As Americans pushed west from the Atlantic seaboard, they formed settlements here and there. In those days before radio or television, they established in nearly every settlement what they called “literary societies,” which met once a month at the schoolhouse or church to provide entertainment. In the intervening days the settlers memorized and rehearsed their presentations.
Winter evenings, when it was too snowy to go outside and plow the frozen ground, families often met in one another’s homes for dinner, and after dinner some of them would be called on to deliver the presentations they had given at the last literary society meeting.
These presentations were not short. They lasted several minutes. They might be poems, like “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” They might be songs, like “She’s Only a Rose with a Broken Stem.” They might be literary narratives, like Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country.” They might be speeches from drama, like Portia’s moving plea from The Merchant of Venice. Sometimes two settlers would go together. Perhaps a man and a woman would team up for the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; or two men might present the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius from Julius Caesar or a comic turn, like “The Arkansas Traveler.”
“The Arkansas Traveler” required two men and a fiddle or banjo. The settler is sitting on his porch, playing the first half of the tune which derived its title from the name of the sketch. The traveler arrives. “Farmer, can you tell me the way to Little Rock?” “I don’t know bout no little rock, but there’s a whopper down in my spring branch.” And the settler plays the first half of the tune again. The two men go at it, back and forth several times, a straight line from the traveler which is one-upped by the settler, punctuated by the first half of the tune. Finally the traveler asks the settler why he doesn’t play the second half of the tune. The settler admits he doesn’t know it. The traveler takes the fiddle or banjo and plays the tune through. The settler is so overjoyed to learn the second half of the tune that he invites the traveler for dinner.
Editor’s note: In a post on the Not Even Past website, a blog published by the history department of at the University of Texas, the historian Karl Hagstrom Miller discusses the history of the tune and provides several samples of the tune from the The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The photo below is from this post.
Another type of literary society presentation was a story the teller had heard somewhere, or even one invented by the teller. Such narratives might be humorous stories of the type that Mark Twain described in “How to Tell a Story.” Twain’s essay most likely deals not only with stories told by one person to another and those told before an audience, but also with stories told in the intimate gathering of a literary society or after dinner at someone’s home. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which first brought Twain to national attention, contains a humorous story of the type that might have been told in such a setting.
Edgar Allan Poe is rarely considered a humorous writer, but it is clear that he thought himself capable of writing the humorous story. “X-ing a Paragrab” is amusing, but it is not suitable for delivery at a literary society because it depends on typography for its effect. On the other hand, “Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling” is a humorous story which might well have received oral presentation; Poe might even have intended that it would, for it is told in an Irish dialect. And it is about as long as, though less circuitous than, the story of the jumping frog. One can imagine it being told at a literary society meeting.
Coexistent with the humorous story, of course, were the tall tale and the joke. “One day it got so hot that every ear of corn in the field popped. The mule saw all that white stuff on the ground, thought it was snow, and froze to death.” There, at its irreducible minimum, you have an American tall tale. What we are calling the joke is what Twain referred to as the witty and comic stories; Twain said these forms are distinguishable from the humorous story because they focus on the matter of the story rather than the manner of its telling, but it is more helpful to define the joke by its brevity and punch line, which Twain called the “nub” or the “snapper.”
A good example is a joke told by the character Hiram Baldwin in my novel Sweet Betsy from Pike: “Back where I come from, there was a fella had a big farm, allus raised the biggest crop in the county. Preacher come by and stopped his buggy one day. Fella was out worken in the field. Saw the preacher and come over to see what he wanted. Preacher said, ‘You and the Lord have certainly done wonderful work with this farm.’ Fella said, ‘Yeah, but you should a seed it when the Lord was runnen it by hisself!'”
Rural settlements grew into cities, which erected what were called “opera houses.” These attracted nomadic professional performers, who provided the entertainment Americans craved.. A few of these performers told humorous stories; Twain lists Artemus Ward, Dan Setchell, Bill Nye, and James Whitcomb Riley. The literary society gradually disappeared from the frontier, and the professional performers were organized into troupes called “vaudeville.”
Vaudeville performances were even more varied in type than those at literary societies, because they included performing dogs and other animal acts. One type of presentation that persisted into vaudeville was the humorous story. But the vaudeville story was shorter than those of the jumping frog and the damaged Frenchman; perhaps the greater number of vaudeville acts forced each act to be brief so that the total performance would not exceed the time an audience could be expected to remain in theater seats.
Lou Holtz was among the greatest vaudeville raconteurs. Holtz was so popular that even after radio displaced vaudeville he was in demand for guest appearances on radio variety shows, and before he died he was seen occasionally on the Merv Griffin television broadcast. His stories, often featuring a character named Sam Lapidus, lasted for several minutes, but they were never as long as Twain’s or Poe’s.
