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“im Fine, Just Hurting Inside”
Robert Benchley, a woebegone chronicler of his own inadequacies, was the humorist’s humorist, a man beloved by practically everyone but himself
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
“It may be that my fingers were frozen when I was a very small child and have never quite thawed out, or it may be that I just become panicky at having a man look at me through a little window, but, whatever the cause, I am physically unable to pick up change which has been shoved out at me by a man at a ticket-booth.
“I can scoop up change like lightning from a store-counter… but let me stand in front of a ticket-window in a theater lobby or a railroad station, with a line of people behind me, and a boy with a magnet could pick up a mound of iron-filings one by one quicker than it takes me to garner 20 cents in change.”
Benchley was helpless at driving a car, couldn’t comprehend machinery of any sort, and railed at the impossibility of opening such things as a package of mints. “It may be a perfectly dandy wrapper, air-tight, water-tight and germproof, but if the buyer has to send it to a garage to get it off, something is wrong somewhere.” Rather than struggling with the recalcitrant ice trays in his refrigerator, he would send out for a bag of ice and patiently await its arrival. He battled all inanimate objects—and lost.
“The hundred and one little bits of wood and metal that go to make up the impedimenta of our daily life—the shoes and pins, the picture hooks and door keys, the bits of fluff and sheets of newspaper—each and every one [has] just as much vicious ill will toward me personally as the meanest footpad who roams the streets. … I can’t fight these boys. They’ve got me licked.”
According to his son Nathaniel, this was no exaggeration for comic effect. It was the truth. It is also what made Benchley’s movie portrayals of ineptitude so wonderfully natural and his essays about his failings—and his reactions to modern living—so appealing.
Benchley did not try to define why he was funny. In fact, he agreed with E. B. White that humor “can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” As a theater critic Benchley liked all kinds of comedy, from the subtle, understated manner of Will Rogers, the last great homespun wit, to the antics of the Marx Brothers, Ed Wynn, and Jimmy Durante. He was extravagant in his praise for both styles, but personally he seems to have preferred the quiet, straightfaced approach in most of what he wrote and performed. He often insisted that he didn’t have any style at all. “I don’t know enough words to have a style; I know, at most, fifteen adjectives.”
Benchley was singularly unimpressed with his own efforts. He believed, correctly, that he was no actor, in the sense that he was unable to duplicate his performances and employed none of the theatrical tricks of the trade when appearing before the camera. And although he wrote with slow, agonizing precision, he felt that none of his essays qualified him to claim that he was a writer. It took him, he said, “fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.” But in fact he had as much to do with creating the general tone of The New Yorker as any of its early staff.
Benchley was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 15, 1889, the son of Charles H. Benchley, a mildmannered nonpartisan aide to a dozen Worcester mayors, and Jane Moran Benchley, known as Jennie to the family, a stern prohibitionist who nonetheless had a sharp sense of humor and could readily laugh at herself.
Both of Benchley’s parents could trace their American lineage to before the Revolution, and Benchley’s paternal grandfather, Henry W. Benchley, served as a member of the Massachusetts Senate and as lieutenant governor of the state from 1856 to 1858. He helped found the Republican party in the eastern United States and was imprisoned in Texas during the Civil War for setting up a branch of the Underground Railroad there. His wife, Julia, was regarded in Worcester as a bit of an eccentric, a judgment that was posthumously reinforced when she willed her head to the local hospital so medical students could examine it.
Benchley’s parents were married in 1874, and their first son, Edmund Nathaniel, was born two years later. He was the focus of his parents’ fierce affection for thirteen years before they suddenly surprised themselves by producing Robert. Edmund doted on his baby brother, who returned the devotion. When Robert was in his first year of school, he was assigned the task of memorizing a poem of his own choosing and went to his older brother for help. Edmund solemnly taught him: