Robert Benchley 1889-1945
American humorist, essayist, critic, actor, and screenwriter.
One of the most popular American humorists of the early twentieth century, Benchley is best remembered for his essays and film monologues depicting a slightly befuddled average man struggling to cope with the complexities of modern life. His self-described middle-class perspective shaped his commentary on such subjects as the peculiarities of business, nature, and human relationships. With Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, and others, Benchley was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of highly influential American writers of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Benchley was born and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he quickly developed a reputation as a humorist. His drawings, satires, and parodies appeared regularly in the Harvard Lampoon, along with those of classmate Gluyas Williams, who would later illustrate Benchley's collections of humorous essays. During his college career, Benchley also enjoyed success as an actor, specializing in the amusing, rambling monologues which would later characterize his works as both an essayist and a screenwriter. Following two decades as a prolific writer, during which he worked as an editor for Life and a drama critic and essayist for the New Yorker, Benchley turned his attention to acting in short films based on his popular essays. An avid party-goer and a popular host, Benchley was also devoted to his family, from whom he drew both emotional support and inspiration for many of his essays. His son, Nathaniel, became a well-known journalist and novelist, and his grandson, Peter Benchley, is the author of the best-selling novel Jaws.
During his prolific career Benchley produced more than six hundred essays for a variety of magazines, weekly drama reviews for the New Yorker, and scripts for numerous films—many of which he also acted in. Benchley's first book, Of All Thingsl (1921), is a collection of his popular essays originally published in Vanity Fair, the New York Tribune, Collier's, Life, and Motor Print. Subsequent volumes were patterned after this model, comprised of a cross-section of comic essays, literary parodies, and sharp commentaries on life according to Benchley. In 1928, Twentieth Century-Fox released the film version of "The Treasurer's Report," starring Benchley. During the next decade, Benchley divided his time between writing and acting, winning an Academy Award in 1935 for the MGM short film "How to Sleep." Benchley wrote his final drama review for the New Yorker in 1940, and during the next five years his work centered on his film monologues. Several collections of essays appeared after he announced his official retirement as a writer, including the posthumously published Benchley-Or Elsel (1947) and Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which some critics believe contains some of Benchley's finest essays.
Throughout his career Benchley enjoyed the approval of his peers and the public for his humorous, self-effacing approach to life in the early twentieth century. He was also highly regarded as a genial and tolerant drama critic whose observations were always well-considered. Commentators generally applaud Benchley's unique brand of humor, echoing James Thurber's assessment that the critics who underrate Benchley have overlooked "his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity."
Of All Thingsl (essays) 1921
Love Conquers All (essays) 1922
Pluck and Luck (essays) 1925
The Early Worm (essays) 1927
20,000 Leagues under the Sea; or, David Copperfield (essays) 1928
The Treasurer's Report (essays) 1930
No Poems; or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways (essays) 1932
From Bed to Worse (essays) 1934
My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (essays) 1936
After 1903—What? (essays) 1938
Inside Benchley (essays) 1942
Benchley Beside Himself (essays) 1943
Chips off the Old Benchley (essays) 1949
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[Wilson was an American poet, essayist, lecturer, editor, and social and literary critic. In the following review of Of All Things! he lauds Benchley's wit and suggests that his satire ought to be more sharply focused on issues of wider societal concern.]
Mr. Benchley's collected burlesques are, of course, exceedingly funny: they are a little like Stephen Leacock, but more urbane than Leacock. Mr. Benchley, if he has not the force of Mr. Leacock's violent and barbarous imagination, has not developed Mr. Leacock's vice of making five bad gags to one good one. He nearly always makes you laugh and he never makes you ill—which is high praise for an American humorist.
