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Rob King (Columbia University)

Short Bio

Rob King is an associate professor at Columbia University's Film Program, where he is currently working on a history of short-subject slapstick during the early sound era. He is the author of The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (2009) and coeditor of the volumes Early Cinema and the "National" (2008), Slapstick Comedy (2011), and Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks, and Publics of Early Cinema (2012). 

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Abstract: "Becoming Joe Doakes: Averageness, Populism, and Seriality in Robert Benchley's 'How to' Short Subjects"

Over the course of the mid- to late 1930s, the comic persona of Algonquin humorist Robert Benchley began notably to change. It was a change that first registered when the former Life drama critic established himself as the star of a celebrated "How to" series of short subjects for MGM (1935-1943), and it became frequently observed as Benchley broadened his media presence into other series media (e.g., radio comedy hours) as the 1930s progressed. This change in his persona, moreover, was always described by commentators of the time in the same way, as a passage from Benchley's early reputation as a "smart" humorist to a new identity as an "average man." As Jack Chertok, head of MGM's short subjects unit, put it: previously, Benchley had been a "comic fellow appealing to sophisticated audiences," but now he was "the average man to the public, which extends all over the country." 

This paper situates Benchley's "becoming average" in the context of a broader public preoccupation with averageness that characterized the populist political rhetoric of New Deal-era America. In particular, it will explore the function of seriality as a discursive trope that conjoined the format of Benchley's "How to" shorts to the broader construction of "average" identities in the era's political culture. This enabling condition for populism, argues Ernesto Laclau, is the representation of a series of grievances and demands around which a shared social subjectivity can be formed. In the Benchley shorts, I argue, this is expressed in comic form in the "How to ..." formula itself (How to Figure Income Tax, How to Sub-let, How to Vote, etc.), a serializing of petty annoyances that consolidated "averageness" as a centerpiece of middle-class identity formation during this era.