Tom Stangl

must admit, in my spare time, I’m a fan of a good laugh.

At the end of a day of work, I enjoy a good meal and a hearty laugh. I have found in my nearly sixty years of life that a good laugh can erase the memory of many trials and travails of the day.

I try not to be too picky or high-brow in my humor and I find myself looking to the past to find new ways to laugh.

Regular readers of this column know of my penchant for Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the commercial free cable television service that runs movies from the MGM, Warner Brothers and RKO studios. Last week they ran a series of short films that I thoroughly enjoyed because I got to see a few more of the films of Robert Benchley.

Benchley died in 1945 age 56. He made a series of short films from 1935 to 1944. Benchley wrote essays in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and appeared in several movies. He had a very dry wit and sense of humor that holds up very well over 80 years later.

Many of his short films, shown as part of a movie billing that included previews, a cartoon, newsreel and the feature movie, usually centered on the average man’s struggle with a wide variety of things from getting a good night’s sleep to training a dog to doing your income tax.

Benchley was a consummate straight man to the madness of the world around him. I realize I am showing my age here, but one of the comedians who was influenced by Benchley was Bob Newhart. If you know Newhart, you know Benchley. Benchley had a small moustache and an air of sophistication, but beyond that, they’re the same guy.

“How to Sleep,” Benchley’s first short, won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject. In the film he tries to get asleep but is interrupted by everything from window blinds hitting the window frame in the breeze to a mosquito to noisy neighbors. I laughed out loud for minutes.

“A Night at the Movies” has Benchley and his wife trying to find a seat at a crowded theater and dealing with all sorts of rude people.

One of my favorites is “How to Figure Income Tax” where Benchley confidently begins the film explaining how easy it is to do your taxes, using enlarged forms that are on boards that he can flip between. Like the rest of us, he is soon deep in the weeds trying to understand the vernacular of the government.

Benchley’s essays are often quoted as well. Among some of my favorite quotes: “I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well.” “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.” “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” And finally: 

“The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.”

Whenever I get a chance to see his sly, sardonic wit I make a point of doing so. There’s art in making a person laugh without being mean or vulgar and Benchley was a true artist.

As always, I welcome your comments. You can reach me by email at tstangl@theameryfreepress.com, telephone 715-268-8101 or write me at P.O. Box 424, Amery, WI, 54001.

Thanks for reading I’ll keep in touch. Feel free to do the same.

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