Saturday, October 20, 2012

Happy the Home Where Humor is Read

The following column appeared in the October 19, 2012, issue of the Post-Gazette, the Italian-American Voice of Massachusetts.

I write from West Hollywood, California, where we just gave out the 2012 Robert Benchley Awards for Humor Writing. During our festivities, which featured Arte Johnson from TV's Laugh-In presiding at the award ceremony, we announced the publication of a book of humorous short essays, titled Love Conquers All and consisting of 63 classic Robert C. Benchley essays of 90 years ago, plus the winning entries from our annual humor-writing competitions.

We believe there is a want for witty clean comedy. The Robert Benchley Society is filling that want by turning back to humor written in, or in the style of, the 1920s. The funny thing is, just how contemporary, how of today, that humor is. Benchley is contemporary when he writes about the man who gets intimidated by the clerk at the department store, mirrors that seem to take perverse delight in making one's reflection look bad, and the, um, joys of reading the Sunday "funnies" aloud to the kiddies. Contemporary, yes, because the themes are universal, but so unlike many of today's comics in presentation.

The difference is that today humor has edge: it is "transgressive." While formerly it was thought that art might sometimes outrage conventional sensibilities, now, anything that outrages is "art." Offensiveness being more common than true artistic talent, this new definition has the advantage of greatly increasing the supply of "artists." Judging from some recent comedic offerings, one might conclude that the sole criterion to be a "comedian" is to have a reasonably functional body with its full complement of fluids, excretions, and naughty bits. It also helps to use the words that you can't − or at least used not be able to − say on television.

As Arte said in his remarks to us after dinner, "We've had the escalation of the scatological conversation, smut that gets tossed in for comedy -- that's not funny, it's not funny." Contrast that with Benchley, who wrote two essays entirely about bathrooms without even once using "bathroom humor."

The Robert Benchley Society hopes you enjoy reading this collection of short essays. Copies will go on sale shortly and the profits will be used to give out free copies to libraries, schools, hospitals, and to our men and women serving abroad in our military. If this book leads to more people reading and writing laugh-out-loud, sophisticated humor, then the Society, now at our tenth anniversary, will have justified its existence.


Jerry Zezima said...

Great column, David. Mr. Benchley -- "Sweet Old Bob, or sometimes just the initials," which is the closest he came to obscenity -- would be proud.

Barb Best said...

Excellent points regarding the wretched state of pop culture comedy.
Eagerly anticipating the new book. A collection of comic essays for the discerning reader - Bravo!

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