Friday, February 18, 2011

Benchley Ahead of Himself : The Voice of Humor in America For a Century

By Ed Tasca
I know that if Robert Benchley knew of this undertaking to analyze his work, he would be aghast. That someone would presume to attempt to explain him and his humor would tickle the great humorist and probably become the subject of one of his fine works of self-mocking nonsense. I hope he will forgive the presumption and accept that my intentions are aimed at one thing and one thing only, that of introducing him to new generations of readers. I have made the effort to search through Benchley’s vast body of writing in order to find the articles and pieces that I believe still work as brilliantly today as when first written, and whose inventiveness and style may have had the greatest influence on humorists whose names we all recognize today, Dave Barry, Calvin Trillin, Woody Allen, and others. This is to say nothing of the first-class comedians from Shelley Berman to Bob Newhart to Richard Pryor who may have been influenced by Benchley. In fact I would go one daring step further and say that if you are in the business of making people laugh and you weren’t influenced by Benchley or you are not familiar with his work, you should hop to it and correct the situation, because you’re missing out. In other words, I am attempting to show how far ahead of his time Benchley was as a writer of humor. Having said that, I also want to make it clear that this compilation of Benchley’s work may serve as what publishers and artists today lovingly refer to as a retrospective.

Here we go. If the following begins to sound too academic for you, it’s because it is deliberately academic so that we can begin to perceive this writer in the way I believe he deserves to be perceived – as an American literary original.

The end of the 1910s was a time of great upheaval. War World I had just expelled it’s last agonizing breath, and anyone with any sensibility at all shrunk at the horror of the lost lives and the devastation, and a new sense of cynicism about life and its rationality was born. A world-wide influenza epidemic struck with unimaginable ferocity. By 1920, nearly twenty-two million people died. The world seemed a grim place for most. Then somebody came along and decided that it would be a good idea to outlaw drinking alcohol. So the federal government ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages. The world was truly changing, but in many ways that seemed irrational, may I say nonsensical. The iconoclastic dadaists in Europe and the U.S. became the fashionable voice of irrationality, mocking and debunking our great traditions, the sacred tenets of the so-called civilized world, and in general, anything that might have resulted from the Western “Enlightenment.” The view of the world as absurd, demeaning and threatening, and life as the interlacing of opposites, contradictions and inconsistencies, crept into every form of art and philosophy.

At the very least, there was a world-wide suffering over the holocaust of the first world war that brought young thoughtful artists and writers together as philosophical brethren to rail against what they believed deeply to be the unjust and inexplicable everywhere. To many sensibilities, it was a grotesque period that underscored and confirmed “the non-sense of it all.“ And a new word entered our dictionary: Absurdist.

It was also around this time when a scrub of New York literary hopefuls began a tradition that has become literary legend today: The Algonquin Round Table, a.k.a. the Vicious Circle, infamous for its aching, spleen-venting verbal fencing, and for its own literary propagation as humorists and satirists “of the non-sense of it all.”
Whenever anyone thinks of the infamous Round Table, it is the stinging repartee that comes to mind. Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Alexander Woollcott all had reputations for biting wit, and the anthologies of their quips have become overworked literary history today, so it’s unnecessary to recount them. One of its members, Robert Charles Benchley, wasn’t at all like the others, though. He wasn’t brash and acerbic. Rather, he was a gentle, amusing man, an upright, tee-totalling Harvard grad, who, when one looks closely at the Round Table sensibility that has come down to us, seems oddly miscast in several distinguishing ways. Largely, Benchley avoided creating gags, jokes, or funny lines. The “one-liner”, the staple of today’s humor in America, was, if not invented, certainly popularized, at those famous Algonquin repasts. The one-line gag is the direct descendent of the witty aphorisms of Nineteenth Century American humor. Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, the most notable among many, relied on the pithy and the pointed to instruct and entertain in the classic American way. Get-to-the-point brevity really was the soul of wit in American humor then.

Benchley was as good a one-line gagster as any, but his writing style transcended the gag. The joke depends like nothing else on compressed logic and the swift and clever punch with an immediate, “get it” connection. It’s the “get it” part of humor and comedy that Benchley seems to have found burdensome, limiting his imagination and his sense of the ridiculous. Instead, he favored a more playful, inventive, and free-form style of humor, where there really wasn’t anything to “get.” There were only the comic observations, the whimsical illogic and his unique brand of the throw-away non-sequitur, such as:
The new Reinach collection of tapestries at the Metropolitan Art Museum is one of the most valuable in the world, and one of the hardest to hide under.

