Monday, February 28, 2011

Scheduled Website Outage

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The maintenance window is scheduled for Tuesday Mar 1, 2011 between 5:00PM to 6:00PM Pacific Time. Access to your website during this timed will be unavailable for approximately 30 minutes.

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Call Me Madam

From the 1920s through 1940s Pearl "Polly" Adler (April 16, 1900 – June 11, 1962) operated the most well-known brothel in New York City. Or perhaps we should says brothels plural as the illegal nature of her business enterprise resulted in her relocating several times as well as interruptions in business when the police raided her establishment.

Polly Adler's memoir, A House is Not a Home, was published in 1953. Bob Benchley comes in for several mentions in the book--

P. 76 – Bob, the writer, was quite another story. Instead of telling you his troubles, he’d urge you to spill yours. Lion worshiped the ground he walked on. You could always tell when he was in the house just from the increased candle power of her smile, and she never would let any of the other maids serve him.

Every so often, Bob would arrive and inquire if I had a room to spare—an empty one. He would say that he was in need of a good night’s sleep before tackling a magazine piece. Sometimes, when he had a deadline to meet, he’d stay right there to do his writing. He claimed his best articles were written in my homey atmosphere. “The Waldorf just isn’t in it with you when it comes to service, Polly,” he’d tell me. “Lion never fails to have my suit pressed and my shirt and socks and drawers laundered. what a valet! By golly, she even has a light hand with a razor. And then that terrific smile at breakfast—why, it lights up a room like the sun!” Certainly Bob lightened up my life like the sun, and sunny was the word for his whole nature. Of all the friends I made during my years as a madam, I think his was the friendship I valued most. I have never known a finer man.

Bob always was egging me on to tell some of the funny experiences I’d had in the business, and one of his favorite stories concerned…

P. 177-179 -- Bob my writer friend, has asked me to arrange a dinner party for six people so well-known that privacy was imperative. Would I, he asked, exclude everyone, girls as well as customers? I explained that there was a big football game on that day and many of my young college friends would be disappointed to find my doors shut. Being an old Ivy League man himself, Bob told me to go ahead and let the kids have their fun, and settled for my reserving one wing of the apartment for his guests.

These turned out to be a truly notable assortment of celebrities, among them a U.S. Senator who was much in the news just then, a famous woman writer, a movie idol, a prominent and lovely member of the fast fox-hunting’ set, and a career girl, well-known both in Washington and New York, and very close to a member of the White House inner circle.

As Bob has requested, I had instructed the girls to keep away, but when they saw who all was there, they were extremely annoyed not to be allowed to join such a celebrity-studded group. In particular, Ellie—who was something of a sorehead anyway and had been boozing all afternoon—felt put upon at being excluded, and accused me of fostering class-consciousness, I told her I wasn’t fostering anything but a private party, but she would be fostering a tremendous hangover if she didn’t lay off the sauce.

Dinner went off well, but afterward the movie star excused himself to go into the bathroom and when he came out he had Ellie with him. This prompted Bob to observe, “Nice flushing, old man!” and everybody laughed, but I was furious and marched Ellie right back to the other part of the house. I told the maids to keep an eye on her, for Ellie was a bad drunk and often threatened suicide when she got loaded.

Meanwhile the entertainers engaged by Bob had arrived, and the party really was beginning to roll. The first to perform were three queer boys who were completely in drag, with wigs, false eyelashes, high-heeled pumps and beautiful evening gowns. Their act was hilarious and they were so convincing that for some time the Senator refused to believe they weren’t women. However, the hit of the evening was their opposite number, Mabel, a big fat colored girl clad in white tie and tails, who flaunted a key ring on which was inscribed “with love” and the nickname of a well-known Pak Avenue matron. Mabel was famous for her risqué songs and tonight, was usual, she wowed her audience.

As I was busy all evening commuting between Bob’s party and the football rooters, I did not know that Lola, the White House favorite, had asked one of the maids to show her around, and, just for a lark, introduce her as one of the girls. But about half an hour later, when I was back with Bob’s party, Lola stumbled into the room, crying hysterically.

“Oh, my God! Ellie fell out of the window!” she sobbed. “I tried to hold her, but she fell.”

In an instant everything was in an uproar. “Get to Ellie,” I yelled at a maid. Then, like Paul Revere, I raced to every part of the house, knocking at doors and urging people to leave. “There’s going to be trouble—get out! Hurry! There’s going to be trouble!” I called over an over. The queers got so excited their wigs flew in every direction, their eyelashes fell off, and they began pushing a shoving to the nearest exit, stumbling along in their high-heeled shoes in the wake of Mabel who was cutting out with no time wasted. Her hoarse shouts made the pandemonium complete, and the football crowd couldn’t have liked it more. In fact, they insisted on staying to see the rest of the fun, and I nearly lost my mind before I could get rid of them.

