Looking for Comedy in the 1800s

America in the 1800s was mostly lousy. Human beings owned other human beings, a president got shot in the head, everything had syphilis, and the country decided to have a war with itself. Laughs were needed.

From playing Oregon Trail, you’d assume folks got their kicks from shooting dozens of buffalo and engraving cuss words on the tombstones of recently deceased children. Not the case! A myriad of sharp minds were committed to advancing the cause of laughter, as there were popular humor lecture circuits, well-known humorists in all the major newspapers, and joke anthologies stacked high in the book shop(pe)s.

I recently squandered several recreation hours combing many of these anthologies on Google Books, and the experience wasn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped. Perhaps numbed by how the era’s been parodied and caricatured in our newfangled media, I was expecting to discover an exaggerated comic portrait of the time — scientifically misguided logic, cartoonish racism, grizzly old-timers chasing women around saloons, etc. Predictably, much of it was littered with terms like “Negro” and “Jewess” and “Irishmen,” and I suspect a sociologist could make good sport of it all. But really, the majority of what I read was no more exhilarating than the punny, uninspired stuff you’d find in a joke book today. Particularly epidemic was what can best be described as dad humor*.

Oftentimes it just felt like I was scrolling through Twitter feeds. The humorists of the day were especially keen on one-liners, and as with Twitter, I felt a compulsion to keep skimming the pointlessness until something aroused a little “heh” in my chest. A good chunk of the jokes riff bawdily on the then-current events, like this barb on New York Whig luminary Albert Smith, whom I can only assume sent explicit etchings of his junk to a governess or something:

“Albert Smith once wrote in a hotel visitors’ book his initials ‘A.S.’ Somebody wrote underneath, ‘Two-thirds of the truth.’”

Inevitably, staple topics like lawyers/dentists/gender got plenty of play:

- “Why are lawyers like a restless invalid? Because they first lie on one side and then on the other.”

- “No professional man lives so much from hand to mouth as a dentist.”

- “Excuse me, madam; but I would like to ask why you look at me so savagely?” “Oh! beg pardon, Sir! I took you for my husband!”

And just as it is today, droll observation took the lead out of mundanity, giving color to the petty and banal (“I supposed the ‘darkest hour’ is when you can’t find the matches, isn’t it?”). Though you’d be hard-pressed to find much material of gut-busting caliber, you can still catch whiffs of subversion, which, in a time so simultaneously proper and undignified, must’ve been refreshing.

These books, though, generally precluded themselves from being memorable, as the most astute, diagnostic, and enduring comedy never comes from someone who’s just looking for laughs. The jokesters could’ve taken cues from their contemporary, the greatest American humorist, Mark Twain. From his essay “How to Tell a Story”:

-“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

- “The humorous story is a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it”

And from his personal notebook, in 1879:

“The funniest things are the forbidden.”

Indeed, he sought to be disruptive. He was reverent about his craft, and like his best characters, he squirmed against civility. And in doing so he proved how colossally consequential being funny could be. Posterity has obviously upheld his work in the highest regard, and it is fun to imagine what funny things people a hundred years from now will venerate (I’d bet the farm against Mencia). My guess is it’ll be work from those who exemplify Twain’s spirit, those with redemptive ambitions, who bear the righteous conviction that still radiates from these words more than a century after they were penned:

“Your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.” – from “The Chronicle of Young Satan”

* Some of my favorites:

- “When does tobacco remind you of one of the late Charles Dickens’ characters? When it’s ‘all of a twist,’ to be sure!”

- “’Overcome evil with good,’ as the gentleman said when he knocked down the burglar with the family Bible.”

- “Betting is immoral; but how can the man who bets be worse than the one who is no better?”

Steve Etheridge is a writer living in Chicago. He has written for McSweeney’s, CollegeHumor, and other places that are similar.

Looking for Comedy in the 1800s