Before There Was ‘Saturday Night Live’


It’s a lost art—the short comedy talkie, produced by the hundreds during Hollywood’s so-called golden age as nothing more than bonus gifts for audiences still schooled on the packed, bang-for-your-buck vaudeville experience. The definition of skit comedy for several generations, shorts like those written by and starring Robert Benchley seeded the soil for Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, and Saturday Night Live. Of course, as epitomized by this selection, the jokes are subtler, the rhythms are more relaxed, and the topics, however fresh then, have been recycled into plasticized oblivion. Which hardly sullies the charm and seductive intimacy of Benchley himself, who during the 1930s and early 1940s perfected a thoroughly modern persona: the flabby middle-aged mensch who’s presented to us as an authority figure but who is actually a hapless, desperate fool. Of the 14 films, The Trouble With Husbands (1940) established Benchley’s lecture-with-illustration dynamic and is still a deadpan beauty, initiating an unending flash flood of domestic-strife stand-up routines since; Crime Control (1941) is an increasingly surreal PSA about dangerous objects, which more or less peaks with Benchley pulling out a revolver and shooting his errant slippers. Benchley’s peerlessly smooth delivery of caught-up-short public speaking remains his trump card—crinkling up feebly at his own puns, talking himself out onto a redundant limb—but he’s also one of the most convincing handlers of comic dialogue Hollywood ever had. These Paramount shorts weren’t meant to be seen en masse, so they do have a number of odd cumulative effects, not the least of which is a bolero of melancholic mourning: Dead in 1945 from a cerebral hemorrhage, Benchley was a sad alcoholic who never fulfilled his own literary ambitions, and watching the shorts with, at least, Alan Rudolph’s underrated Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle in mind can be deeply affecting. Also included: two early talkies from 1928 that Benchley did for Fox, including The Treasurer’s Report, and a few shorts starring the crashingly unamusing Alexander Woollcott and Donald Ogden Stewart.