I found Bob alone, taking a cat nap in one of the rooms, and dragged him out of bed while he kept protesting that such a rude awakening was unfair to organized sleeping. But his sleepiness disappeared when Sam, the elevator boy, caught up with us. Sam was in a sweat of excitement. “She’s alive,” he reported breathlessly. “I carried her into the superintendent’s apartment.” Quickly we hurried down to Ellie. She lay brokenly on a bed, and kept repeating feebly, “I was pushed…She pushed me out the window.”

I knew Ellie was lying, for Lola was not the sort of woman who went around pushing people out of windows. But if Ellie were to persist in her story, and an investigation should result, I shuddered to think of the scandal. Turning to Bob I told him that he and his friends must leave at once.

“The hell we will, Poll,” said Bob. “We’re not going to leave you to take this all on your own shoulders. If we ran out and the girl died, you might be held for manslaughter. We’re sticking right here until we find out how badly she’s hurt.”

I hurriedly got the neighborhood doctor on the phone, but when I tried to explain what had happened he cut in rudely, “What do you mean—a girl fell out of the window? You must be drunk. Call the police department.” Finally, Bob had to take over and convince him there really had been an accident, and it was an emergency.

The doctor was unable to determine how seriously Ellie had been injured and called in a colleague, who advised us to take her to a private sanitarium. (The healers split two hundred and fifty not to talk about their visit.) I went along with Ellie and stayed till I learned that nothing ailed her except a few broken ribs…

When I got back to the house it was well after daybreak, but I found Bob and his friends still waiting. They were people who had everything to lose by becoming involved in a scandal, and it would have been perfectly easy for them to run out, yet they stood by.

P. 225 – Killing time, I stopped in at Dave Chasen’s only to find no drinks were being served as it was Election Day. However, when I caught sight of a certain well-known and beloved face, I felt as a wayfarer lost in the Alps must feel when he sees the lights of the hospice shining through the snow—Robert Benchley was there, and waving at me to join him. With characteristic foresight, Bench had prepared for the Election Day emergency, and offered me a Pink Lady from a flask that would have broken the neck of a St. Bernard. Soon we were deep in reminiscences about the old times, about Papa Tony and Dorothy Parker and the members of the Algonquin Round Table.

We were well on the way to getting lost in a pale pink fog, when I heard brays of greetings, and there were some of the hotel guests bearing down on us, their cold shoulders magically defrosted at the sight of my companion. I whispered that up to now these characters had done nothing but snub me, and Bench responded by giving them the full treatment—a brush-off that sent them scattering in all directions like a busted strand of dime-store pearls.

Robert Benchley was the kindest, warmest-hearted man in the world, and ordinarily he would cut off his right arm rather than do or say anything to make another person uncomfortable. But such petty gratuitous meanness always infuriated him, and he despised snobs and hypocrites. To cheer me up, he told me of the time a great friend of his, an international stage star, opened in a play. As always, she was snowed under the telegrams wishing her luck, most of which were signed with internationally famous names. But in the place of honor at the top of the dressing-table mirror was the telegram from me. Speaking of this actress, I remember that Bench used to kid me about my husky voice, saying that I sounded just like her with a cold.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Magical Benchley

Can anyone help the gentleman who submitted this inquery to the Robert Benchley society:
Hello I'm looking for this Robert Benchley film:

Dark Magic, Metro Goldwyn Mayer,Directed by Roy Rowlan, Acting Robert Benchley and John Scarne.

I'm a magician.I'm doing a private study about John Scarne. Scarne was a famous magician, so I'm trying to collect footage of John Scarne. Please if you know where can I get this film would be great. I have spent long time looking for this film.

Mark Russell to Judge Benchley Humor Writing Competition

The Robert Benchley Society is happy to announce that Washington, D.C.-based national humorist Mark Russell has agreed to be the final celebrity judge in the 2011 Robert Benchley Society Annual Humor Writing Award Competition.

I'm sure you are all familiar with Mr. Russell's topical and political humor and music, either through his three decades on public television or from his personal performances. More information on Mr. Russell may be found on his website

Those interested in entering the competition should watch the Society's website and blog for the announcement of the rules, deadline, and for how to enter. On the Society's website at you will find information on prior years' competition, including the rules which this year will be substantially similar to last year's. Details of this year's competition will be posted on this site as soon as we have them. Persons interested in the competition or in Society should also check out our blog where you will find a place to subscribe for our free e-mail updates on Society activities, including the humor competition. Signing up for the e-mail news is the best way to be sure of always getting the latest news from the Robert Benchley Society.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

RBS Welcomes New Member Shannon Nee

The Robert Benchley Society welcomes new member Shannon Nee. Shannon lives in Carlsbad, California has a blog ( which she calls, "More Than You Wanted To Know About Shannon Nee, until I can come up with something snappier."

Was Bob Benchley a Gleek?

Someone wrote to the Robert Benchley Society, saying:
A puzzle is driving me bonkers. Years ago I read a piece by Robert Benchley that totally fractured me. I do not remember in which published work I found it.

The subject of the piece was college GLEE CLUBS.

