underrated

Why Robert Benchley Was the Master of Comedy About Nothing

Robert Benchley Photo: Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The Algonquin Round Table is not underrated. The collection of writers who met for lunch throughout the ’20s highly rated each other in their columns, creating a legacy of biting humor and wit for decades. Some of its stars have burned brighter for longer, however. Dorothy Parker is the inspiration for films, books, and cocktail napkins to this very day. Her former Vanity Fair co-worker, Robert Benchley, has faded from comedy memory. He’s remembered now mainly as Parker’s BFF, but his writing feels more of-the-moment than work by the majority of his former lunch bunch.

Benchley wrote dozens of comic essays in which he wrote prodigiously about absolutely nothing. Later, he made comedy shorts, including the Academy Award–winning How to Sleep in 1935. His was a surprisingly contemporary absurdism, a perfect fit for the way things now are true if you shout them loud enough. In a list of movie bloopers, Benchley once wrote that a movie had messed up by taking place in Budapest, since Budapest doesn’t exist. When readers wrote in trying to correct him, Benchley said this: “I am sticking to my guns … There is no such place as Budapest. Perhaps you are thinking of Bucharest, and there is no such place as Bucharest either.”

Benchley hoarded kitschy objects he thought were funny. Eventually, his Algonquin pals made a game of seeing who could give him the biggest and dumbest object — a game that was won, according to Benchley, with “a small two-headed calf in a moderate state of preservation.” Merrill Markoe also hangs on to anything she thinks comedy can be made from. It’s a habit that served her well as the original head writer for Late Night With David Letterman. Almost anything can become comedy for Markoe: a flyer that says “No Job Too big or Too Small,” doing one’s laundry, or even her old journals. Her latest book, We Saw Scenery, is based on the journals she wrote in her early teens. She was struck by how alien her child self seemed, and she barely remembered the events recorded in each diary. Markoe illustrated the book less like the text’s writer and more like someone getting pages from a complete stranger who hired them on Fiverr. Vulture spoke to Markoe about Mr. Benchley, emojis, and the mothers who birth comedians.

When did you first discover Robert Benchley?
It was in my early 20s, when I decided I was going to start trying to write comic essays. At some point, I started looking into who’s who in comic essays, and I ran into the Algonquin Round Table. He appealed to me right away because he has the combination that I find unbeatable: sort of a cerebral underpinning with layers upon layers of silliness on top of it. For some reason, I need the cerebral underpinning to make the silliness work for me. So he does both of those things really, really well. He sort of cuts through time in that way. [You read him and think] Oh, apparently people in other eras were just people. Sometimes they seem like they were other kinds of creatures, you know? Especially literary figures; they can seem really intimidating and terrifying.

Or if you read their personal letters, you go, Oh, I don’t have any of these concerns.
Actually, I was reacquainting myself with Benchley before you called. I hadn’t ever looked at his Wikipedia page, and I realized that Benchley and I had something in common. We have this in common with a lot of people who do comedy for a living: We had That Mom. I only know one thing about his mom, but I’m gonna tell it to you because it made me laugh out loud. Because it was literally my own mom, as well. The same type.

His brother was killed in the Spanish-American War and was apparently a wonderful, lauded hero. The parents didn’t find out he’d been killed until this Fourth of July picnic, where a bicycle messenger rolled up to tell them what happened. And his mother’s first remark, upon hearing of the death of this son, was “Why couldn’t it have been Robert?!”

[Laughs.]
Which made me laugh out loud! Everybody in comedy has a mom like this. They are breeding the comedians of the world, these moms.

Benchley was obviously accurately rated in his time — he won an Oscar — but he doesn’t have the name recognition now of some of his Algonquin compatriots. Why is that?
I don’t know why that is. But I don’t understand popular opinion. I’ve always been puzzled by it. I’m the person who likes a thing when everyone hates it and hates a thing when everybody loves it, so I don’t understand. I would think he would have more popular appeal because he’s much easier to read than Dorothy Parker — who is, I think, as brilliant as anyone ever needs to be in this world. She’s amazing. But she’s more difficult.

Robert Benchley has this assortment of titles like “The Menace of Buttered Toast.” If you’re gonna title your piece “The Menace of Buttered Toast,” where do you go from there? He taught me that you can take something you know nothing about, give it a good title, and just write for 800 words. What he generally does is position himself as a guy who has been hired for his expertise but forgot to do his homework. He’s here to tell you everything that you wanted to know about something, but he doesn’t actually know anything. So he’s gonna fill as much time as possible with parenthetical clauses.

That’s something I was really struck by, reading his essays. He has a real love for language, and especially parentheticals.
Yeah, he’s drowning in parentheticals, and he knows it. He does parodies of himself that’s one parenthetical after another after another, where he’s explaining what he just said and then reexplaining that. It’s a lot of stuff like “Personally, if you ask me (and, so far as I have heard, nobody has asked me yet, but I shall go right ahead just the same), I feel that we, as a nation (and when I say ‘as a nation’ I mean ‘as a nation’) eat too much buttered toast.” It made me wonder if one motivation he had in being funny was that he was being paid by the word. He took a short sentence and made it into a paragraph.

His essays do have the energy of someone who is always on deadline and scraping the sides of his intellectual jam jar.
Yeah.

Which is one of the things I love about late-night TV — the weird places you’re forced to go because something needs to be on the air every night.
That was one of the things that I always really liked. I’m not sure whether I got this from Benchley or just from art school, but when I was writing in late-night TV, I sat down and read the telephone book. I read the yellow pages and just made lists and lists and lists of stuff I’d never seen any comedy written about. I thought, These are original ideas you’re working with, if you’re starting with stuff that nobody thinks is funny.