But it is not of Mr. Benchley's farces that I propose to speak in this review. Indeed, if he were only an Irvin Cobb, there would be no reason to review him at all. But there is a phase of Mr. Benchley—(and of the humorists of whom he is the leader)—which has a certain intellectual importance and which might have a great deal more. They are perhaps unconscious of it but it is nevertheless true that Mr. Benchley and his companions amount to something like an antidote to the patent medicines administered by the popular magazines. The great function which they perform is making Business look ridiculous. It is not enough that people should laugh at Mr. Addison Sims of Seattle: they must also learn to laugh, as Mr. Benchley teaches them to, at...
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[In the following excerpt from a review of Pluck and Luck, Clark praises Benchley's development as a satirist.]
It is our duty to confess that Mr. Benchley is changing. No longer can the book seller honestly tell you that this is just good, clean, wholesome humor. It isn't so. His carefree spirit has been darkened by the presence of satire. Acid has risen in him and given expression to bitterness just when he seemed about to be nice and funny. The tendency to fancy has increased. He is always slipping away from this orderly and practical world into a world of incongruous fantasy. Really, it is rather irreverent, this neglect of this best of all possible worlds, particularly, as in the world of fancy, he seems to be making faces at this nice practical world he has slipped away from. So perhaps it should be said that Mr. Benchley has joined with Ring Lardner, Donald Stewart, Frank Sullivan and such exponents of our new crazy humor.
Being funny is quite often difficult and trying, isn't it? He isn't like the conventional essayists, improvising upon a theme until he gets a quaint aspect. His subjects are the headline events in a fellow's life and are treated precisely.
We are blessed with papers on "The Church Supper," "How to Watch Football," "Christmas Pantomimes," "The Musical Club Concert," "Paul Revere," "Editha's Christmas Burglar," "The Big Bridegroom Revolt," "The Romance of...
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[Blair was an educator, editor, and critic who is recognized as one of the first American scholars to appraise humor academically. In the following excerpt from his Horse Sense in American Humor, he distinguishes Benchley as one of the most popular humorists of his day, and suggests that the uniqueness of his sketches derives from the neurotic nature of his protagonists. ]
Mr. Robert Benchley tells of the trouble he had when, like Ward, he became worried about grammar and the sound of words. It all started when he tried to figure out the present tense of the verb of which "wrought" is the past participle:
I started out with a rush. "I wright," I fairly screamed. Then, a little lower: "I wrught." Then, very low: "I wrouft." Then silence.
From that day until now I have been murmuring to myself: "I wrught—I wraft—I wronjst. You wruft—he wragst—we wrinjsen.…"
People hear me murmuring and ask me what I am saying.
"I wrujhst," is all that I can say in reply.
"I know," they say, "but what were you saying just now?"
This gets me nowhere.
It is easy to see why this writer claims that "One of the easiest methods of acquiring insanity is word-examining. Just examine a word you have written,...
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[James Thurber was a celebrated American humorist best known for his essays, stories, and cartoons published in the New Yorker during the 1930s and 1940s. In the following excerpt from his review of the posthumously published Chips Off the Old Benchley, Thurber commends Benchley's skill as a humorist and suggests that other critics have overlooked Benchley's gift for "comic brevity."]
The heavier critics have under-rated Benchley because of his "short flight," missing his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity. He would thank me not to call him an artist, but I think he was an artist who wouldn't give up to it, like a busy housewife fighting the onset of a migraine headache.
It was an artist, to cite outstanding proof, who wrote (in another book) that brilliant and flawless parody of Galsworthy called "The Blue Sleeve Garter." He had all the equipment for the "major flight," but he laid it aside to lead one of the most crowded private lives of our century. Even so, he somehow found time to work on an ambitious enterprise, a book about the satirists of the Queen Anne period, which he later turned into a history in play form. For all its seriousness, it seems to have been a kind of monumental hobby, and a man is never done with a hobby. Benchley didn't finish his.
Chips Off The Old Benchley contains eighty pieces never put in a book before. I don't know...
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[Yates is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from his The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, he characterizes Benchley's comic narrator as an ordinary man beset by the forces of nature. In addition, Yates examines Benchley's work as a literary critic.]