Desirous of reading this again, I have been scouring various Benchley works in the public library...... but I do not find this piece. Does it ring a bell with you? Do you know in which book it appears?

We replied:
The essay you have in mind may be "The Musical Clubs' Concert" which begins on page 26 of Pluck and Luck (1925).
Readers may also be interested to know that the piece appears to be a "take-off" on actual reviews of the Harvard Musical Clubs' Concert, such as this one published in the Harvard Crimson of May 15, 1902 ( which reads:
The concert given by the University Glee, Mandolin, and Banjo Clubs last night in Sanders Theatre for the benefit of the Social Service Committee was very successful. About five hundred people including the crew, the baseball team, and the track team attended. The programme was on the whole well rendered, and several of the numbers deserve special mention. "Creole Belles" was well played by the BanjoClub and the execution of selections from the "Show Girl" and the "Serenade" by the Mandolin Club, was exceptionally good. "Mammy Loo" and "Schneider's Band" by the Glee Club, were encored with enthusiasm.

Join the Robert Benchley Society

JOIN THE ROBERT BENCHLEY SOCIETY. The annual membership fee of US$ 10.00 may be paid through PayPal using the button below. Our membership year runs from April 1 through March 31. If you are joining part-way through the year, please note that you will be charged the full US$ 10.00 as, we do not pro-rate the fee for a partial year. Also note, one US$ fee is good for up to two persons at the same mailing address. If you are joining as a couple just send one payment; later you will have an opportunity to add the second name to the membership.

NOTE that your PayPal reciept will read "MARY4NAILS."

BENEFITS OF MEMBERSHIP. As a member you will to able to attend and vote at the RBS Annual Gathering, which is open to members only. You will also receive a certificate of membership and you will be enrolled as a member of a local chapter (if there is one in your area). You will also be given permission to post to our blog and Facebook group page. Non-members have read-only access to the blog and Facebook group.

Frank Kelly Freas, Who He?

To this inquiry:
I have a Benchley mysters. I am researching an illustrator, Frank Kelly Freas. I have come across a interior illustration he did for Benchley's The Woolen Mitten Situation, an essay.

It is dated by the artist as 1958.

I have found that this essay was published in books in 1928 and 1942.

Do you know of any other collections which would have included that essay in the 1950's or 1960's?

The Robert Benchley Society responded:
Thank you for contacting the Robert Benchley Society.

According to Benchley scholar Gordon Ernst (Robert Benchley: An Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1995) "The Woolen Mitten Situation" was originally published by the Association of National Advertisers Through the Courtesy of the Champion Coated Paper Company (1926) as a speech given by Benchley to the Association in Atlantic City, N.J. on November 9, 1926.

It was subsequently published in two books of essays during Benchley's life:

--20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or David Copperfield (1928) beginning on page 212.

--Inside Benchley (1942) beginning on page 298.

This illustration is possibly from a later humor anthology or magazine printing of the essay. They are numerous and difficult to identify.

File Under, You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man, But You Can't Tell Him Much

Laurence J. Gillis, Associate Professor of Legal Studies, University of Maryland and Instructor in Legal Studies, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and member of the Boston "We've Come for the Davenport" Chapter of the Robert Benchley Society kindly send us this:
The current (March-April 2011) issue of Harvard Magazine mentions RB, in an article entitled "Quotable Harvard"(page 30). Our Man in Cambridge gets Second Banana position, right behind Louis Brandeis, LL.B.1877.

The RB mention is a familiar old saw of his:

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.

--Robert Benchley, A.B. 1912 ("Of All Things", 1921)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Our Mrs. Parker

They ask; we answer (as best we can):
Thank you for contacting the Robert Benchley Society.

I tracked down the original of the quotation asked about; it's from "Our Mrs. Parker" from While Rome Burns, by Alexander Woollcott

"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.'"

Elizabeth Benchley, Who She?

James Hyder of the Washington, D.C. "Lost Locomotive" Chapter of the Robert Benchley submitted this photo taken at the site of the Benchley family graves on Nantucket. Can anyone shed light on who Elizabeth Benchley was?

Miller Collection of Wit and Humor

We thank Christopher Morgan, of the Boston "We've Come for the Davenport" Chapter of the Robert Benchley Society, and Rosemary L. Cullen, of the P.G. Wodehouse Society, for this information about the Miller Collection of Wit and Humor at Brown University:
The Miller Collection, consisting of approximately 40,000 volumes, is the personal library of Bernard, Saul, and George Miller, amassed over a period of fifty years. The brothers assembled the best collection of American humor in private hands, unequalled in any American institution, which they donated it to Brown University Library in the early 1990s.

The Collection consists primarily of 20th-century American imprints, but also includes significant sections of 19th-century joke books, British imprints, works in Russian, Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, and 19th-century editions of classic works of humor. The Collection includes much important early humor material, such as Joe Miller's Jests, or The Wit's Vade-Mecum (London, 1739), and Yankee Notions, or, The American Joe Miller, by Sam Slick (London, 1839).

