Monday, September 28, 2009

Great satire

Robert Benchley wrote this when he was starting out. It's a magazine ad parody and one of the funniest things I've ever read:

I Am the Strength of the Ages

I have sprung from the depths of the hills.

Before the rivers were brought forth, or even before the green leaves in their softness made the landscape, I was your servant.

From the bowels of the earth, where men toil in darkness, I come, bringing a message of insuperable strength.

From sun to sun I meet and overcome the forces of nature, brothers of mine, yet opponents; kindred, yet foes.

I am silent, but my voice re-echoes beyond the ends of the earth.

I am master, yet I am slave.

I am Woonsocket Wrought Iron Pipe, "the Strongest in the Long Run" (trademark).

Send for illustrated booklet entitled
"The Romance of Iron Pipe" 

The quiet simplicity of the opening, the understated grandeur of the close, and then the kicker: the trademark and slogan. I've never read magazine ads from the 1920s, yet I am convinced this piece could have worked as an ad back then. Why? The writing's skill, I suppose: if you take as given that a company would want to run a prose poem about iron, then Benchley has come up with quite a good prose poem. I mean, an awful prose poem, but one whose awfulness required skill for its execution.

I love the sort of parody that could work as the real thing. The Woonsocket piece is a supreme example because it could pass and at the same time it's obviously a joke, even though there's no obvious detail to flag it's a joke. Even the trademark and slogan aren't absurd, not on their own terms.  

Today we have The Onion doing a note-perfect imitation of news prose, but each Onion piece pins its comedy to an absurd subject: hey, a news story about a guy ordering a cheeseburger -- crazy! Not so with Benchley's piece. It has nothing to show that it's a joke except for the sheer absurdity of writing a prose poem about iron pipes. And yet people at the time were doing that very thing. To take a common practice and show its absurdity just by doing it better -- that must be some kind of supreme pole vault for a satirist.

Unless, of course, magazine ads of the '20s didn't feature prose poems about utilitarian goods like iron pipes, only about frilly items like perfume and tobacco. In which case I must knock the Benchley piece down a grade, to the high Onion level. But that's not so bad either.

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