It is impossible to say just when the bemused householder and white-collar man became really prominent in American humor, but by 1910 Stephen Leacock, Simeon Strunsky, and Clarence Day, Jr. were writing pieces in which the disguise of each author was just that. As noted before, one of Benchley's direct models was Leacock, whose Literary Lapses appeared in that year. "Leacock [to quote Ralph L. Curry] found much of his fun in the little man beset by advertising, fads, convention, sex, science, cussedness, machinery—social and industrial—and many other impersonal tyrannies." Benchley's favorite piece of humor was "My Financial Career," in Literary Lapses, where a bedeviled Little Man of the lower middle class is overawed and confused by a bank and its officials. Robert once stated, "I have enjoyed Leacock's work so much that I have written everything he ever wrote—anywhere from one to five years after him." Leacock wrote of the Little Man in an urbane prose that owed much to the familiar essays of Addison and Lamb, to the English tradition of parody as found in Punch (one of whose columnists, A. A. Milne,...
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[In the following excerpt from his Robert Benchley, Yates analyzes Benchley's approach to, and definition of humor.]
The closest Benchley came to defining humor was a hint that it depended much upon conventions shared by the humorist and his public: A joke is funny only if the jokester and his audience think it is. This view was not exactly original, nor was his feeling that analyzing a quip kills it and that "The chances are that the person to whom you have been explaining it won't think that it is funny anyway." Benchley implied that if the audience is larger than one, the likelihood of humorous conventions being entirely shared decreases proportionately. Naturally he took a dim view of Max Eastman's analytical, not to say psycho-analytical, approach in Enjoyment of Laughter; and in a parody of that book he suggested that laughter is really caused by a small tropical fly carried from Central America to Spain by Columbus's men, "returning to America, on a visit, in 1667, on a man named George Altschuh."
Conceivably, Benchley was also irked by Eastman's just criticisms that his own humor was sometimes wordy and labored; in addition, he certainly shared the instinctive repulsion felt by many humorists at being picked apart by scholars, regardless of the slant or "school" of approach. Humor was supposed to be fun. It should also involve a laugh with rather than at its object; here...
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[Hasley is an American writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Benchley's personal essays.]
[Robert Benchley] wrote humor, satire, reportage and criticism; but all of his writing that found its way into books may be broadly categorized as personal essays. These essays assumed various shapes, of course, including some narration and a substantial amount of dialog; they were always Benchley on, or off, some subject. And he was always more important than his subject. His writing career extended roughly from 1915 to 1945, during which time many hundreds of such pieces, originally published in magazines, were reprinted in periodic collections. An additional source of Benchley's fame arose from his work in Hollywood, where he made forty-eight shorts and appeared in, or collaborated on, forty-seven feature pictures. Many of these contributed to making his name synonymous with comedy of a quietly distinctive sort.
More than with any other humorist, it is hard to distinguish his literary reputation from his personal reputation as perpetuated by his many acquaintances who sought his friendship and paid lavish tribute to his warm personality and his charm. To James Thurber he was "the humorist's humorist… and … a wonderful guy." Howard Dietz called him "the most entertaining personality that ever decked the tables of New York and Hollywood.…...
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[In the following excerpt from their book America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury, the critics distinguish Inside Benchley as the volume they consider to be most representative of Benchley's flair as a comic writer.]
The collection which we think displays Benchley at his most brilliant is the 1942 volume of reprints, Inside Benchley. The title page shows the Gluyas Williams caricature of Benchley peering into his bedroom mirror and seeing the image of Wimpy from Popeye reflected there. In the back of the book, we come upon an utterly worthless Glossary of Kin, Native and Technical Terms, a list of Abbreviations from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, a Bibliography of books in sexual psychology, and an Index which is a page of the New York City telephone directory. Preceding this bufoonery are some of the best examples of vintage Benchley.
