This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com. This essay will appear in “Comedy,” the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted here with the kind permission of that magazine.
Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all.—Mark Twain
Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”
Laughter was Twain’s stock in trade, and for 30 years as bestselling author and star attraction on America’s late-nineteenth-century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snakebitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.
No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation’s early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with underage murderers and overage whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learning from his travels that “the hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd—as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit—any or all of it presented as “the solid nonpareil,” guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit. Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity—of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black—is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictlyhuman… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”