Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Part 1: Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and the Decline of Modern Humor Writing

Among aspiring comedy writers, the would-be print humorist seems rare. Though The Onion, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker are high-profile exceptions, it seems everyone wants to write for sitcoms, late night shows, and film. What’s not rare is to hear Woody Allen named among the influences of comedians and comedy writers. In fact, Woody Allen’s impact over the genre of comedy writing is so vast that it almost seems redundant to name him as an influence. But when Allen is named, it’s not just because of his stand up or his films. His humor collections (including one of my favorites, Without Feathers) and decades of contributions to The New Yorker have cemented Allen’s legacy as a print humorist as much as his movies have affirmed his status as a visionary filmmaker.

Of course, the tradition of humor in print goes back further still. Allen, and many of today’s professional comedy writers, have made no secret of seminal humorists Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman’s influence on their work. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was hardly a local circular that didn’t run Benchley or Perelman’s humorous shorts in syndication, yet today, their work - and, though I hate to think it, the tradition and viability of humor in print - is largely overlooked by young comedy fans and aspiring comedy writers.

I won’t pretend to be an old soul with innate knowledge of comedy landscapes existing and falling into obscurity decades before I was born, but my recent discovery of Benchley and Perelman’s work has me in a mood to proselytize. My newfound enthusiasm for their timeless and hilarious writing is eclipsed only by my surprise at the indifference of Chicago Public Library patrons toward their work. No exaggeration: the copies of Benchley Lost and Found and The Most of S.J. Perelman I borrowed from the library haven’t been checked out in – in one case – 28 years. Years!

Woody Allen wrote in a 1979 essay in praise of S.J. Perelman that “when you read Perelman and you’re a young writer it’s fatal because his style seeps into you. He’s got such a pronounced, overwhelming comic style that it’s very hard not to be influenced by him.” Thirty years has done nothing to dilute this influence; many, including The Daily Show’s Scott Jacobson (who I interviewed along with Rob Kutner, Mike Sacks, and Hudson Hongo for part two of Where Have All The Humorists Gone?, coming this Thursday), have noted that “Allen’s more recent New Yorker pieces actually suffer from too much wordy over-Perelmanizing”. There is even a post on a popular language blog dedicated to Woody Allen’s dense and intricate syntax in “Udder Madness”, which many of the blog’s commenters assert borrows much from Perelman’s ornate prose style. Another of my favorite authors, Wilfrid Sheed, wrote of Perelman’s influence on his novels in a 1970 issue of LIFE magazine that “Perelman did for American humor what Joyce and Proust did for the novel.”

But Benchley is no slouch. Besides Allen, writers and comedians like Bruce Jay Friedman, Shelley Berman, and Bob Newhart have claimed Benchley as an influence. Though I’m impressed with Perelman’s command of the English language and find him very clever, Benchley is my favorite of the two writers. His style is more conversational, and he often assumes an assured tone when taking purposefully silly or erroneous positions (a seemingly earnest and straight-faced dissertation on the annoyances of beach sand, for example) – kind of like Stephen Colbert.

And while print humor as a genre may be overlooked, the medium’s influence can often be seen in other forms. Everything old is new again: Benchley and Perelman’s timeless themes have found their way into more contemporary comedy, and if only for that reason (and there are sooo many others), deserve a second look. Below, I’ve selected some of my favorite Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman essays along with their modern foils.

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In his “Cloudland Revisited” series, S.J. Perelman puts his youthful tastes on trial, reassessing them with unsentimental distance. Sounds a bit like The Nostalgia Critic. Perelman reaches the same conclusion in most of the essays in this series: “If my examination of The Sheik did nothing else, it confirmed a suspicion I have been harboring for over two decades; namely, that [I] show the most dubious literary taste of anyone I ever knew.” Don’t be so harsh on yourself, Sidney! I was shattered to discover that Rolf, my childhood crush from The Sound of Music, was actually a Nazi. While Perelman is always hilarious, his literary criticism rivals that of J.V. Cunningham. To relegate Perelman’s writing solely to the status of humor would speak meanly of his versatility. But as was noted in The New Yorker, “when people suggested that he might have a higher calling than humor, he sensibly paid no attention to them.”

Read “Cloudland Revisited: Into Your Tent I’ll Creep” in its entirety here.

From The Nostalgia Critic - A review of Hook:

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Perelman’s “Acres and Pains” is a classic fish-out-of-water story of a city mouse in a country house. “When I first settled down on a heap of shale in the Delaware Valley, I too had a romantic picture of myself. For about a month I was a spare, sinewy frontiersman in fringed buckskin, with crinkly little lines about the eyes and a slow laconic drawl…. After I almost blew off a toe cleaning an air rifle, though, I decided I was more the honest rural type. I started wearing patched blue jeans [and] mopped my forehead with a red banana (I found out later it should have been a red bandanna)…. One day, while stretched out on the porch, I realized I needed only a mint julep to become a real dyed-in-the-wool, Seagram’s V.V.O. Southern planter…. I sent to New York for a broad-brimmed hat and a string tie, and at enormous expense trained the local idiot to fan me with a palmetto leaf.” It reads like the treatment for Chevy Chase’s Funny Farm mixed with a bit of Tom Hanks’ The Money Pit. I like to think that Perelman buying a costume from New York to affect the look of an authentic bumpkin somehow influenced Andy Farmer’s insistence that the citizens of Rosebud study Norman Rockwell paintings to learn to be normal country folk.