The mock-lecture, "The Social Life of the Newt," points out that newt courtship occurs "with a minimum distance of fifty paces (newt measure) between the male and the female. Some of the bolder males may now and then attempt to overstep the bounds of good sportsmanship and crowd in up to forty-five paces, but such tactics are frowned upon by the Rules Committee." In "Cell-formations and Their Work," we are told that
in about 1 / 150000 of a cubic inch of blood there are some five million...
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[In the following essay, Solomon focuses on the scope and significance of the "Wayward Press" and "Theatre" columns Benchley wrote for the New Yorker during the 1930s.]
During the Depression decade, Robert Benchley wrote nearly seventy-five casual essays for the New Yorker, most of which have been collected in the five books he published in the 1930s—The Treasurer's Report (1930), No Poems (1932), From Bed to Worse (1934), My Ten Years in a Quandary (1936), After 1903—What? (1938). Some of these pieces are brief humorous asides—similar to his contributions of the late 1920s, when he provided many fillers for an issue—some rank among his finest parodies ("How Seamus Commara Met the Banshee"—1932), mock scientific essays ("A Brief Study of Dendrophilia"—1933), false nostalgia ("New Plays for Old"—1930), and the little man's dreams ("Take the Witness"— 1935). Benchley scholarship has taken appropriate notice of these contributions.
Less noted, and certainly uncollected in book form, are some of the best, the funniest, the most intelligent, and the most politically concerned pieces Benchley wrote. During the Thirties, over the pseudonym "Guy Fawkes," forty of his seventy Wayward Press columns appeared. Benchley not only prepared the way for his successor, A. J. Liebling, but also wrote some of the magazine's strongest political commentary as he...
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[Weales is an American writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he focuses on the "Wayward Press" columns Benchley wrote for the New Yorker from 1922-1939 under the pseudonym "Guy Fawkes.'"
A. J. Liebling's name is so firmly identified with the New Yorker's Wayward Press column—even now, more than twenty years after his death—that the work of his illustrious predecessor in that department is almost forgotten. Yet Robert Benchley wrote press criticism for the magazine from 1927 to 1939, and to read through his seventy-four columns, as I have just done, is not only to taste the pleasures of Benchley's prose but to recognize that he was a man with firm opinions about what a newspaper should be and do and a sharp if occasionally idiosyncratic sense of the metropolitan press's failure at being and doing.
Benchley was not the first of the New Yorker's press critics. The seeds of the Wayward Press can be found in a column that appeared in just two issues, the second (February 28, 1925) and the third (March 7) in the magazine's first year. It consisted of short pieces by various writers, but the emphasis was not so much on press coverage as on the manipulations that its title—"Behind the News"—suggests. The first column devoted to the reporting of the news was "The Current Press," which first appeared on August 15, 1925.
Guy Fawkes (Benchley) took over "The...
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Benchley, Nathaniel. Robert Benchley. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1955, 258 p.
Study of Robert Benchley's life and work written by his son. Includes a chronological list of Benchley's movies and eight pages of photographs.
Masson, Thomas L. "Robert C. Benchley," in his Our American Humorists, pp. 47-52. Freeport, N. Y.: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1931.
Brief biographical sketch plus text of Benchley's essay "The Social Life of the Newt."
Rosmond, Babette. Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970, 239 p.
Biography of Benchley featuring numerous drawings by Gluyas Williams.
Pinsker, Sanford. "Comedy and Cultural Timing: The Lessons of Robert Benchley and Woody Allen." The Georgia Review XLII, No. 4 (Winter 1988): pp. 822-37.
Comparative analysis of the two American humorists.
Redding, Robert. Starring Robert Benchley: "Those Magnificent Movie Shorts. "Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973, 209 p.
Overview of Benchley's work as a writer and actor in Hollywood short films and features.
Yates, Norris W. Robert Benchley. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968, 175 p.
Critical study of...
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