One must understand the spirit which is at the back of West African sculpture in order to appreciate the intense integrity of its technique. It isn’t so much the sculpture itself (although, in a way, it is) as the fact that it is filled with raisins.
Benchley took us to the edge of the comic universe and demonstrated a new cosmology of humor. His journey, more antic than literary, led him to pure nonsense for nonsense’s sake, and his readers loved every self-mocking and tipsy word of it. The more illogical, preposterous and unexpected, the better. Probably more Dadaist than the Dadaists themselves.

It could be said that Benchley represents the first real master of nonsense in America, producing a comic voice like none-other before him. And while Thurber and S.J. Perelman and even Ring Lardner were writing humor with a similar sensibility to Benchley’s, even they seem to have kept their literary heads, and never launched off into the terra incognita of the absurd. Their humor, as zany as it often is, still steadied itself safely on a purposeful internal logic and a classic essayist’s or story-teller’s literary structure. Benchley, like every radical and revolutionary, managed to cast off the structural burdens of the day, take several precious lurches forward, and give us something new.

In Robert Benchley, His life and Good Times, biographer Babette Rosmond says that the New Yorker’s founder, Harold Ross, annihilated the short gag in favor of more urban and original humor. Ross chose writers at the time with original voices. Benchley may have been his greatest discovery.

For Benchley, the pointless had to be above all pointless, but it had to be fashioned with the innocence of a child writing his first poem, with absolutely no literary pretensions:
It is good for a boy to have a dog. A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three time before lying down…
Who else but Benchley would dare to write a piece for the New Yorker entitled, The Menace of Buttered Toast, a defiantly self-mocking piece of confection that proposes “to pass on the secret of word magic” so that he can retire from writing to nurse crocus bulbs? The piece goes on, interrupted with asides, careering from one irrelevancy to another, and having nothing to say about buttered toast, because no one really cares about buttered toast, to soar off into an almost arrogant inconsequentiality. He was mocking the act of writing itself. Who else but Benchley would include the Declaration of Independence as the Preface to one of his collections of comic pieces?

This unself-conscious, continuous lack of structure or integrity, with its off-handed casual charm, was new and distinct. To find anything like it that predates or even exists alongside it, is difficult, either in America or elsewhere. That fact is essential to the position Benchley holds in American letters.

Like others, Benchley also used common and conventional forms of humor: parodies, short stories, sketches on such things as pet peeves, curiosities, high-brow pomposities, hyperbole, even satire. But a closer look at Benchley’s work demonstrates that at some point (one that is difficult to pinpoint) he began to launch off into innovative writing forms. His essays got shorter and began to diverge from conventional forms where content mattered less and less, and tomfoolery more and more. Often, he allowed himself to spin off out of control in any direction the comic spirit moved him. Some of Benchley’s book titles demonstrate: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Or David Copperfield; No Poems Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways; The Treasurer’s Report And Other Aspects of Community Singing.
From an essay called What Would Happen?, Benchley explains what would happen if the earth were suddenly to speed up: “The first thing that would happen would be that everybody’s buttons would fly off and everybody’s feet would slip right out straight in front of them. Then, if it were suddenly to stop revolving, the buttons would fly back into place again (they would have to be resewed later when things had calmed down a bit), and everyone in the world would swirl out into space. This might be fun, so long as everyone was doing it, but I should hate to be the only one.”
Defending his nonsense statement that there is no such place as Budapest, he explains to any angry reader: “I gather that your geography teacher didn’t tell you about the Treaty of Ulm in 1802, in which Budapest was eliminated. By the terms of this treaty (I quote from memory):
‘Be it hereby enacted that there shall be no more Budapest. This city has been getting altogether too large lately, and the coffee hasn’t been any too good, either. So, no more Budapest is the decree of this conference, and if the residents don’t like it they can move to some other place.’ This treaty was made at the close of the war of 1805, which was unique in that it began in 1805 and ended in 1802, thereby confusing the contestants so that both sides gave in at once.”

As Benchley’s off-handed whimsy coursed with greater facility, Benchley and his readers found themselves soaring through a new and elevated stratum of humorous technique, where only the comic effect mattered, not the subject, not the point, not even the original reason for the writing. It was strictly sublime nonsense. It worked. It made people howl with laughter. And it was born of rich creative inspiration, nothing less. Watch how it’s done:
From A Brief Study of Dendrophilism: “Baumann, in his “Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie und Bilderbuch fur Kinder” does refer to a custom among the population of New Guinea of dressing trees up in costumes and taking them out to parties, but nobody thought anything of it at the time.”
Regrettably, in the field of letters, nonsense remains simply nonsense. Some of us still feel childish and undignified about laughing uncontrollably at nonsensical things. Perelman gives us an eloquent insight. At a college conference where he was asked to discuss “The Nature of Humor,” he explained our reactions to nonsense this way: “When I used to work for the Marx Brothers a couple of decades ago, it was no uncommon experience to see moviegoers emerge from their pictures (tears of pleasure still streaking down their cheeks), take a deep sobering breath, and observe uncomfortably, ‘My, wasn’t that silly.’”