The Collection includes works by Fred Allen, George Allen, Gracie Allen, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Alan King, Allan Sherman, and H. Allen Smith. There is topical humor of every conceivable kind, such as sex, medicine, the law, sex, politics, sports, sex, and plumbing. There are also sections of comic novels, familiar essays by humorists, political satire, light verse, theatrical memoirs of comedy performers, American and European folk humor, ethnic humor, vaudeville routines, collections of political cartoons, paperback joke and cartoon books, and playscripts; and a notable section of "Army joke books", pulp periodicals from the World War II era.
For more information go to

Anyone Able to Verify This Benchley Quotation?

Robert Benchley is commonly cited as having said:
The free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.
Various internet site (which appear to simply be copying each other rather than actually researching the line) state that the line is from Robert Benchley, as quoted by James Thurber in The Bermudian magazine of November 1950. Does any have access to that publication to verify the reference?

Another Remarkable Wireless Talking-type Benchley Show

We thank Christopher Morgan of the Boston "We've Come for the Davenport" Chapter of the Robert Benchley Society and Steve Russell, practitioner of "Juggling, Comedy and the Art of Oomph!" ( for passing on this information about Benchley on Radio.

There are several examples of Robert Benchley's radio work available on Old Time Radio Cat at the website The site even offers a free sample of Bob Benchley on the Fred Allen Show. While you're on the site you can even buy Another Remarkable Wireless Talking-type Goon Show.

Other places to find Benchley on Radio are:

Inter-Office Memo


Government of the United States
Department of the Interior
Bureau of Domestic Utensils
Department of Furniture and Cabinets
User manual-Modifications

May 21, 2010

--To All Department Adjusters:

There has been a new application for the adjustment of off balance tables, chairs and cabinets just released and approved for immediate use as per DOI Statement 2203-338/a Section C1 as follows:
If confronted with a table, chair or cabinet that is lower on one side than the others and rocking or wiggling is the result, adjustments can be made with the new adjuster “The Athletic Benchley”-105 Exercises from The Detroit Athletic Club.” This appliance, while disguised as a reprint of articles by Robert Benchley written from 1920 to 1933 (inclusive){Benchley, Robert: America’s Greatest Humorist-aka Sweet Old Bob or sometimes just the initials} is the perfect thickness for propping up tables and chairs to achieve a level surface. While the Soft cover version works well in most applications, the hardbound issue is to be recommended where traffic is heavy. This appliance also adjusts by opening the cover to turn to the desired thickness by turning the pages. It is to be advised that reading the contents is not recommended as laughter, chortling, and a general lifting of spirits has been found to be the result of too intense application of the contents. Reading also slows down the leveling process.

Adjusters who desire to use this application MUST order per US Government General Services Administration guidelines on form GSA13309/443/896AP. This item should be inserted in line 134 after ”Non Foreign Aid or Budget Item”. For quicker delivery you are authorized per DOI Directive #6686 Sept 2009 to go directly to and obtain from the properly contracted contractor.

Millard Fillmore-Acting Director
Department of Furniture and Cabinets
Bureau of Domestic Utensils

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Calling All Flappers, Vamps, Sheiks, and Jelly-Beans!

We thank Mr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the New York City "Fascinating Crimes" Chapter of the Robert Benchley Society for forwarding us a copy of The Magazine of Zelda: The Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau. Mary DiZazzo-Trumbull of the Boston "We've Come for the Davenport Chapter of the RBS provides this brief review of Zelda:
Do you want to be a dandy? Do you want to be a flapper? You can with "ZELDA" magazine! The magazine of Vintage Nouveau treasures! Find period jewelry, clothes and hats to fulfill your "era" fantasy. From fabulous period articles on the Charleston Step to cocktails from good times past - ZELDA will take you back like a time-machine! Even better!

For more information go to

How They Find Us I Know Not, But Find Us They Do

This came in over the transom:
I couldn't invent this. My exchange with the local librarian this morning:

ELWIN: Hello. Do you have any Robert Benchley?

LIBRETTA: Hmmm...(tapping the name into a file search) No, I don't see any. Let's see, is that Benchley with a "Y"? Is he local?

ELWIN: No, with an "I.E." First name, Robert. Try "Bob Benchlie." I'd heard he'd taken a respite from cheese-farming to write a book on ... well ... cheese-farming."

LIBRETTA: (tap-tap-tap) Hmmm...nope, not there.

ELWIN: Hard to believe. I'm disappointed.

LIBRETTA: (anticipating a gasp) Do you KNOW him?

ELWIN: Yes, I met him once at the Cheese House, where he was busy ranslating "omnia vincit amor" into the more colloquial "Love beats a blue-veined Gorgonzola."

LIBRETTA: (stifling a gasp) Uh, wait. I'll check that under "Titles."

