It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
from the Kennedy Center website:
About the Mark Twain Prize
“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The event is created by the Kennedy Center, and executive producers Mark Krantz, Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, and Cappy McGarr. The Kennedy Center established The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October 1998, and it has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), and Tina Fey (2010).”
The award seemingly always generates a good deal of discussion, sometimes consternation, on the Mark Twain Forum discussion list. Over the years, posters there have suggested others who deserve the award. I have placed some of these nominated folks in a poll below.
So, here is your chance to have a say in next year’s award–not any sort of say that matters at all, but a say. Vote–it’s your scholarly duty.
Feel free to comment on this year’s show, or to nominate people for next year’s poll…
The literary critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made a sharp distinction between “wit” and “humour,” a distinction that is useful also in characterizing radio and television comedians.
“Wit” was perhaps best defined by Pope in the “Essay on Criticism”:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d . . . . (ll. 297-8)
Pope’s poetry also provides numerous examples; one of the best appeared earlier in the same poem:
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own. (Ll. 9-10)
Everyone has noticed how rare agreement is, except among politicians who have been fed “talking points” by their party’s campaign committees; yet no one but Pope thought to compare disagreements about literature to the disagreements we have among ourselves when we try to answer the question “What time is it?”
Wit, then, relies on the expression of an idea. It is a kind of verbal cleverness. “Humor” – or “humour” if you’re British – is an older concept, going back to medieval medicine. Medieval physicians believed there were four fluids (humours) in the body which were responsible for both diseases and he formation of personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). (If I’m telling you what you already know, please forgive me; perhaps somebody else out there doesn’t know it.) A person in whom blood predominated was “sanguine,” that is, eager and excitable; if the blood was excessive, it caused a disease, and the patients had to be bled by attaching leeches to them.
The classic example of the literary application of this theory was a play by Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in which the comedy arose from the personalities of the characters. It was so successful that Jonson followed it with a sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour.
If you followed radio comedy in the days when there was any, or if you’ve been watching television comedy in the years since radio devolved into disk jockeying, you can see how the distinction between wit and humor applies to the comics on those media. Here’s how my watch ticks – and yours, like Pope’s, may very well run differently from mine.
Click below to read more…