August 4th, 2006

Tom Lehrer is Smug

A bit of Benchley

Robert Benchley (1889-1945) is probably one of the greatest American authors and humorists of the 20th Century. In fact if you pressed me hard enough to name my favorite American humorists of the early 20th, I would first say "get the damn press off me" and then I'd name S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Franklin P. Adams (his "Modern-Day Pepys" getup is great) and Robert Benchley. Maybe some others I've forgotten. But you get the idea.

Contributor to the Lampoon during his Harvard days, Benchley started out his real life writin' as a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Life Magazine and the like. Soon, however, he hit it reasonably big as a comedic actor. His big acting break came with a monologue entitled "The Treasurer's Report", a send-off of a yearly company report delivered by the Assistant Treasurer at the last minute after the regular treasurer has fallen ill. The text can be rather dry and incomprehensible, but then again, so was Benchley, and I am assured that his delivery contributed to 75% of the piece's success. He first performed it for a self-indulgent Broadway revue written by and starring many members of the Algonquin Round Table (of which he was a founding member) and was such a hit that he was called upon to perform it many times over.

The success of his public appearances then led to the piece being filmed; The Treasurer's Report could very well be considered the first all-talking movie (The Jazz Singer, in case you didn't know, is mostly silent, with only a few Jolson songs and lines of dialogue actually in sound.) Benchley's success there led to many series of "How-To" film shorts for Paramount. He even won an Academy Award in 1936 for his comic short "How To Sleep." And if you've ever seen Bing Crosby & Bob Hope's Road to Utopia, then you've seen Benchley do a bit of his monologuing; he plays the narrator in the film who occasionally stops the proceedings to complain about the plot holes, or just so that we can get a better look at Dorothy Lamour in some nice outfit. (Ironically, however hilarious he was as an actor, this nonetheless caused him considerable chagrin as he'd really wanted to be known chiefly for his writing.) He died way too soon at the age of 56 but left a great family legacy. His son, Nat, was himself a rather successful novelist; his grandson, Peter, wrote some book about a shark or something that was turned into a movie that I think I've rather liked on occasion.

I bring this up tonight because I wanted to share with you a wonderful essay of Robert's which I quite enjoy. While not as insanely humorous or as absurd as his Uncle Edith pieces, it makes a very interesting point which, while written in 1940, still rings true today. He'd have made a good online journaller (I refuse to denigrate him by presuming he'd be a b-l-o-double-g-e-r.) I also admit his writing voice in here is ... well, let's just say I find it quite natural and easy to use from time to time. Ask me sometime about how I successfully emulated Jean Kerr's sarcastic columnist voice at the tender age of 6--that is, if anybody out there actually remembers who the hell Jean Kerr was.

At any rate, take a read:

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