ELWIN: (exit, anticipating a stifling gasp, and pining for Dewey's lost undefiled hierarchy and a cheddar melt)

Best, El

CONFIDENTIAL TO DANNY G: Yes, I've not only read JAWS five times, I actually stood on the bridge (courtesy of Mr. MacDonald) under which passed the very carcharodon carcharias jawggernaut used in the movie. The shuttle track used to propel the mechanical marvel was still visible.

CONFIDENTIAL TO EVERYONE: For pity's sake, don't tell Danny it was an elongated golem. He still thinks those little bits of beachcombs stuck to his feet are Robert Shaw bio-bits.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book Note

Altman, Billy. Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Largely a reprise of previously published matter. Has more detail about RB's Hollywood period than other biographies. Unfortunately, lack of proofreading and
fact checking undermines the work. See the errata sheet prepared by William Hyder founder of The Lost Locomotive chapter of the Robert Benchley Society.

382 pages (with index), with 19 pages of (poor quality) reproductions of photographs. Poor quality reproductions of Gluyas Williams illustrations head each chapter. List of books and movie appearances of Benchley. Selected bibliography. (DT)

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

In response to this inquiry:
I recently read a book on Benchley's short film subjects and have just watched the DVD film "Robert Benchley & the Knights of the Algonquin," most of which I had seen before on VHS. I was struck by the fact that absolutely no one else in these short films gets any credit. The woman playing his wife in most if not all of the "domestic" subjects, Ruth Lee, is nowhere credited and I had to discover her name on the internet. The author of the study of his short subjects, oddly enough, makes no mention of this oversight, or if he does, I overlooked it myself. And yet there are comic touches provided here and there by some of the supporting actors, for instance by the grim-faced Indian guide in "How to Take a Vacation." Was Benchley that jealous of fame to insist on exclusive billing, or was this some policy at Paramount (which produced most of the subjects)?

An officer of The Robert Benchley Society wrote:
I believe it was standard practice at the time, especially in short subjects, to give onscreen credits to just a few principle players. I doubt if Benchley had much if any say in who got credit.

Wolcott Gibbs, Who He?

To this inquiry:
I'm currently engaged in writing a biography of Wolcott Gibbs, who succeeded Robert Benchley as The New Yorker's theatre critic. I was wondering if you had any letters, anecdotes, information, contacts, suggestions, etc. touching on their relationship, or any other aspect of Gibbs and his life and times.

Gordon Ernst replied:
Checking my book, I find "Robert Benchley: In Memoriam" by Wolcott Gibbs in the New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1945, p. 3. I also find mention of the Gibbs/Benchley connection in Here at The New Yorker, by Brendan Gill, published in 1975. Probably any book on the New Yorker would have some mention of this. Also, the biographies or memoirs of the various Algonquin writers.

Reading Benchley Aloud

In response to this inquire:
I am writing to inquire if you are aware of any "speeches" or "public addresses" that Robert Benchley may have made. I am specifically looking for something in the range of six to ten minutes for a Forensics speech competition. My eleven year old son is competing, and he feels most comfortable and does his best when delivering something humorous. Mr. Benchley's writings are some of the funniest pieces I have ever read. Do you know if he happened to "deliver" any of them to an audience? I suppose a transript of a radio address could qualify as a "public address".

the Robert Benchley Society wrote:
Thank you for contacting the Robert Benchley Society. Yes, indeed, there are several Benchley "pieces" that might serve for your boy.

Mr. Benchley's humor career started when he delivered his "Treasurer's Report" on the New York stage. The text can be found in two collections of Benchley's work published in book form:

--The Treasurer's Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing (beginning on page 334) and

--Benchley Beside Himself (beginning on page 193).

Both are available in libraries. "Benchley Beside Himself" is also available for purchase through Amazon; you'll find a link to it on our website at

He reprised The Treasurer's Report as a movie. In fact it was the first "all-talking" picture ("The Jazz Singer" is usually considered the first "talkie" but it actually had talking --and singing-- in just a few parts, with most of the picture being silent). A film library may have a copy of the movie. It has also been transferred to DVD and is available for purchase. To obtain a copy see our website "The Treasurer's Report" is tremendously funny when delivered by someone who can keep an absolutely straight face while making a fool of himself.

Benchley went on to have a successful Hollywood career. He is particularly known for his "short subjects." His 1935 short "How to Sleep" won him the Academy Award. Most of his shorts were on the "How to" theme. That's a theme he returned to in his writings as well. You'll find, our website a list of his essays along with a feature that allows you to look up an essay by keyword. It's at For example, any of the "How To" essays would be good for a public address, and Benchley did, indeed, deliver many of them in his movies.

One of Benchley's books "Love Conquers All" is no longer under U.S. copyright and we have posted it to our website at Perhaps you can find something there.

Benchley did quite a lot of radio work, but I'm not sure how best to direct you to recordings or transcriptions.

Even the Benchley essays that we not originally written for public delivery work very well as spoken pieces. In fact, I was first exposed to Benchley when, in 9th grade drama class, my friend Steve read aloud "Vacation Time in Sunny Las Los." I've been a Benchley fan ever since.

