Charles Farrar Browne, the Sometimes-Racist Father of Standup Comedy

On September 22, 1862, the men who pulled the levers of war and government assembled at the White House for a Cabinet meeting. The members arrived impatient and preoccupied with their own enormous burdens in service to the war and like 90% of people in meetings everywhere, they were anxious to get the whole thing over with. But they came anyway out of respect for the dignity of their positions expecting to conduct some business worthy of their time. Abraham Lincoln cast his eyes upon these powerful men, gathered at his word in this moment of great crisis, and he read to them a profane story about the destruction of a wax figure by an idiot. It was one of the greatest, and most enduringly significant days in American history.

The author of this great day was Artemus Ward, a mostly literate showman of twenty-two years experience as a “base exhibiter of depraved monkeys and onprincipled wax works.” He was also the creation and alter ego of Charles F. Browne, a standup pioneer who shaped the invention of American comedy and became an international star.

In 1858 Browne was 23 years old and already a ten-year veteren of the newspaper. 19th century America was very similar to Newt Gingrich’s America — 13-year-olds had to get a job when Dad died. He was a young man who went west and then made the leap from the print shop to the office by being a bit of a smart ass. He was working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer when he debuted Artemus in a letter trying to schmooze a little deal promoting his traveling show. The character was popular enough that the Plain Dealer saved his chair and desk and gave them to a museum. More letters quickly followed setting up the pattern for the classic Artemus dispatch.

Ward would do a little business promoting his show:

“if you say anything abowt my show pleas state my snakes is under perfect subjecshun”

Or update the reader on a running gag:

“Ime greeved to inform yu that my Cangeroo continers to conduck himself in a owdashus stile”

Before describing the people and experiences encountered at each stop on the tour:

“Toledo is a interestin’ sity. There is probly more promersing and virtuous young men in Toledo than there is anywheres. The climit is such that a great many of the mail inhabitants hav to take a gin cocktale evry mornin afore breakfust. It was hard for them to do it at fust but they take to it quite nateral now. My cangeroo gut out of its cage the other evenin an run off faster nor a lokomotive. The Common Counsil was in session at the time my cangeroo gut out and when they heered of the affectin casyualty they unaninamersly  parsed the follering preambel and resolushuns:”

More pomposity follows of course, but cheer up Toledo, Artemus goes lots of places like say Oberlin Ohio:

“…I must menshun the fack that on rainy dase white peple can’t find their way threw the streets without the gas is lit, there bein such a numerosity of cullerd  pussons in the town.”

Oh, and he didn’t have much respect for black folks, women, or native peoples. He was ambivalent about the Mormons, but only because they nursed him back to health once. Browne worked mostly for Democratic papers, which were then, as now, opposed to freedom. Such papers tended to take the general position of white people forever, union if it is not too much hassle because after all the South might be on to something. It was quite a popular position. He comes off much better when he’s not abusing downtrodden peoples, instead poking fun of people of stature, like say, Lincoln: “I’ve only got two hundred thousand rails to split before sundown.”

So even though the comedy was chock of full of racism, bigotry and xenophobia, so were the audiences of the day. The letters went viral, appearing in papers across the country. As usual with viral hits, the originator was stuck toiling for a weekly wage. Somehow being king of Cleveland just wasn’t enough. He tried syndicating his columns with Vanity Fair (no not that one), but his other idea was even better: he added the “e” to his last name, climbed onto a stage in Connecticut and made people laugh for an hour or so.

His friends didn’t think it was such a good idea. The stages Browne proposed climbing on were part of the 19th century lyceum movement which promoted lectures and cultural entertainments intended to be moral and educational. But Browne had seen comics performing as emcee’s or as part of variety shows killing with jokes he had written, so he assembled a lecture from pieces of his Ward letters and jokes collected from years wandering the country as typesetter and newspaperman. He eventually called it “Babes in the Wood” and it taught his audience nothing about its subject whatsoever.

“One of the principal features of my Entertainment is that it contains so many things that don’t have anything to do with it.”

When he climbed on stage he had no lighting, no scenery, no costume, no makeup. All by himself, he made a theater full of people laugh for an hour and a half. His manager claims no one had ever tried such a thing before. And while the reviewers did seem to have a hard time explaining why people should go see a lecture with no substance, the audience seemed to figure it out just fine.  Once Browne had done a lap of the country filling theaters and partying like a rock star his stupid friends told him he’d have to come up with a brand new act. Browne just went round again working in some new jokes and getting drunk wherever he damn well pleased.

Not content with moving stand-up into respectable theaters, and inspiring minstrel shows in their quest dominate a politically helpless minority, Browne decided to rock American literature by giving Mark Twain a little help publishing some story about a frog. A jumping frog. He also convinced Twain to get into the humorous lecture business, because Hal Holbrook needed the work and also because people who like to drink and trespass on roofs are easily suggestible.

Years later in one of Twain’s own humorous lectures he praises Ward and describes how he looked onstage.

His personal appearance was not like that of most Maine men. He looked like a glove-stretcher. His hair, red and brushed well forward at the sides, reminded one of a divided flame. His nose rambled on aggressively before him, with all the strength and determination of a cow-catcher, while his red moustache — to follow out the simile — seemed not unlike the unfortunate cow. He was of Puritan descent, and prided himself not a little on being derived from that stern old stock of people, who had left their country and home for the sake of having freedom on a foreign shore, to enjoy their own religion, and, at the same time, to prevent other folks from enjoying theirs.

Everyone mentioned the nose. He was also skinny, and after an illness, wore his hair in self-conscious curls to hide the resulting baldness. So sure, maybe he looked a little bit like a clown, but he delivered his lines with dreadful gravity. He was deadpan even before people started to use “pan” to mean “face” for some reason.

“Africa is on the map. It is on all the maps of Africa I have ever seen.”

He was a master of pauses, letting the audience laugh at what could have been said, leaving his grave face to carry the show.   Though by the time he got to London he added some Conan-style stage-business with some scenery. “I shall be most happy to pay a good salary to any respectable boy of good parentage and education who is a good moonist.” And he also added a mimed bit played against the overwhelming volume of the house orchestra. And the people of England loved him too flocking to his shows and reading his dispatches to the legendary Punch mocking his host country.

“Mr. Punch My Dear Sir, you didn’t get a instructiv article from my pen last week on account of my nirvus sistem underwent a dreffle shock. I got caught in a brief shine of sun…”

It was the fashion among young rising stars in those days to contract tuberculosis and die. So it went with Browne in 1867 at the age of 33. This led directly to a relatively short stand at Kensal Green Cemetery before returning to the States in a permanent engagement at Elm Vale Cemetery in Maine. He was survived by Artemus Ward, who lived on long enough to irritate Mark Twain by unflattering comparison. Eventually the memories of Browne the performer died away and we were left with only the written record to compare the two, and there really is no comparison. All seemed to agree that it was on stage where Browne was at his best. And since Americans can barely be bothered to remember the name of one 19th century humorist, Twain gets to be famous. Ward gets the not-too-shabby second prize of being the favorite comic of America’s funniest president.

Let the Genial Showman have the last word:

“I now come to my subject The Babes in the Wood…but I find that I have exceeded my time and will therefore merely remark that, so far as I know, they were very good babes — they were as good as ordinary babes…They died in the woods listening to the woodpecker tapping the hollow Beech tree. It was a sad fate for them and I pity them. So I hope, do you. Good night!”

Micah Hofferth makes things in Chicago. He tweets here.

Charles Farrar Browne, the Sometimes-Racist Father of […]