One of Holtz’s best stories concerned three men who had combined to take a hotel room on the thirtieth floor. They returned to the hotel one night to find that the elevator was out of order; they had to walk up. One of the men had an idea as to how to make the climb less painful: for the first ten floors one of the men would tell jokes, for the second ten the second man would sing songs, and for the third ten the third man would tell sad stories.
So for the first ten floors the first man told jokes, and for the second ten the second man sang songs. (In Holtz’s performance these twenty floors were told in much more elaborate detail than is recounted here.) Then the third man told his sad stories. They were just rounding the landing below the twenty-eighth floor when this man suddenly stopped. “Fellows,” he said, “I have told you some sad stories. I have told you stories that made the tears run down your cheeks. But I have never told you such a terribly sad story as the one I am going to tell you now.” Long pause, then quickly: “I left the key at the desk.”
Another purveyor of the humorous story in vaudeville was Jack Pearl. Pearl’s shtick was to speak with a thick German accent and present himself as Baron Munchausen, who claimed to have performed incredible feats and witnessed incredible events. He worked with a straight man who periodically injected expressions of disbelief. To his interlocutor’s incredulity Pearl would retort, “Vass you dere, Sharlie?” Pearl survived into radio with two shows in the 1930s, both sponsored by cigarettes, and he also made a few movies..
What killed vaudeville? Radio was invented, and professional entertainment was available even in the most remote farmhouse. Some vaudevillians – Burns and Allen for example – made the transition successfully. But of the raconteurs only Holtz and Pearl could be said to have succeeded. The other vaudeville comedians heard on the radio didn’t tell humorous stories; they appeared in funny skits, like Jack Benny and Fanny Brice, or told jokes. Fred Allen appeared in skits (e.g., as One Long Pan, the Chinese detective) and also served as a straight man for his wife, Portland Hoffa, and the denizens of Allen’s Alley: among them Senator Claghorn, Mrs. Nussbaum, Titus Moody, and Falstaff Openshaw.
Because an important difference between the joke and the humorous story was simply the joke’s brevity, its transition into radio was easy. The team of Ed Gallagher and Al Shean had made its vaudeville success by turning jokes into comic dialogues, which they sang to a simple tune written by Shean; they did the same thing on radio.
On early radio variety shows a vaudeville alumnus might tell one joke after another: “A guy walks into a bar and orders two Scotches. He drinks one and pours the other into the breast pocket of his coat. Then he orders another two Scotches and again he drinks one and pours the other into his breast pocket. The other guys are starting to watch this and wonder what he’s doing. Then he orders another two Scotches and drinks one and pours the other into his pocket. So then a mouse sticks his head up out of the pocket and says, ‘I can lick any cat in this bar.’” And on to the next joke. The humorous story was dying, and the joke was taking its place.
Perhaps the last comedian to tell what Twain called humorous stories on the radio was Bob Burns. Burns told stories about his relatives in Van Buren, Arkansas, such as Aunt Doody and Uncle Fud (“That’s my drinkin’ uncle”). His stories, briefer than Lou Holtz’s, terminated with Burns playing “The Arkansas Traveler” on his bazooka, a home-made instrument comprised of two pieces of pipe and a whiskey funnel and played like a trombone; when the song was over, Burns flung the instrument away on the stage, making a clanging sound. American soldiers borrowed the name “bazooka” for a hand-held rocket launcher during World War II. Burns was a forerunner of Andy Griffith, whose record What It Was, Was Football could count as a humorous story. Griffith also used the same hillbilly persona to turn Antony and Cleopatra and other cultural mainstays into humorous stories which he included on an LP.
A popular radio show called Can You Top This? featured a panel of three men; two were old vaudeville comedians, “Senator” Ed Ford and Joe Laurie, Jr. (“the pint-sized comedian”), and the third was comic strip creator Harry Hirschfield (also spelled Hershfield). Listeners sent in jokes, which were read by the moderator. The studio audience’s response was rated by a “laugh meter.” Then each of the three panelists in turn would tell a joke suggested by the one submitted. Listeners whose joke scored higher on the laugh meter than those told by the panelists received a money prize. The show always ended with Hirschfield beginning a joke which was interrupted by the announcer putting an end to the program: “Three men were floating down the river on a marble slab. . . .” Can You Top This? did not survive the collapse of radio.
And thus the humorous story has dwindled away. In Woody Allen’s night club days he used to tell humorous stories, like the one about the time he shot the moose, but such stories are rarer now than a hot day in February. Now we have television situation comedies and movies that are called comedies, and these are well and good. But yet . . . something is missing.
(c) Sam Sackett, 2012
Sam Sackett is a reformed English professor old enough to remember radio. He left teaching for journalism, then advertising, then public relations; then, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years in career management. He’s back in the US after having spent six years retired in Thailand, which he spent writing novels and short stories.