Funny Farm trailer:

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Perelman’s “The Hand that Cradles The Rock” - about a sycophantic profile of FLAIR, LOOK, and QUICK editrix Fleur Fenton Cowles (who, because Perelman’s caricature - Hyancinth Beddoes Laffoon - is so cruelly imagined, I was shocked to find was a real person)- reads like a parody of Vogue’s Anna Wintour; it’s The Devil Wears Prada - if Prada were dauntingly literary. “Mr. Weisinger’s portrait of the versatile directress of Look, Quick, and Flair… depicts her as a high-voltage executive in whose personality a Kansas cyclone has been successfully wedded to a Devonshire clotted cream.”

Read “The Hand That Cradles The Rock” in its entirety here.

Devil Wears Prada trailer:

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Perelman’s pieces, including the Fleur Cowles piece above and a re-imagined epistolary dialogue between a Indian Prime Minister and the Parisan laundry where his clothes were sent, are often triggered by his reactions to current events or articles he’s read. Prompted by a single line in a news story, Perelman’s concoction of letters in “No Starch in the Dhoti, S’il Vous Plait” seem the progenitor of McSweeney’s Short Imagined Monologues.

Read “No Starch in the Dhoti, S’il Vous Plait” in its entirety here.

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Though elevated, the language of Robert Benchley is more colloquial than that of Perelman. I’m often in awe of Perelman’s rhetorical facility, but Benchley makes me laugh. And that’s what’s most important!

As a single gal with no dependents, I can’t say I know much about insurance agents, but if their portrayal on film and page is to be believed, they’re pretty insufferable. In “Yarns of An Insurance Man” the redundant claims stories of a friend Benchley hardly tolerates are not to be borne. The essay savors strongly of Groundhog Day’s enthusiastic Ned Ryerson.

Read “Yarns of An Insurance Man” in its entirety here.

Ned Ryerson - Groundhog Day:

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In “The Railroad Problem”, Benchley satirizes people who feel personally victimized by the mild inconveniences of modern technology - in this case, railway travel in the 1930s. It’s as if Louis CK’s Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy hopped into a wayback machine. Louis CK is one of the most original comic thinkers of our time and if he was scooped by Benchley, well, that’s recommendation enough.

Read “The Railroad Problem” in its entirety here.

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy:

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I can’t be the only one who gets suckered into watching The History Channel’s Egyptian anthropology marathons and wondering just how wrong all of the expert panelists must be in their reconstructions of daily Egyptian life. There’s only so much a shard of pottery can tell you about the sex life of the pharaohs, right? I have no idea what I’m saying. Robert Benchley’s “Our News Reel Life” posits that, based on archived news reel footage, people of the future would inaccurately assume that the 1930s in America was nothing more than diving and political speeches. A viral video, Beatles 3000 and a recent article in The Onion (“Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks”) tackle the very same topic hilariously.

Read “Our News Reel Life” in its entirety here.

Beatles 3000:

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The misanthrope in me loves “Ill Will Toward Men”, in which Benchley becomes the random nemesis of one of his fellow train passengers, concocting a worst-possible scenario of the man’s (a stranger!) associations, tastes, and station in life. “He doesn’t take a good look at your face, or you at his, but you both concentrate an ugly glare on the buttons of each other’s waistcoats. If he happens to have a fraternal watch charm on his chain you appraise it critically and say to yourself, ‘Oh, one of those, eh?’ In the meantime, he has worked his inspection up to your tie, and you are conscious of the fact that he doesn’t like it at all… Here are two citizens of the United States who should be brothers in the bond, whipped up to a state of mutual dislike and animosity without a word being spoken.” Comedian and Tosh.0 staffer, Joselyn Hughes recently tweeted a similarly hilarious sentiment.

Read “Ill Will Toward Men” in its entirety here.

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I love pieces from a child’s point of view, probably because I can’t remember what words looked like before I could read them or what purposes I ascribed to machines before I understood what they were for, but pieces from the point of view of adults ashamed of their childhood tastes and beliefs are even better. Not unlike in Perelman’s Cloudland Revisited, in “Yesterday’s Sweetmeats” Benchley remembers the candy of his youth, much to his dismay. The gustatory recollection of candy that “not only tastes of French coffee on the second or third brewing, but gave the undesirable feeling that it was also good for a sore throat” was enough to elicit my sympathy… and chuckles. Though Benchley never claims the candy would shoot his eye out, the tone of the piece reminded me of A Christmas Story and some of my favorite short stories and poems: Frank O’Connor’s “First Confession” and Sharon Old’s “Rite of Passage” - each about adults trying to understand the mind of a child.

Read “Yesterday’s Sweetmeats” in its entirety here.

A Christmas Story trailer:

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In part two, professional comedy writers Rob Kutner (The Daily Show, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien), Scott Jacobson (The Daily Show), and Mike Sacks (Vanity Fair, And Here’s The Kicker), and budding humorist Hudson Hongo will discuss their influences, beginnings in print humor, and transition to writing for television and other media.

Is Rebecca O’Neal a Chicago-based freelance writer? Because her mom is kind of worried.

Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Part 1: Robert […]