August 7, 2017

Who was America’s first stand-up comedian?

According to "Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians," by Justin Martin, it was Artemus Ward (1834-1867):
Ostensibly, he was delivering a lecture called The Babes in the Wood... [H]is act consisted of a man in a dark suit, who, in a tone of complete seriousness, speaks utter nonsense. At some level, it certainly reminded audiences of all the oratories and lectures and sermons they’d been forced to endure, delivered by assorted pompous moralists...

The impression that his performances were rambling and spontaneous was just that, an impression: he was in complete control... He would begin by struggling to describe the claustrophobic feeling of traveling inside a very small stagecoach. “Those of you who have been in the penitentiary . . . ,” he offered. But then his voice trailed off, and his eyes filled with panic. He realized his error. He’d just suggested that members of his audience had been to jail.

As Ward tried to extricate himself from this awkwardness, the audience could almost see the wheels turning in his mind. He spoke slowly, trying to buy himself time to recover: “and stayed there . . . any length . . . of time . . . ” Suddenly, his expression brightened. He added hopefully, “ . . . as visitors.” He stood up straight, pleased with himself. But then Ward’s trademark crestfallen look returned. He recognized his error. Even suggesting that members of his audience had merely visited the penitentiary didn’t do the trick. That only meant they had friends and loved ones in jail...

Ward’s show clocked in at exactly one hour. Just as it opened on a high note, it closed on one, too. As the hour mark drew nigh, Ward would reach into his pocket and retrieve his watch. He’d stare at it, an expression of alarm spreading across his face. He had been rambling rambling for many minutes, traveling countless conversational tangents, yet he’d failed to address the subject at hand, “The Babes in the Wood.” But what could he say now? What pithy comment about the topic could he offer that might tie things up? There simply wasn’t enough time left. After a few more stumbles and false starts, Ward would apologize, promising to give the subject a full airing during his next lecture. Then he’d bid a good night to his delighted audience. The next morning, the critics’ columns would be full of praise.
Here's the Wikipedia page for Artemus Ward (AKA Charles Farrar Browne ). Excerpt:
Browne was also known as a member of the New York Bohemian set which included leader Henry Clapp Jr., Walt Whitman, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Ward met Mark Twain when Ward performed in Virginia City, Nevada and the two became friends. In his correspondences with Twain, Browne called him "My Dearest Love." Legend has it that, following Ward's stage performance, he, Mark Twain, and Dan De Quille were taking a drunken rooftop tour of Virginia City until a town constable threatened to blast all three of them with a shotgun loaded with rock salt.
Here are some Artemus Ward jokes. Example: "Did you ever have the measels, and if so, how many?"

ADDED: The author of the quoted book doesn't attempt to define "stand-up comedian." He only describes what Ward did and sums it up: "[I]t’s fair to describe Artemus Ward as America’s first stand-up comedian." In search of the history of the term and the practice, I found this in Wikipedia:
Stand-up comedy is a comic style in which a comedian performs in front of a live audience, usually speaking directly to them... [T]he comedian usually recites a grouping of humorous stories, jokes and one-liners...
It's so simple, it's hard not to think that it's something human beings have done going all the way back to when we first figured out how to talk.

The history section of the Wikipedia article is almost entirely about the last 200 or so years, but there is this one sentence:
Stand-up comedy has its origin in classic Parrhesia in 400 BC used for cynics and epicureans in order to tell the reality without censorship.
That has this footnote:
Foucault, Michel (Oct–Nov 1983), Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia (six lectures), The University of California at Berkeley.
I'll have to get to that later. There's just not enough time in this blog post.


Robert Cook said...

He sounds like a sort of predecessor to The World's Foremost Authority, Dr. Irwin Corey.

John Tuffnell said...

The original Charlie Brown(e).

Ann Althouse said...

The book, which I'm in the middle of reading, is very good. Interesting to encounter Mark Twain, sitting in an audience, laughing at somebody else's jokes.

Ann Althouse said...

"He sounds like a sort of predecessor to The World's Foremost Authority, Dr. Irwin Corey."

Yes. Exactly what I thought too. I loved Professor Irwin Corey, who was old when I was young, but who died only recently, when he was 100+ years old.

Ralph L said...

I imagine Dickens's lectures were pretty funny but not billed as comedy.

Marc Puckett said...

Artemus Ward was... I can't recall his name, West's sidekick or partner, in the television series Wild Wild West; my favorite series as a child.

William said...

Robert Benchley had a similar act--rhe Treasurer 's Report, iirc......Not much money in having the patent on a comic meme.

Ann Althouse said...

"I imagine Dickens's lectures were pretty funny but not billed as comedy."

I don't think what Artemus Ward did was "billed as comedy."

"The Babes in the Wood" (which was done in 1862-1863) had posters and notices that said “Artemus Ward will speak a piece.” So he came out like a lecturer, but then he did a routine that was like someone really screwing up the lecture.

