from The Columbus Dispatch,
December 7, 1997
Good Humor Man
Tribute to Robert Benchley
Dispatch Arts Editor
Benchley—who has spent his life “being the grandson
of, the son of or the brother of” a famous writer—pays
homage to the family patriarch in Benchley Despite Himself.
subject of the one-man show is Robert Benchley, a name that
might not mean much to generations familiar with the humor
of Sam Kinison and Jerry Seinfeld but a name that resonates
for their grandparents.
Benchley—a member of the Algonquin Round Table of the
1920s and a writer, an actor and a radio host—was a
master of the one-liner, a craftsman of the short, humorous
also could party into oblivion.
grew up in a strict Victorian New England family, and yet
he became one of the great partyers of the 20th century,”
the grandson said. “He drank himself to death. He was
a family man, yet he ran around with Hollywood bimbos....
He apparently had a way of not only being the center of
attention in a room but making other people feel they were
special and funny.”
Benchley, who hadn’t been born when his grandfather
died in 1945, will present an abbreviated version of his
show in Columbus for the 103rd anniversary of the birth
of James Thurber.
use a lot of the running gags and non sequiturs that people
haven’t heard for 50 years,” he said, “and
go into the Thurber connection.”
many other quips, Robert Benchley is responsible for these:
get much more out of the theater if you sit facing the
stage.” (He was theater critic for both Life and
The New Yorker. )
feel particularly suited to speak about swing music
because I can’t carry a tune, either.”
God-given talent which I have must be tossed aside like
an old mistress—or is it mattress?”
way, I suppose, to improve the work ethic would be to
actually do more work, but that seems a little drastic....
A person can get any amount of work done, provided it
isn’t the work he’s supposed to be doing.”
contradictions that Nat Benchley learned about his grandfather
spurred him to put together his tribute. He relied upon
archival materials from Boston University, the recollections
of aging friends and the memories and memorabilia of his
grandmother, who, “thank God, never threw anything
of the contradictions in my grandfather certainly had to
do with work,” he said. “He seemed to be the sort
of person who wouldn’t work if a gun was put to his
head, but he got a tremendous amount done.”
Benchley wrote and acted in 48 short films, including How
To Sleep, which won an Academy Award in 1936. He wrote or
acted in 38 features and for three years hosted a syndicated
radio show with Artie Shaw as bandleader. He worked as a
drama critic and free-lance columnist and, under the pen
name Guy Fawkes, wrote a column on press criticism for The
he couldn’t meet a deadline of his own volition.
at The New Yorker told him his deadline was Saturday when
they didn’t need his writing until Sunday. The ruse
worked until a new copy boy spilled the beans, and never
again was the writer on time.
never believed in his worth or productivity.
was so self-deprecating, he would never give himself credit
for doing any good,” his grandson said. “He helped
people laugh through the Depression and the second world
who was born in 1889, was educated at Harvard University
(where he edited the Lampoon), went on to become part of
the infamous Round Table and hung out with Dorothy Parker,
Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Sullivan and Thurber.
White admired Benchley and once worried that something he
had written had been written 20 years earlier (and better)
Algonquin crowd was famous for being famous—the 10-year
lunch, being funny, being seen,” Nat Benchley said.
“It's not an uncommon phenomenon today, but then it
they could be quite sober in their work. Dorothy Parker
was depressing in the extreme. My grandfather went to see
her after her second or third suicide attempt and said:
‘You really have to stop this suicide stuff. One of
these days you’ll ruin your health.”
grandfather, Benchley said, wouldn’t approve of today’s
New Yorker or the tone of humorous writing in general.
disapproved of anything prurient in print. The times have
changed so much because the genteel humor they practiced
is no longer in style. The whole entertainment industry
has changed even in the last 15 years so that the quiet,
gentle word-based humor is having a hard time even being
heard. And the attention span of the average consumer these
days is about half that of a hummingbird.
are some writers who hark back to Robert Benchley and admit
it: Russell Baker, Calvin Trillin and Dave Barry. Woody
Allen borrows from Benchley and sometimes admits it and
Benchley had two sons, Robert Jr. and Nathanial—the
latter a novelist and short-story writer and the author
of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Nathanial
also had two sons: Peter, author of Jaws, and Nat.
a child and young adult, Nat met an aging and “irascible”
Thurber as well as George Abbott and Charles Addams.
the Benchleys recently sold their Nantucket home, they found
original Addams drawings that had been received in trade
for a huge, stuffed (real) bear.
took the bear and delighted in placing it in his apartment
elevator, sending it down solo to the lobby.
recollections of my grandfather came from growing up in
New York City in a household of family and friends who,
years after the fact, were still reeling from the shock
of his death,” said Nat, 51.
hung out with a group that took pride in calling themselves
the vicious wits, but they really were good people.... George
Abbott came up to me, ironically at my father’s memorial
service, and said, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but
your grandfather really was that nice.’
me, one of the great joys of Robert Benchley’s work
is that it’s short—two- or three-page stories
and essays. You can have it at your bedside, read one or
two stories and go to sleep with a smile on your face.”