Notwithstanding the fact that nonsense is often the stuff from which our most memorable laughter comes, laughing uncontrollably at something nonsensical, it appears, can make one feel shameful. Maybe it’s the recollection from our youth of how often we were scolded for giggling when we weren’t supposed to. Maybe we have learned to feel a perverse disquiet about losing control and flying into a giddy spiral of lunatic laughter.

Without meaning, nothing could be of any particular value. In the Western consciousness, logic rules, and anything that sneers at that wisdom can be fun, but nothing more. Humor itself, humor of any kind, has always taken a backseat critically to “serious” literary work.

In A Subtreasury of American Humor, co-author E.B. White says of humor’s bottom-level relegations. The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurels, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right.”

Purveyors of nonsense for nonsense sake have an even greater hurdle to overcome. They aren’t even on the literary radar. The court fool in Shakespeare’s day had little social standing. A balladeer at the same court on the other hand had artistic and subsequently high social standing. He sung of great deeds, gave the king and his noblemen something of a purpose, and in fact became oral historians for a time. He had status and, decked in fine clothes, was respected and honoured. It is arguably one of the reasons that so many of Benchley’s contemporaries survive today with international reputations, while Benchley seems currently to be a peripheral cult figure at best, known only to aficionados of radical comic sensibilities.

It is still true today that humor is just for fun. And pure nonsense humor is a literary curio.

Benchley’s contemporary writers of humor, and particularly his own favorites Ring Lardner and James Thurber, are remembered for their literary contributions, literary in the sense of the serious use of their writing craft. In the book, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Second Edition), by Hirsh, Kett, and Trefil, and billed as “What every American needs to know,” James Thurber is there. Robert Benchley is not. By the publisher Houghton-Mifflin’s standards, Benchley isn’t a literary figure at all. This is not an isolated oversight. There has been only a scattered few critical works written about him, despite the influence he’s had on an entire century of humor writers.

In a recent book, Seriously Funny, The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, by Gerald Nachman, Benchley was named most often by some of America’s most original comic talents – Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Steve Allen and Shelly Berman among others – as the American humorist who had the greatest influence on them. And many of today’s humor writers for The New Yorker magazine, from Woody Allen, Russell Baker and Calvin Trillin to Dave Barry, have acknowledged their debt to Benchley’s innovative work and his influence on them.

That Benchley had uncovered a new writing template for humor has been lost in the shuffle of shifting comedic fashions and the fact that few have reviewed Benchley’s contributions the way other writer’s works are reviewed for their influences. For example, from a literary point of view, the comic characters of Alibi Ike, Walter Mitty and Babbit still seem to matter in literary studies. Thaddeus Olin of Benchley’s send up of the revolutionary legend in Paul Revere’s Ride is just silly. The innocent innocently caught up in great historical moments. As obscure as the piece is, it’s still a masterpiece of irony with Benchley’s signature nonsensical twists, foreshadowing Woody Allen’s famous New Yorker piece on Hitler’s barber who unwittingly gets involved in the Third Reich.