The films are a little more evolved than that because you’ve got a film crew. He’s got a great one explaining the causes of the Great Depression. He wrote it in ’31, and he starts it with a little montage of three people who all say, “We’ve turned a corner, we’re finished with that now!” It’s kind of like the stuff we’re hearing about COVID now.

Getting back to parentheticals, has there ever been a punctuation mark you’ve become overly fond of?
I’m the last person on Twitter who’s still using apostrophes. I feel that you should put them in when you can, but they’re going away.

It seems like all capitalization and punctuation is going away on Twitter.
Yeah, it does appear to be, replaced by emojis. By the way, I’m still the last person who has never used a smiling emoji, or a tear-face emoji. I will go to my grave never having used one. There’s only three emojis that I will use, because I looked through all the emojis and found three that nobody is using.

Okay, lay them on me.
Those three are: steaming hot bowl of soup, steaming hot cup of coffee, and lotion.

Benchley always thought that comedy wasn’t a worthwhile pursuit, and he had a lot of regret in his life about it.
Oh really? I didn’t know that. Because he did the Harvard Lampoon in college; he started pretty young.

Yeah, but as he got older, he felt like he should have been working on the Great Novel or whatever.
Oh right, he would have written the Great Novel. He never would have written the Great Novel, that guy! He was really good at what he did. And he didn’t live very long. He was dead in 1945. I think he had cirrhosis.

Why do you think it is that some comedians underrate comedy?
Do they? I don’t know. I know a great many comedians are filled with self-hatred. And that, I think, is something they should look into. I think it’s a big waste of time, that self-hatred. But it’s really common. So maybe a lot of people think, If I’m doing it, it must be worthless. And that’s a product of those moms I’ve been talking about before.

Let’s talk about your book We Saw Scenery. How did the project start for you?
I was cleaning out my office. I’ve saved everything I think might be funny, which is a habit I think I picked up writing for late-night TV. I was under the firm impression that if I found something that was funny, I could make a segment out of it. You have to keep coming up with segments and segments and segments. So I keep thinking everything that I see is going to be valuable to me, and I’m going to need it for my work.

At the bottom of a box, I found these diaries I’d kept when I was in fourth, fifth, sixth grade. I decided to sit down and read them as though they are an early work by an author. So I started to realize I only remembered about a third of what I’d written in them. I didn’t seem like me to me. It was me before I was compulsively jokey.

Benchley hoarded everything he thought might be funny, too.
Yeah. He went back and forth between the pieces where he was saying nothing and having absolutely fantastic things to say about really common stuff. When I taught at USC — I taught art at USC for a year before I became a writer — I gave out “How to Get Things Done” as a piece of reading in my freshman drawing class. I xeroxed and gave out “How to Get Things Done,” thinking, Oh, this will be really fun. They’ll enjoy it. And I remember kids in my class going, “We have to read for this class?”

[Laughs.]
But what I love about “How to Get Things Done” is that it has this astute little core, which is that anybody can get any amount of work done, provided that they’re not doing the work they’re supposed to be doing at that moment. I thought, Wow, that nailed it. That’s exactly the way it is for writing, certainly.

I felt so personally implicated by that essay.
It’s a very astute, funny piece that everyone likes. Except the people in my art class, who probably didn’t read it. I thought I was giving them this great thing, and they’re all like “Aw, it didn’t say that there’d be a reading list!” That’s why I didn’t go on to teach another year.

Benchley often positions himself as a teacher who completely misreads his audience.
There’s this one, “Sex Life of the Polyp.” It’s obvious he knows nothing about a polyp. And he’s full of embarrassment that he has to talk about sex life at all.

In front of all those women.
Even though we find out later that it’s a single-cell organism that could be either male or female at will. And that is equally attracted to the opposite sex polyp, a button, and a crumb of cornbread. Finds the three equally sexually intriguing. It’s full of things like “A polyp is a polyp, after all, and has its little weakness like the rest of us. And I, for one, would not have it otherwise.” Which is a nice way of saying absolutely nothing. Nobody says nothing like this guy.

That short made me think about what Benchley could have done with all the modern vectors for comedy we have now: PowerPoint, TikTok, Photoshop.
He probably would have been participating. I was using his style of writing when The Letterman Show started. I was writing Dave a lot of “How to Do This” and “How to Do That” pieces that required sets and rehearsals and stuff. Dave quickly got fed up with that. It was a daily show, and I was writing these elaborate pieces that required the art department make a set that’s a subway or something. One was “How to Ride in a Cab,” and we did it in a cab. One was “How to Do Your Laundry,” and we did it at a laundromat. That was my favorite thing to do, until rehearsals caught up with us and nobody wanted to do them anymore. I used to do pieces like that for Not Necessarily the News at one point. They were my favorite thing to do.

The animation in “Sex Life of the Polyp” is great, too.
He uses animation, too, in “How to Sleep.” There’s a couple of little spots of animation. One about how sleep comes from blood leaving the brain — unless you’re an alcoholic, then it’s your brain leaving the blood. And he’s got another about how you can fall asleep thinking about sheep jumping over a fence, but this poor gentleman is worried not all of the sheep are gonna make it.

And then there’s a sheep pileup.
Yeah. So he was kind of mixed media there too. But he was rewarded for that one. An Academy Award, my God.

That one is harsher in hindsight because he’s so mean to alcoholics in it. And he’s dead from alcoholism not long after that.
Yeah. [Pause.] Oh well. Went to join his brother, made his mother happy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Why Robert Benchley Was the Master of Comedy About Nothing