April 16th, 2021



Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published Dec. 2, 2016

 Robert Charles Benchley

I just happen to be old enough to remember a little thing called "wit." There doesn't seem to be much of it going around anymore. Where we once had wit we now have sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and ridicule.

Wit is a gentle form of humor, not the kind to make you laugh out loud as much as it makes you smile and think. A person who is a wit is described in the Oxford Dictionary as "someone who has a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor."

One of America's greatest wits was a man called Robert Benchley.

Robert Charles Benchley (September 15, 1889 - November 21, 1945) was a true wit; a humorist, actor and drama critic best known for his magazine essays and movie work. He appeared in character parts in about 50 feature films and made more than 40 short subjects for MGM and Paramount. No doubt though, his essay writing has been his most lasting achievement.

Most of his essays appeared in Vanity Fair, Life Magazine and The New Yorker, reprinted in 15 book collections with illustrations by the wonderful Gluyas Williams. These pieces, some of which are more than 100 years old, hold up beautifully and are as relevant today as they were when they were first published.

Benchley developed a unique screen and writing persona, sort of a cross between the "average man" and a socially inept inhibited bumbler who finds himself having to come to terms with modern social mores and the complexity of everyday life. Much of Benchley's humor was based on the foibles of the human condition and the trials and tribulations of dealing with the world around him, and these things never go out of date.

Benchley had a great knack for recognizing the weakness inherent in all of us as well as the common minor aggravations we encounter in daily living. He was able, through his character, to gently and humorously remind us that we are not alone in our frustrations. Although his persona was of the average Joe, in real life Benchley was far from that.

An "average Joe" doesn't attend Harvard (especially 100 years ago) and write for The Harvard Lampoon, let alone get elected to its board of directors in his third year.

An average Joe doesn't write on staff for some of the most prestigious publications in the country and lunch with literary giants at the Algonquian Hotel.

An average Joe doesn't get movie contracts with major motion picture studios. All that being said, Benchley was able to speak to all of us with his wit, insight, and self-depreciating humor. In my estimation Robert Benchley was the dean of all American humorists, and there were plenty.

When compiling the list of past great American wits and humorists I guess we'd have to start with Benjamin Franklin, then Mark Twain, add to that Will Rogers, S.J. Perelman, and then go 'round the famous Algonquian Round Table with such luminaries (and Benchley pals) as Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood.

Okay, now let's list today's great wits. First we have...and then there's ...and don't forget... Hmmm. Well, I guess that covers it.

We must face the fact that wit is a lost art, like cursive writing or good manners or plumbers who know what they're doing. There are no witty raconteurs anymore and that's too bad.

On the other hand, it certainly makes life a little easier for the rest of us, since most of us wouldn't know how to engage in "witty repartee" if it fell on us.

No problem these days.

Who worries about being witty and clever at a cocktail party when the focus is on Game of Thrones and Pokémon Go?

So where do you find wit now? In old Robert Benchley books. You can find them at an old bookstore. If you can find an old bookstore.