Robert Benchley’s Legacy in an Era of Fraught Comedy

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From The New Yorker:

hen I started my career as a young humor writer for the satirical magazine Spy, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, I heard this a lot: “So you want to be the next Dorothy Parker, eh?” I took this as a compliment, of course, and, in the course of my twenties, graciously accepted five copies of “The Portable Dorothy Parker” and two copies of the biography “What Fresh Hell Is This?” as birthday gifts. I read the short stories and poems, and, while I admired Parker’s smart, biting style, my dirty little secret was that I did not connect emotionally with her writing. A haze of sorrow and gin hangs over her prose, and her female characters tend toward broken hearts and suicide—hilariously so, but still. Comedically, Parker and I were in very different places.

The Algonquin Round Table writer who appealed to me was Parker’s work husband, Robert Benchley. Biographically, Benchley and I had quite a bit of overlap. We shared a birth state (Massachusetts). We shared an alma mater. (I did not, like Benchley, contribute to the Harvard Lampoon, but I have written for heavily Lampoon-influenced shows, including “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Simpsons.”) We shared a political bent. We both made failed attempts to become investigative journalists before realizing that our sense of humor outweighed our sense of seriousness. We both wrote for Vanity Fair early in our careers, and we both made the leap from magazines to Hollywood. Benchley influenced Bob Newhart, and my first sitcom job was writing for the last season of “Newhart.”

. . . .

“Benchley wasn’t as neurotic or miserable as some of his colleagues,” the comedy historian and writer Ben Schwartz told me recently. “He wasn’t a rube or a bumpkin, but he also didn’t grow up in the big city, so he retained the perspective of an outsider who was embraced by those who had.”

Benchley’s literary style is upbeat and playful; it is a type of comedy that was known in the nineteen-twenties as “crazy humor,” according to Schwartz. In an early column about “movie boners” (now known as “bloopers”), Benchley jokingly insists, “There is no such place as Budapest.” This assertion prompted an angry letter from a reader. Budapest, the reader writes, is, in fact, the capital of Hungary. Benchley doubled down in a follow-up essay. “I am sticking to my guns, Mr. Schwartzer,” Benchley writes. “There is no such place as Budapest. Perhaps you are thinking of Bucharest, and there is no such place as Bucharest either.” Benchley supports his claim by quoting Dr. Almer Doctor, Finsk Professor of Obduracy and an expert on “Vanished Cities of Central Europe.” According to Benchley, Dr. Doctor insists, “Since 1802, there has been no such place as Budapest. It is too bad, but let’s face it.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

2 thoughts on “Robert Benchley’s Legacy in an Era of Fraught Comedy”

  1. Benchley, of course, was quite right: there is no such place as Budapest. There is Buda, known to its residents as this town over here, and to those across the river as that stinking hole over there. And there is Pest, known to its residents as this town over here; and to those from Buda it is known as Pest, because once you call a town Pest, there is really nothing more to be said. The two cities are shackled together under a common mayor and board of grifters, in utter defiance of the law so wisely observed by the Roman Empire, that what God hath put on one side of the Danube, let man not mix it up with what God hath put on the other.

    There is also no such place as Bucharest. Any Romanian will be inordinately happy to tell you that the capital of Romania is București; and if you sit still for it, he will treat you to a 15-hour lecture on the proper use of diacritical marks in spelling București (and România), and how the Romanians are the Real Original Human Beings and the sole surviving Romans under the canopy of heaven, despite the obvious fact that God hath put them on the wrong side of the Danube to be Romans.

    Wise fellow, that Benchley.

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