How This Man Made the U.S. Laugh

How This Man Made the U.S. Laugh

By Jim Knipfel


Your grandma’s funny is sometimes still funny.

By Jim Knipfel

In 1920, sick of all the snotty reviews everything on Broadway was receiving that season, actor J.M. Kerrigan challenged those self-satisfied wits of the Algonquin Round Table to put on a show of their own, they were so damn smart. Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker and the other members of the Round Table accepted the challenge, and the result was No Sirree!: An Anonymous Entertainment by the Vicious Circle of the Hotel Algonquin.

For his part in the comic review (which ran one night only), burly and amiable Round Tabler Robert Benchley reprised a routine he’d first performed as a student at Harvard, playing a bumbling, ill-prepared company treasurer attempting to present — amid a stammering, hesitant mess of conflicting figures and double-talk — a summary of that quarter’s final report. The bit was the biggest hit of the show, so much so that a few months later Irving Berlin asked Benchley to perform it nightly as part of a review he was putting together.

After the run ended, he continued performing the routine here and there around NYC, and in 1928 20th Century Fox signed Benchley, already a nationally recognized and influential humorist thanks to his work for Vanity Fair, Life and The New Yorker, to film the routine as a short subject. The Treasurer’s Report, as it was called — which represented the first chance most American moviegoers had to actually see and hear Benchley — was likewise a hit, and a couple other shorts and small film roles followed. For the most part, though, Benchley concentrated on his writing for the next five years.

Benchley would make a total of 30 shorts for MGM, becoming one of the country’s most publicly recognized humorists.

He returned to Hollywood in the early ’30s to appear in a few more shorts for Universal and RKO, as well as a couple more features. The popular shorts, like Your Technocracy and Mine, generally took the form of an educational film, though the information doled out tended to be on the questionable (and not a little bewildering) side. Noting the success of those shorts, in 1935 MGM signed Benchley to a contract to make a string of similar shorts for them.

The first, How to Sleep, satirized a recent and widely publicized study released by the Mellon Institute. Benchley stars as an everyman doing everything the narrator (also Benchley) tells us we should do to get a good night’s sleep, but doing it all poorly. He goes to the icebox to fix himself a glass of warm milk, but then notices the turkey. And the coleslaw. And the chicken. To add to the feel of scientific authenticity, the lesson is punctuated with cutaways to animated diagrams and time-lapse photos to explain the physical and biochemical manifestations of the sleep process. Benchley’s genial, easy-going and seemingly off-the-cuff narration — in which he not only offers advice but comments on the action on the screen and occasionally re-creates the thoughts of his hapless, insomniac protagonist — was the real hook here, even more so than the on-screen fumblings. The short went on to win an Oscar.

Over the next decade, Benchley would make a total of 30 shorts for MGM, helping to establish him as one of the country’s most publicly recognized humorists.

For the most part, the shorts purported to be instructional in some form, with Benchley as narrator or onscreen lecturer, offering helpful hints on any number of fundamental human activities, from training a dog to budgeting time to proper public etiquette. Although How to Sleep would remain to this day his best remembered, the treasurer shtick would remain his signature, and he would return to it in at least four of the shorts, albeit in different contexts.

While the shorts as a whole remain remarkably sharp and timely 80 years down the pike thanks to the fundamental nature of the things being discussed, the bumbling treasurer bit gets me every time — maybe having been in that same position too many times myself.