Please let us know if the lad decides to use a Benchley piece for the competition. It would make many of our members happy and would please Mr. Benchley's family to read in our Society news that Benchley's humor is being enjoyed by a new generation. Best luck for success in the competition.

We followed up with this note:
Here's another suggestion for a Benchley piece for your son's competition.

According to Benchley scholar Gordon Ernst (Robert Benchley: An Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1995) "The Woolen Mitten Situation" was originally published by the Association of National Advertisers Through the Courtesy of the Champion Coated Paper Company (1926) as a speech given by Benchley to the Association in Atlantic City, N.J. on November 9, 1926.

It was subsequently published in two books of essays during Benchley's life:

--20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or David Copperfield (1928) beginning on page 212 and

--Inside Benchley (1942) beginning on page 298.

The World of Gluyas Williams

He was more than just a cartoonist. He was the Hogarth of the American middle class, according to Edward Sorel, writing in in December 1984. To read the complete article go to

Semi Finalist in America's Funniest Humour Writing Contest.

My humorous article "The stimulant of choice" by Kerry Ashwin came in as a semi finalist on this web site:
Now I know why my grade five teacher said "Must try harder". I knew her advice would come in handy one day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gluyas Williams Papers

Papers of the American cartoonist, illustrator Gluyas Williams are archived at Syracuse University ( The collection includes original book illustrations for books by Robert Benchley, Edward Streeter, William Freeman, and Corey Ford, magazine cartoons for Cosmopolitan, Life and The New Yorker, and newspaper cartoons (1922-1947); correspondence, 1918-1949, and manuscript of a poem about Williams by Kenneth Bird and prefaces to Fellow Citizens (1941) and The Gluyas Williams Book, both by Robert Benchley (1929). Correspondents include Randolph G. Adams, Robert Benchley, Kenneth Bird, Charles Dana Gibson, G.S. Lobrano, Christopher Morley, D. Nassau, H.W. Ross, Frank Sullivan, and K.S. White.

Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Library
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

According to information on the Syracuse University Library website:
Gluyas Williams (1888-1982) was an American cartoonist. Born in San Francisco, California, he received his A.B. from Harvard University in 1911 and, in 1915, married Margaret Kempton.

Mr. William's drawings include book illustrations, magazine cartoons and daily newspaper cartoons. He has illustrated many of Robert Benchley's books, William Freeman's Hear! Hear!, Corey Ford's How to Guess Your Age and Edward Streeter's Father of the Bride. He has also done many drawings for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Life, and the New Yorker, contributing to the latter his famous "Wedding Series". From 1922 to 1947, Williams drew daily newspaper cartoons that were published through the Bell Syndicate in various newspapers in the United States, England, Australia and other nations.

Williams is also the author of several books, including The Gluyas Williams Book, (1929); Fellow Citizens, (1940); and the Gluyas Williams Gallery, (1957).

A Robert Benchley Letter on Being a Writer (as seen on Ebay)

Art Buchwald and Robert Benchley

Five years ago this week, in a 2006 deathbed interview with NPR's with Diane Rehm, political humorist Art Buchwald talked about his life and his decision not to seek treatment for his kidney disease. At about 29 minutes into the nearly hour-long interview he sites Robert Benchley and James Thurber as his role models.

Why We Laugh

Compedit ( is the home of Studies in American Humor, Old Series and New Series One

The essays on the site appeared in the somewhat too often irregular issues of Studies from 1974 to 1994. Studies is divided into two parts: the old series consists of three volumes of three issues each and was published sporadically from 1974 to 1981; the new series consists of seven volumes of varying numbers of issues for each volume and was published from 1982 to 1994.

There are at least a couple of essays on the humor of Robert Benchley:
In order to laugh at something, it is necessary (1) to know what you are laughing at, (2) to know why you are laughing, (3) to ask some people why they think you are laughing, (4) to jot down a few notes, (5) to laugh. Even then, the thing may not be cleared up for days. -- Robert Benchley in the essay "Why We Laugh -- or Do We?" published in After 1903 -- What? (1938).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kollege of Komical Knowledge

Someone wrote the Robert Benchley Society saying:
I collect American Narrative Humor. I have a complete collection of Benchley's books, along with those of S.J. Perlman and Groucho Marx (among others). I would like to leave it to a library that has a collection of narrative humor, but there may not be such a library. If there is, of course, they must have some Benchley, which leads me to you.

Is there an "American narrative humor" collection somewhere that you know of?

We responded: Possibly the Bowling Green State University Library Popular Culture Collection:

Grand Hotel

To the inquiry:
Do you know where and when Robert Benchley's essay "The dear dead table d'hote days" was published? Do you think that it may have been inspired by the annual game dinners at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago during the 19th Century? I know that they held a game dinner in 1885. I believe I even once saw a copy of that menu posted on the internet.