I'm sure lectures generally contained humor. But what makes a "stand-up comedian"? The author of the book I'm reading makes the leap and posits that AW was the first American stand-up comedian, but doesn't pursue the question of who the others might be. I assume there were characters in the ancient world and even in pre-history who had the elements that we today ascribe to the "stand-up comedian."

I think a humorist reading his written work isn't a stand-up comedian. For example, today, David Sedaris does readings which draw huge audiences who laugh after just about every sentence, but I wouldn't call him a stand-up comedian.

Marc Puckett said...

I see I'm wrong about the Artemus character on Wild Wild West, tsk-- at some point I conflated memories of reading about the historical Artemus with the television character Artemus: I wonder why and how. The pleasures and tricks of memory!

Owen said...

Thanks for the tip, I will look for the book. His act sounds wonderful. I guess it could be called "stand up" but how many of today's artists would do a single hour-long riff? Or is that the wrong way of looking at what Ward did: subverting the category of Earnest Lecture with a string of carefully rehearsed goofs and gags, a kind of intellectual slapstick?

As is obvious, I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm enjoying this topic a lot. Our forebears were not all po-faced historical figures, and it is heartening to see them come to life like this.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Mark Twain toured and gave lectures, though at a later date than this Artemus fellow. In any event, given the subject I think this link is relevant.

Sydney said...

@Marc Puckett - I thought the character on Wild Wild West was Artemus Ward, too. How did we both make that mistake? I'm pretty sure I had never heard of the real Artemus Ward until today.

Bad Lieutenant said...

Artemus GORDON was Jim West's partner.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Quaestor said...

Problematization of Parrhesia

If that title had not been concocted by the real-life Foucault, someone exactly like him would have had to be invented.

What exactly is problematization? How is that distinct from a problem? What's the problem with a lecture series titled The Problem of Parrhesia? Was Foucault implying free and candid speech was never a problem until someone decided to make it one? Seems ludicrous to me.

Michel Foucault was the one who popularized the oft heard phrase, "to speak truth to power." Very cute. The problematization is the sad fact that nearly everyone who compliments his own rhetoric in such terms wouldn't know a truth if it fell on him from a great height. Sir, it seems you've been clobbered by a lump of frozen urinal water fallen from a passing airliner. It has been known to have happened before...No! I'm the victim of an assassination attempt by the racist Wall Street cabal!

Foucault and his fellow postmodernists have had a mighty effect on American education. That cannot be denied. There was a time when the holder of an academic chair could be assumed to be the intellectual superior of the average man, the working stiff. This hasn't been the case for several decades now.

Michael K said...

Aristophanes was a writer of comedy in Athens. Some were funny and one, at least was vicious.

His comedy "The Clouds" is often blamed for the persecution and execution of Socrates.

The scientific speculations of Ionian thinkers such as Thales in the sixth century were becoming commonplace knowledge in Aristophanes' time and this had led, for instance, to a growing belief that civilized society was not a gift from the gods but rather had developed gradually from primitive man's animal-like existence.

Thales was a founder of the Scientific Method and the first scientist. Socrates was prosecuted and executed by the democrats for impiety. The evidence was Aristophanes play.

Big Mike said...

I'd give the edge to Frank M. Mayo, although his stand up comedy was more along the lines of him portraying someone else (Davy Crockett) very broadly.

Ann Althouse said...

Another source of confusion:

"Artemas Ward (November 26, 1727 – October 28, 1800) was an American major general in the American Revolutionary War and a Congressman from Massachusetts. He was considered an effective political leader, President John Adams describing him as "...universally esteemed, beloved and confided in by his army and his country.""

"Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834 – March 6, 1867) was a United States humor writer, better known under his nom de plume, Artemus Ward. He is considered to be America's first stand-up comedian.[1] At birth, his surname was "Brown"; he added the "e" after he became famous."

Ann Althouse said...

"What exactly is problematization?"

It sounds like something irritating that only a nuisance of a person would want to do, but if you look it up and understand what it means, you may decide that it's the most important thing to do when confronted with text. I think it's essentially what I tend to do with text.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'd give the edge to Frank M. Mayo, although his stand up comedy was more along the lines of him portraying someone else (Davy Crockett) very broadly."

He's later in time. About 10 years after what Ward did.

Ann Althouse said...

Aristophanes was a comic writer, but he wrote scripts for plays that actors performed relating to each other in scenes. A standup comedian delivers his lines directly to the audience, not acting out scenes.

tcrosse said...

Shecky Standish, the first American insult comic, slayed them at the first Thanksgiving roast of John Alden, although Massasoit was not amused. One ill-timed mother-in-law joke soured settler-indian relations for generations.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

This goes way back in the History of the World (part 1).

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk: What?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!

Comicus: *Grumble*...

Dole Office Clerk: Did you bullshit last week?

Comicus: No.

Dole Office Clerk: Did you *try* to bullshit last week?

Comicus: Yes!

Michael K said...

"A standup comedian delivers his lines directly to the audience"

I know but somebody writes the lines for the standup comedian. If he's good, maybe himself.

The actors in Aristophanes' plays were standup comedians.


