Collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten
The Washington Post
Are You Ready to Humble?
Gene discovers he’s a legend in his own mind
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 2, 2006
A key to effective humor writing is humility. There may be no better example of this than the charmingly self-effacing works of the great Robert Benchley, whose gentle but pointed 1930s-era essays in the New Yorker and other publications are considered the pinnacle of American humor.
Benchley once wrote: “It took me 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.”
Since I, too, am a typically humble humor writer, you can imagine my surprise the other day when I received a complimentary letter from Nat Benchley, Robert’s grandson. Nat, a successful actor and writer, evidently reads my column. I decided to engage him in a conversation, because of the opportunity it would afford to discuss the craft of humor writing, particularly as it involves the notion of modesty and the art of self-deprecation.
Me: So, Nat. What is it about my column that you, an actual direct descendant of the most acclaimed humor essayist who ever lived, find so funny?
Nat: The cartoons. That guy can really draw.
Nat: Don’t get me wrong. I read the words, too.
Me: And what is it about my words that you, who grew up at the knee of one of the world’s most accomplished practitioners of the art of humor — a founder of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a man who just for his own amusement regularly traded bons mots with Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman — find particularly appealing?
Nat: I didn’t grow up at my grandfather’s knee.
Me: But surely, you were influenced by him, just by being exposed to his wit and gentle wisdom.
Nat: He died before I was born.
Nat: But his humor did survive in my father and other family and friends. It was inescapable, actually.
Me: Splendid, then. So, what would he have thought of my oeuvre?
Nat: Your use of “oeuvre” would have made him quiver — or quoeuvre. Asked once to define his own style, he said, “I don’t know enough words to have a ‘style.’ “
Me: That’s good!
Me: I don’t think I could have written that.
Nat: Not enough about toilets?
Me: Okay, so, recapping here, you didn’t know your grandpa, but you have been deeply influenced by his work and are imbued with a sense of his wit. And you, a busy, accomplished man with a full life, nonetheless find the time to seek out and read my work. Why is that?
Nat: Well, I also find time to pick individual dog hairs off my clothing with chopsticks.
Me: You do?
Nat: Also, I polish my sneakers. Edit Wikipedia listings. Sort and re-sort my sock drawer, arranging by nationality. Catalogue the names of the cherubs in 17th-century paintings. I’m just like that.
Me: This isn’t going as well as I had hoped. I very much wanted to examine the philosophical nature of humor vis-a-vis your devotion to my columns.
Nat: Actually, my grandfather had something to say about that. He said: “There seems to be no length to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor. It seems to worry them. And by the time you have the humor analyzed, it will be found that the necessity for laughing has been relieved.”
Me: I just don’t know what to say.
Nat: Actually, my grandfather had something to say about that, too. He said, “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”
Nat Benchley’s Web site is natbenchley.com. Gene Weingarten’s e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company