The Robert Benchley Society responded:
The essay appears in the book Chips off the Old Benchley (1949), beginning on page 329. According to Gordon E. Ernst, Jr,. in Robert Benchley: An Annotated Bibliography, it was first published in Liberty magazine #7, (April 19, 1930) beginning on page 26. Looking at the essay, Benchley says he's reading an 1885 menu from a Chicago hotel and it seems clear that he is describing a game dinner of the Grand Pacific Hotel

That Bob Benchley, He's Funny, Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk

Some time ago the Robert Benchley Society announced the availability on DVD of Robert Benchley, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable in Dancing Lady.
Janie lives to dance and will dance anywhere, even stripping in a burlesque house. Tod Newton, the rich playboy, discovers her there and helps her get a job in a real Broadway musical being directed by Patch. Tod thinks he can get what he wants from Janie, Patch thinks Janie is using her charms rather than talent to get to the top, and Janie thinks Patch is the greatest. Steve, the stage manager, has the Three Stooges helping him manage all the show girls. Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy make appearances as famous Broadway personalities.
Watch for:
  • Joan Crawford in a rare dancing role;
  • Ted Healy and His Stooges presenting their physical humor in the same film with the dry wit of Robert Benchley (it's so early a Stooges appearance that Curly is still being billed by his real name -- Jerry);
  • Film debut of Fred Astaire;
  • File debut of Nelson Eddy;
  • Early (uncredited) appearance by Eve Arden; and
  • Grand musical finale with sets and choreography that MGM will recycle later in the decade for the Emerald City scenes in The Wizard of Oz.

To which someone replied:
Thanks for the heads-up. I have seen "Dancing Lady" and I liked it very much. It certainly has one of the most eclectic casts in movie history, including, of course, Robert Benchley.

You also point out that the Three Stooges (then known as Ted Healy and His Stooges) are in the film and that Curly was billed by his real name, Jerry. Do you know if Benchley reviewed Healy and the original Stooges (Moe, Larry and Shemp) when they were on Broadway in the late '20s?

In 1927, Ted and Shemp were in "A Night in Spain" (Moe and Larry had dropped out of the act temporarily) and Shemp got good notices, including one that said, "He whom the program describes as Shemp Howard makes the most of an exceedingly comic face and a diffident manner."

In 1929, Ted, Moe, Larry and Shemp (along with a fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn) starred in "A Night in Venice" and were billed as Ted Healy and His Racketeers. The Racketeers got good reviews from several critics, including Brooks Atkinson, who called Moe, Larry and Shemp "three of the frowziest numbskulls ever assembled" and said their antics were "rough and hardy sport, but unendingly funny." It would be interesting to read what, if anything, Benchley had to say about them.

Thanks again. Take care and keep up the good work on the site.

To which the RBS responded:
Benchley reviewed "A Night in Spain" in his Drama column in the May 26, 1927 issue of Life magazine:

"We were afraid that a show called "A Night in Spain" would entail a great deal of Spanish dancing, an we were quite right. But it also brings on several other features which make the Spanish dancing easier to bear and, on the whole, it is a good bet.

"In the first place, there is Phil Baker, with his accordion and the confident Sid Silvers in the box, making an act which is hard to beat for sheer amusment value. And then there is Ted Healy, who is very funny, and Brennan and Rogers continuing the "Margie" legend--and, unless our ears deceived us, a song in which "Rheims" is ryhmed with "dreams," probably quite correctly but all making for a jolly evening."

He also mentions the show in the September 8, 1927 issue of life:

"In the middle of the first act of "What the Doctor Ordered," our companion--a fellow of infinite jest--whispered, "Are you going to the theatre this evening?" This put the idea into our head and ten o'clock saw us over at "A Night in Spain," listening to Phil Baker and Syd Silvers. Sometimes ones's pleasantest evenings are cooked up right on the spur of the moment like that. We never dreamed, when we went to "What the Doctor Ordered," that we would get such a good laugh before the evening was over."

We don't have a citation for "A Night in Venice" in my book, so we'd say that Benchley didn't review it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

BlogTalkRadio and a Facebook Party

I'm giving you the heads-up on two upcoming online events:

On Tuesday evening, February 22nd, at 6:30 PM EST, I will be interviewed on BlogTalkRadio's "A Book and a Chat" with Barry Eva. It is a live call-in event, so you can participate with questions. Click here for details BlogTalkRadio

Then, on Friday night, February 25th, you are cordially invited to an exciting Facebook party with 10 authors, including me, who are participating in the Pump Up Your Book virtual tour. The festivities begin at 9:00 PM EST. If you have a facebook account, please "Like" the group page Pump Up Your Book Party. Then, you will be able to chat.

Please join the fun.

Thanks in advance,

Friday, February 18, 2011

"I'd like to see Paris before I die...Philadelphia would do!"

Calling all Benchley fans in the City of Brotherly Love. Rose Valenta of of Chalfont, Pennsylvania, is organizing a Philadelphia area chapter of the Robert Benchley Society. If you are interested please contact David Trumbull at to be added to the list to receive more information.