The only thing that can happen to help correct this situation is that nonsense writing become a new literary category, a cross between traditional humor writing and the whimsicality of poetry, and studied like anything else in literature. After all, poetry depends on conjured images, the right word in the right place, a musician’s sense of meter, and the sparkle and surprise of new invention. It’s the same with Benchley’s nonsense. His best writing spoofs the rhythms and meters of writing, using the reader’s own expectations of how a thought will conclude (of what you think you will hear at the end of a thought) against you, so that even the structure of Benchley’s phrases and sentences are in on the joke, but not you, until the very last moment or word, which is often a wild but somehow fitting non-sequitur. Here’s Benchley discussing opera synopses:
During a peasant festival held to celebrate the sixth consecutive day of rain, Rudolpho, a young nobleman, sees Lilliano, daughter of the village bell-ringer, dancing along throwing artificial flowers at herself.
Benchley’s nonsense also relies on poetry’s economy of words and music’s sly syncopation for effect. One unnecessary word, one extra rest or beat, and the effect is lost. Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky, has all the resonances and cadences of meaning without the meaning. Benchley also learned that, like poetry, words and phrases at the setup and at the climax of the “joke” need to be just the right words with the right amount of syllables, placed at just the right moment in the read. So, it is with a poet’s and musician’s tools that the writer of nonsense must polish his sentence for the desired effect. In short, the writer has to control how your mind processes the whole thing. Check out the meter in this wonderful description of the latest art revolution:
Now – if Art is to be anything at all in the expression of visual images, if, as someone has said, it is to hold Nature up to the mirror, then we must (I am still quoting Rourke, although I am thinking of stopping shortly) put down on our canvas not the things we see but the things that see us.
And of course the ‘us’ is italicized to fleck the emphasis. It’s all set up just for the last few words, surprising us with pure nonsense. Another example declares:
I learned several things in college. One is that Charlemagne either died or was born or did something with the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800.
Benchley also proved that there’s more to nonsense humor than the wit and the writing skill. To be effective, nonsense must have the right delivery, a casualness that captures the artless vulnerability of the writer and his defensive je ne sais quoi at the same time. Benchley’s naturalness of tone made him, as a personality, rise out of his words. He didn’t write. He spoke. He seemed to be reciting to us, naturally enough for us to hear him as he thought – back beyond his words to the real Benchley, the charmer, the gentle amusing soul of a man we could all identify with. Like no other humorist, we found Benchley behind his words. And we found that we loved him for who he was, just as we do Woody Allen today. That personal charm gives his distinct style of nonsense its irresistible quality, and its endurance. That also stuck with many comedians who came after him, the sense that the personality of the author of the humor could be integral to the humor. I know of no other Twentieth Century writer who could have fathered Woody Allen’s distinctively original comic voice. Allen has admitted that Benchley was an important influence in his approach to humor. Listen to the similarities between Benchley and Allen:
Benchley: According to Dr. Le Noix, an eminent French scientist who happened to be sleeping across the foot of my bed…
Allen: Getting through the night is becoming harder and harder. Last evening, I had the uneasy feeling that some men were trying to break into my room to shampoo me.
Benchley: The wind section has been forming dark colors right and left, all typical of Tschaikovski in his more wood-wind moods. These dark colors, such as purple, green, and sometime W and Y, are very lovely once they are recognized. The difficulty comes in recognizing them, especially with beards on.
Allen: (Discussing plots from ballets) The overture begins with the brass in a joyous mood, while underneath, the double basses seem to be warning us, “Don’t listen to the brass. What the hell does brass know?”
Allen’s non-sequiturs, quirky hairpin turns of thought, sudden switches of logic, they all have Benchley’s DNA. In addition, Allen’s later work for the New Yorker shows the breezy, throw-away casualness of Benchley’s talk-between-buddies style and tone. On frugality, Allen gives us, “Take the case of the ant and the grasshopper: the grasshopper played all summer, while the ant worked and saved. When winter came, the grasshopper had nothing, but the ant complained of chest pains.”

Where all these comic tricks have been used most successfully, there readers will find the best and most viable of the work of both comedic giants.

Historian Norris W. Yates’s book on Benchley records that Perelman (considered by many of his contemporaries to be an egotistical man) said, "A good, stuffy way to describe Benchley would be to say that ‘he occupies a unique position in American humor.’ He occupies nothing of the sort. He is top dog."

Benchley’s work takes us all into a new realm of humor, a place where scores of humorists and comedians after him could go for new inventions and new comic inspiration. While a good deal of his pieces do not work today, mainly because the content is out of date or the subject has been worked to death by others, there is still a tremendous amount of Benchley that is as fresh today as ever before. And this new collection is proof that Benchley deserves at least as much attention today as many of our current humorists.

One reviewer of Benchley Roundup, one of the latest re-collections of essays and sketches chosen by Benchley’s son, said of Benchley, “his influence--on contemporaries such as E. B. White, James Thurber, and S. J. Perelman, or followers like Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Richard Pryor--has left an indelible mark on the American comic tradition.”

And while Woody Allen and others may be more famous than Benchley today, it’s clear they had Benchley to draw on for inspiration. In terms of the originality of his comic voice, Benchley himself may have had no antecedents. For this, he deserves a special place in the canon of America literary giants, not just as one of the funnymen who said some things we repeat too often, but as the monumental first cause for so many of the venerated humorists and comic minds who came after him.

It’s all in his autobiography:
Robert Charles Benchley, born Isle of Wight, September 15, 1807. Shipped as cabin boy on the Florence J. Marble, 1815. Arrested for bigamy and murder in Port Said 1817. Released 1820. Wrote Tale of Two Cities. Married Princess Anastasia of Portugal 1831. Children: Prince Rupprecht and several little girls. Wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin 1850. Editor of Godeys Ladies Book 1851-1856. Began Les Miserables in 1870, finished by Victor Hugo. Died 1871. Buried in Westminster Abbey.

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Robert Benchley Society

For more information about the Robert Benchley Society, local chapters near you, our annual Award for Humor, and our Annual Gathering, visit The RBS Website