Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robert Benchley and the Hurdy-Gurdy

Now, I like me a bit of nonsense. Read any of my blogs, and you’ll see that. But I tend to be picky in my nonsense. Whenever I hear or read someone talking of “Nonsense for nonsense’s sake,” I say “Nonsense.” Nonsense is entirely subjective and varies from person to person, indeed, from mood to mood.

So, to test your affectation for Robert Benchley’s nonsense for nonsense’s sake, as Untermeyer puts it, first watch this:

Consider now that, in 1936, Benchley won an Academy Award for this ten-minute, uh, soporific. When I watched it earlier this week, early in the am, it was amusing. Gut-wrenching laughter? No. I did like the look on the cartoon alcoholic’s face, however.

But wait a second. It’s getting better. “A sleep position most popular with the drunk.” Wait a second. Wait a second. This reminds me of something. There:

This, from 1953. Everyone’s much more familiar with Goofy Geef’s “How to Sleep,” though it does seem ripped off from Benchley’s. Or inspired. Re-imagined, as they might say today. (And this ‘they” is not just Disney; it’s everybody.)

So to the Robert Benchley in The Treasury of Laughter: Kiddie-Kar Travel.

For the uninitiated, I should say that planes used to be called trains. Trains, too, used to whisk people along their merry way on long, cross-country voyages with all the comfort of one of those livestock trailers you see rattling down the highway with poop falling out of them. Just like in the cattle cars, it was important on the trains to get an upper berth – meaning first class – to avoid the inevitable downhill flow of the various waste products trains naturally accumulate.

One of those waste products, Benchley proposes, is children. So basically take your worst traveling on a plane full of kids nightmare and substitute “train” for “plane,” and you’ll get the picture:

If the child is of an age which denies the existence of sleep, however, preferring to run up and down the aisle of the car rather than sit in its chair (at least a baby can’t get out of its chair unless it falls out and even then it can’t go far), then every minute of the trip is full of fun. On the whole, having traveled with children of all the popular ages, I would be inclined to award the Hair-Shirt to the man who successfully completes the ride with a boy of, let us say, three.

In the first place, you start with the pronounced ill-will of two-thirds of the rest of the occupants of the car. You see them as they come in before the train starts, glancing at you and yours with little or no attempt to conceal the fact they wish they had waited for the four o’clock. Across from you is perhaps a large man who, in his home town, has a reputation for eating little children. He wears a heavy gold watch chain and wants to read through a lot of reports on the trip. He is just about as glad to be opposite a small boy as he would be if it were a hurdy-gurdy.

In back of you is a lady in a black silk dress who doesn’t like the porter. Ladies in black silk dresses always seem to board the train with an aversion to the porter. The fact that the porter has to be in the same car with her makes her fussy to start with, and when she discovers that in front of her is a child of three who is already eating (you simply have to give him a lemon-drop to keep him quiet at least until the train starts) she decides that the best thing to do is simply to ignore him and not give him the slightest encouragement to become friendly. The child therefore picks her out immediately to be his buddy.

So you see, Consumerist.com readers who hate children on planes, you’re in good, well-documented company, predisposed to despise child and parent no matter what happens.

And we see, folks, that Benchley is a pioneer in that erudite, almost clinical humor that uses the overblown speech of psychology and academia to document nonsense for nonsense’s sake. And, for that, I am grateful.

Interesting tidbids: Robert Benchley is one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, and father to Peter Benchley, of Jaws fame.

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