“Bunk Banquets” (E65)

  • Originally printed:  Liberty Magazine – issue not identified/year not known
  • First reprinted in: The Best of Robert Benchley (1983)
  • Original Byline: Unknown



Benchley anatomizes and anathematizes the machinations behind the plague of banquets afflicting the American social scene. As in “Accustomed As I Am–” (E3), our hero knows he is a voice crying unheard beneath the din of clinking glasses and cleared throats, but he can’t resist getting up to say a few words. Our intrepid reporter takes us step by step through an exposé outlining the hypothetical conception, promotion, and successful realization of a sham event hosted by the American Academy of Natural and Applied Arts, an organization invented for the sole purpose of giving this very banquet.

Not a single attendee suspects there is anything amiss with the proceedings; and, in fact, Benchley concludes, perhaps there isn’t. As with so much else that transpires at the executive level of American business culture, sheer spuriousness spurs the whole corrupt enterprise along. We can hardly condemn good ol’ H. G. Wamsley for skimming a little profit off the top hats when his marks are so eager to co-sign the grift.

RB is past caring about the ethical implications of such consensual chicanery. In fact, he is far more concerned about the thousands of “good faith” banquets clogging halls across the country. “Cui bono?” our detective asks himself. And comes up with: “no one.” Not the organizers. Not the guests. And certainly not Benchley, who must live with this knowledge. Ultimately, he leaves us with the chilling suggestion that most of these abominations occur for no reason whatsoever.

Favorite Moment:

There are certain banquets which it is probably hopeless to try to forestall. Trade conventions, associated college clubs, visiting conventions, all more or less demand a culminating celebration of some sort, and a banquet is the only thing that our national imagination seems capable of devising. But there are banquets which have not even the justification of camaraderie or the brotherhood of selling the same line of goods.

Reprint Notes:

  • Unable to compare text with original Liberty piece.

“Botany Exam” (E52)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, June 14, 1930
  • First reprinted in:  No Poems; Or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways (1932)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Ambushed by pedantry on the footpaths of Central Park, Benchley plots to claw back civic quietude from the clutches of municipal overreach. Things were bad enough for anxiety-ridden greenspace seekers when they were forced to contend with Latinate horticultural labels bent on literalizing the landscape, but now the botanists have used their pull with Tammany to salt the earth with demoralizing quiz inscriptions. No one, the author argues, heads to Central Park in search of further proof of their own ignorance. And yet, this is the inevitable result of the city’s current initiative. Benchley imagines Mayor Jimmy Walker himself lurking in the bushes in judgment.      

Refusing to wither altogether under this harsh light cast upon his defective understanding of the life sciences, RB conceives a text-based revenge scheme of his own. If the government wants to go around forcing embarrassing questions on people, it had better be prepared to face a return volley of the same. He does his best to incite a kind of grassroots, pretechnological Yelp campaign in the streets of Gotham, with the citizens leaving passive-aggressive placards about town in hopes of securing a cease-fire with the know-it-alls in the New York Parks Administration.    

Favourite Moment:

The only way in which we, as citizens, can get back at our tormentors is to ask them questions in return. We may not be erudite in our questions, but we can be embarrassing. We can put a sign over that hole in Forty-Fourth Street asking: ‘How much macadam would it take to fill up this hole, and why the hell isn’t it done?’ On every street corner, we could string up little signs reading: ‘what belongs here for the reception of waste-paper?’

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted in full, with a new Gluyas Williams illustration.

“Beating Nature at Her Own Game: At Last a Substitute For Snow” (E38)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, November, 1927
  • First reprinted in: The Early Worm
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley (Drawings by Rea Irvin)


Here we find Benchley ensconced in an absent-minded/oversharing brand ambassador persona which anticipates the vitamin researcher of E16 (Liberty, 1931); however, this earlier effort yields far more high-spiritedly insightful dividends. Beginning from the supposed premise that modern consumers are eager to embrace any artificial alternative to a naturally occurring substance, so long as the ersatz product requires no assembly or other effort on the part of the purchaser, our speaker hits upon the notion of going for broke as a snow manufacturer. At first, the reader assumes that, somewhere in the back of this person’s frozen brain, there must have been some inkling of the value that might be attributed to on-demand blizzards by Hollywood producers or skiing enthusiasts; but the spiel, as written (and who it is written to is an open question), dwells instead on the myriad ways in which this miserable stuff impinges upon and thwarts humanity’s best efforts to remain warm, dry, and moderately comfortable.

But Benchley takes pains to show us that there’s no mistake here (at least, not at the conceptual level – it’s true their formula doesn’t seem to work).

