With this entry we break our own rule by listing a full-length book, rather than a short essay; but this piece of classic American humor, about a cat that inherited a professional baseball team, is too good to pass up. Besides, the early chapters can stand alone and are good reading aloud.
    "His fellow ballplayers often said that Hannibal would interrupt an al fresco sex act (the ballplayers didn't use that precise terminology) if an air liner hove in view. His passion for looking at planes cut deeply into his efficiency as a ballplayer."

(7) "Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back," Jean Shepherd
If you're a kid growing up in Northern Indiana during the Depression, summer is the best time of year, the Fourth of July is the pinnacle of summer, and fireworks (Roman candles, pinwheels, cherry bombs and, yes, Dago bombs) are the high point of the holiday.
    "Fourth of July was almost always a day of intense, ragged excitement for everyone, usually skirting danger on one side and ecstatic celebration on the other. It caused a kind of homicidal recklessness to set in to the Individual and certainly the Mass. The night my father encountered his devilish, avenging Roman Candle was no exception."

(8) "The Fable of How the Fool-Killer
Backed Out of a Contract," George Ade
Not so widely read today, but an influence on many later humorists (including Benchley), George Ade (1866 - 1944) published his Fables in Slang in 1899. This one captures the simple pleasure of attending a crowded event on a hot, sticky, dusty summer's day. The fable is available free on the Mount Royal College, Calgary, "Gaslight" website of public domain documents.
    "MORAL: People who expect to be Luny will find it safer to travel in a Bunch. "

(9) "If the Impressionists had been Dentists," Woody Allen
Summer holiday is, of course, a time to send postcards to the relatives back home. On or about July 29, celebrate the 114th anniversary of the death of a most famous epistler, with this essay, done in the manner of Vincent van Gogh.
    "Dear Theo, Once again I am in need of funds...I am working almost exclusively with dental floss now, improvising as I go along, and the results are exciting! God! I have not even a penny left for Novocaine! Today I pulled a tooth and had to anesthetize the patient by reading him some Dreiser. Help."

(10) "Summer Shirtings," Robert Benchley
One of summer's pleasures is the 'laid back' attitude it brings, even when it comes to sartorial matters. For our day, this means bare legs, shorts, and t-shirts. For Benchley's time, this meant soft shirts.
    "I hope that I give no offense in saying that I am not partial to summer. I perspire on the back of my head, do not shape up well in sports clothes, and have hay fever. But there is one relief that summer brings which is a boon to me personally. It gives me a three-months' respite in my struggle with dress shirts."