SNAFU: Situation Normal, All...

To this inquiry:
I am searching for a video copy of Robert Benchley's last movie, "Snafu" (Columbia, 1945). As far as I can discover, it's not available from any commercial source, and I thought you might have some ideas about where I might look for it. I'm hoping to locate it for the family of one of the screenwriters--Louis Solomon, who wrote both the screenplay and the Broadway play from which the movie was made.

The Robert Benchley Society responded:
As fas as we know, this was never released on video. Since it is a Columbia release, it might have been shown on a channel such as Turner Classic Movies. You might try contacting them about it.

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.

Hear Ted Delorme Read Benchley

Ted Delorme has contacted the Robert Benchley Society with the exciting and welcome news that he has created an audio recording of Robert Benchley's book Love Conquers All and has uploaded it to the Librivox project where it is available free of charge. For more information about Mr. Delorme's audio recording projects see his website For a direct link to Mr. Delorme's recording of Love Conquers All click on

From the Mail Bag

The Robert Benchley Society was contacted by some lost soul who wrote:
So help me, it never occured to me that there would be such a beast as a Robert Benchley society. In these days of want and woe, when factions form to harass fellow men, it is positively heart warming to know that some people in the world get together at a watering hole to discuss a man who has been on sabbatical far too long.

I knew nothing about Robert Benchley until I was a seventh grader on board the old S.S. Tuscarora. Our bosun, a harsh and profane old man, was often seen carrying a book by Robert Benchley and enjoying it between swearing at us as we holystoned the deck. We boys tried to get a glimpse of the book (we were stuck with textbooks and Bowditch) but the bosun would drive us away. In the evenings he would dog down the door to the rope locker and read his book in private. You could hear him roaring in there. We left him up there when the ship sank.

And so I knew no more of Benchley until I reached late adulthood. Thanks to a policy of our local library, which is to banish all humor that is not overtly political or social, old books are often sold and I glommed onto Benchley. I have acquired several books this way.

I salute your society even though I am not likely to be in Boston anytime soon to hoist a few. If you will excuse me, I need to dog down the door to the rope locker so I can read in peace.

In response to our suggestion that he form a chapter in this hometown he wrote:
I am located far in the Confederacy, Charleston, South Carolina in fact. I wouldn't suggest trying to establish a society with me as the trailblazer. I would run off with the dues or misuse my exalted position. I'm also bashful as all hell. If my fellow citizens form a society, I'd join. Otherwise, I am content to have a long distance admiration for the society and wouldn't mind getting a message or two in case you need a southern perspective on Mr. Benchley. Regards, xxxxx xxxxx

Dorothy Parker Society President, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Leads Us on a Tour of The Hotel Algonquin

"The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing But the Tooth"

The Robert Benchley Society has been contacted by someone asking:
In 1950, I was in a public speaking class at LA High School, and was entered in a speech contest at Redlands University. My teacher had me memorize "The Tooth, The Whole Tooth, and Nothing But The Tooth", by Robert Benchley. Now, with 24 grandchildren, I'd love to re-memorize it. Can you tell me if it is in "The Best of Robert Benchley", and if not, what of his works might it be in?? Any help would be much appreciated.

The answer is that "The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing But the Tooth" appears in Love Conquers All (1922), beginning on page 131, and Inside Benchley (1942), beginning on page 73. We also note that Love Conquers All is available free online on the Robert Benchley Society website at

"French has five vowels, namely ong, ong, ong, ong, and ong."

I have, for some time, been a subscriber to "A Word A Day" emails. You may also be interested in this mail list. One weekly newsletter of AWAD (quoted from below) had a quotation (regarding French pronunciation) from Robert Benchley! Enjoy!
Please note that while English may be Germanic, French has at least two important German influences: its name (from the Frankish kings) and the abnormal frontal vowel "u," phonetically [y]--although a Robert Benchley bon mot claims that French has five vowels, namely ong, ong, ong, ong, and ong.

I complimented the person who submitted that contribution on her knowledge of Mr. Benchley and she responded:
I hope I quoted Benchley somewhat accurately. I recall reading an essay of his on the French language some 25 years ago and howling with laughter. Indeed, French has 5 nasalized vowels, and to the untrained ear they sound pretty much the same. I would love to reread that essay, so please steer me in the right direction. I will be sure to check out your website. Would that we still had (and appreciated) humorists of Benchley's stature.

I responded:
It's always a pleasure to find another Benchley fan. The essay, "French for Americans" was originally published in (of all places!) the "Detroit Athletic Club News." This was verified by Gordon Ernst who published "Robert Benchley, an Annotated Bibliography"

The essay appears in the following books of Benchley essays:

Pluck and Luck (1925)
The Benchley Roundup (1954)

You may find this books in a lending library in your area. Both are also available for sale on Amazon via the RBS website.

--David Trumbull

I'm a Civilian Here Myself update

The entire short of Robert Benchley's I'm a Civilian Here Myself may be viewed online in this series of clips:

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