Ignorance is Bliss said...

It's so simple, it's hard not to think that it's something human beings have done going all the way back to when we first figured out how to talk.

I'm pretty sure the development of the Stand Up Comic did not begin until after the invention of the brick wall

Feste said...

I nominate James I from afar: “I will harry them out of the land!”

Not because James qualifies. He is disqualified for sitting. It's his continued Royal cute comedic-Tweet artifacts - "I will harry them out!"

Jim S. said...

I'm laughing just reading about him. And that impresses me even more: his comedy not only translates from spoken word to written word, but from mid 19th century to early 21st.

Luke Lea said...

Lincoln did stand-up from the time he was twelve -- and was a great fan of Ward by the way.

Luke Lea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luke Lea said...

I think the evidence will show that Lincoln was maybe the first stand-up comedian, at least in America. I found this on the internet:

"Lincoln considered himself a "retailer" of other people's puns, wisecracks, japes and yarns. He had a photographic memory for funny material, and spent hours studying humorists' books and essays.

Although quaint by 21st century standards, some of Lincoln's gags can still raise a chuckle.

Lincoln told a story of a man in the theatre who put his top hat on the seat next to him. A plus-size woman sat on it. ""Madam," he said, "I could have told you the hat wouldn't fit before you tried it on."

He told another story of a professional speaker's arrival in Springfield, Illinois. “What are your lectures about?” a city official asked the speaker. “They’re about the second coming,” the speaker said. “Don’t waste your time," the official said. "If the Lord’s seen Springfield once, He ain’t coming back."

He told yet another story of a drunk named Bill, who was so wasted, he passed out in the mud. When Bill came to, he went looking for a way to wash off the mud, and mistook another drunk leaning over a hitching post for a pump. When he pumped the man's arm up and down, the man puked all over him. Believing all was right, Bill found a saloon. A friend inside said, "Bill, what happened?" Bill said, "You should have seen me before I warshed up."

After one grueling speech, Lincoln said of the speaker, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met." He called the arguments of his opponent for president “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”

Once after being called "two-faced," Lincoln said, “If I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?”

When Nebraska's governor told Lincoln there was a river in his state named "Weeping Water." Lincoln said, "I suppose the Indians out there call it 'Minneboohoo,' since 'Laughing Water' is 'Minnahaha' in their language."

His contemporaries said Lincoln's real success as a comedian was due to a talent for mimicry. He could mimic voices, accents, gestures, postures and facial expressions perfectly.

Fellow attorney Henry Whitney said, "His stories may be literally retold, every word, period and comma, but the real humor perished with Lincoln."

Michael K said...

"I think the evidence will show that Lincoln was maybe the first stand-up comedian, at least in America. I found this on the internet:"

Lincoln was a humorist and used it in everyday conversation. That fact that he did so was a mark against him when President.

Simon Cameron was his Secretary of the Treasury and a story circulated about Lincoln being asked if Cameron would steal. Lincoln stated that he did not think "Cameron would steal a red hot stove." the Wiki article says it was Thaddeus Stevens but I read it as a Lincoln story. Another famous Lincoln story was his question about if you called a dog's tail a leg, how many legs did a dog have ?

He used humor every day and not as an act,

Will Rogers was a little bit like him but did it as an act.

daskol said...

More recently, John Hodgman (the PC in the Apple ads) has made a career of this style of humor, from stand-up (lectures) to the Daily Show to books and columns. Occasionally very funny:

TWW said...

America's first stand up comedian was Denis Clark who, on January 5, 1643, uttered the famous plea: "Take my wife...please" in response for be granted a divorce.

Big Mike said...

@Like, a while ago I received a copy of a collection of Civil War humor.

Two Quaker women were discussing the war.

"I believe that the South shall win, for I hear that Jefferson Davis is a praying man."

"But President Lincoln is also a praying man."

"True, but The Lord will assume Mr. Lincoln is joking."

Big Mike said...

After Lincoln appointed Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac, Hooker dashed off a telegram that closed with "Headquarters in the Saddle." Lincoln immediately perceived the problem: "His headquarters are where his hindquarters should be."

Big Mike said...

@LUme. Damned autocorrect.

Big Mike said...


Double-damn autocorrect.

Michael K said...

When Lincoln was told Grant was a heavy drinker after Shiloh, he asked the person what is was that Grant drank.

The other person asked him why and Lincoln replied he wanted to send each of his other generals a barrel of whatever it was.

Feste said...

"The other person asked him why and Lincoln replied he wanted to send each of his other generals a barrel of whatever it was."

Administer steady-flow to McClellan rectally.

Love taught me trust. Pain taught me wisdom. Present Mirth, my wife, keeps me confused between the two.

Michael K said...

If Sherman had not taken Atlanta. "Atlanta is ours and fairly won."

McClellan would probably have won the 1864 election and signed an armistice with the Confederacy.

Lincoln expected to lose the election,.

Feste said...

See that Doc. Didn't know, and thanks. Amazing interlocking effects.