If they ever figure out how to churn out this cruel commodity, the addled ad man stands ready to mush on to the crux of his pitch. Why be vexed and drenched by real snow, which pours down upon us at the oddest times, prompted by atmospheric conditions so inexplicable that they are almost as annoying as their product, when you can be pelted and bedeviled by new “Sno” any time you want?! Of course, it all sounds insane when you put it this way, especially when you appear to be putting it this way to a room full of business and marketing executives; and it is insane. However, that puts it right in line with the dominant political imperative to manufacture and impose artificial harshness and austerity upon the majority of our world’s citizens, as a way of naturalizing the scramble for security and resources that keeps capitalism humming.

Favourite Moment:
The problem of distribution thus unsatisfactorily met with, the next thing was to decide what other attribute our “Sno” must have that would give it a place in the hearts of millions of snow-lovers throughout the country. Someone suggested “wetness,” and in half a second the cry had been taken up in all corners of the conference room – for we were in conference by now – “Wetness! Wetness! Our ‘Sno’ must be wet!”

Reprint Notes:

  • Drawings in The Early Worm are by Gluyas Williams
  • Title in The Early Worm shortened to: “At Last A Substitute For Snow”
  • Text mainly reprinted verbatim, with one minor excision:
    • Original Text: ‘then indeed might we cry “Eureka!” or even “Huzzah”
    • The Early Worm: ‘then indeed might we cry “Eureka!”
  • No Huzzahs in hardcover?
  • My version of The Early Worm is a Blue Ribbon Books edition re-issued in 1946 and it does contain some typos: “curse” instead of “course” and “snow-show” instead of “snow-shoe”. Uncertain whether these typos appeared in the 1927 printing of the book.

“Ask That Man” (E26)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, May 17, 1923
  • First reprinted in: Pluck and Luck
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Prime sitcom Benchley, with the author interrogating not “that man” at the train station or driving the bus, but rather “that man” (along with “that woman”) defined by middle class gender norms. Writing in the soon-to-be-familiar persona of the wily but inept TV dad, RCB takes us on a candidly fearful and self-loathing tour of that impossible subject position (by way of Central America). The heterosexual union Benchley describes is a nerve-wracking thing powered by constant friction between “masculine competence” (or the illusion of it) and “feminine skepticism” (a necessary corollary of the illusion). Taking us into his confidence about his own lack of self-confidence, he admits that he cannot abide being urged to consult an outside authority for instructions, directions, or any other guidance. It is not the asking that threatens his “manhood”. This guy has very little idea where he is going, and he doesn’t mind if we know it. What gets him down is the insinuation, coming from inside the connubial cortex, that he must go to a rival male for answers.

Our vexed speaker goes to great and costly lengths to preserve his patriarchal prerogative in this tale. Fittingly, the trick isn’t done by performing any real or dissembled feats of omniscience. The ideal, eternally frustrated, quality of maleness under this demented dispensation has nothing to do with being “right” about anything. It’s about the freedom from being questioned at all. Of course, by the binary logic of the system, this cherished aim can never achieve total actualization, despite all of the cultural, social, and legal supports furnished by patriarchy, since the supposedly eternal “feminine” role always contains at least a streak of doubt in its subservience. So it isn’t a question of impressing Doris – the Benchley persona sticks it to “that man” by undercutting his wife’s “natural” faith in every exogamous representative of the gender.

Favourite Moment:
“In Chicago, I again falsified what ‘the man’ told me, and instead of getting on the train back to New York, we went to Little Rock, Arkansas. Every time I had to ask where the best hotel was, I made up information which brought us out into the suburbs, cold and hungry.”

Reprint Notes:

  • All text reproduced faithfully (for a change!) in Pluck and Luck
  • The Gluyas Williams cartoons (first appearing in the book) do add significantly to the piece.

“All About the Silesian Problem” (E12)

  • Originally Published: Syndicated Piece, News Publishing Co. (spotted in the Oakland Tribune and The Charlotte News, among other outlets), August 14, 1921
  • First Reprinted: Love Conquers All
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Nearly 20 years before Silesia became a flashpoint in Hitler’s monstrous Anschluss aggressions, Benchley subjects East-Central Europe’s ruling classes to a whimsically withering historical inquiry. Mocking the practice of dignifying dizzyingly stupid aristocratic and irredentist spats with naming conventions derived from mathematics, RB proposes a novel answer to the “Silesian Question.”


Describing a series of political production numbers scarcely less absurd than the Habsburg Vanities and the Polish Partition Follies of 1772, 1793, and 1795, RB takes the reader on a mellifluously mad journey into the heart of anti-democratic darkness. I refer here, of course, to the epochal Summoning of the Storkrath, where the political will of the Duchy’s assembled nobles, welterweights and licensed pilots coalesced around a policy of strict indifference (at best) to the actual needs of everyone else in Silesia.

Favourite Moment:
“And he was the kind of man who would stop at nothing when it pleased him to augment his duchy.”

Reprint Notes:

  • Topical reference to France and England “splitting” over the Silesian problem has been removed from the version in Love Conquers All. Presumably they got over it.
  • Title in The Charlotte News: “Silesian Problem Clear”
  • Title in the Oakland Tribune: “Silesia Row is Explained By Benchley”