Mark Twain: a birthday look at the humorist’s legacy

A few years ago, I chanced to stumble upon the utterly amazing
identity of the true inventor of stand-up comedy: Mark Twain.
And, even more astonishing, Mark Twain invented stand-up comedy
in the South Valley region
– in the heart of what we now call Silicon Valley.
A few years ago, I chanced to stumble upon the utterly amazing identity of the true inventor of stand-up comedy: Mark Twain.

And, even more astonishing, Mark Twain invented stand-up comedy in the South Valley region – in the heart of what we now call Silicon Valley.

The beloved American author who gave the world classic stories such as “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Prince and the Pauper” was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835. As a newspaper reporter in Nevada’s Virginia City, he took on the pseudonym “Mark Twain” – a term the former Mississippi River steamboat pilot had often used to describe “safe water.”

In his entertaining PBS-television documentary on Twain’s life, filmmaker Ken Burns suggested it was during the author’s days as a San Francisco newspaper reporter that Twain invented stand-up comedy. But Burns’s biography didn’t tell the whole story – the incredible account of how, one night in downtown San Jose in 1866, Twain unintentionally gave birth to what we now call “stand-up comedy.”

I swear on a stack of Huckleberry Finns, this is not a tall tale. I possess documented proof. I discovered it in a book published in 1922 and available at the Morgan Hill Public Library. Eugene Sawyer’s extensive “History of Santa Clara County” gives the narrative.

In the early 1860s, the young Mark Twain traveled west to escape the horrors of the looming Civil War. His “Roughing It” adventures eventually brought him out to San Francisco, the Golden City of the California Coast.

Fame and fortune were still in the future for Twain. He developed in the Bay Area a reputation for a deadpan style of journalism. But at this point in his life, Twain struggled financially. He lingered in poverty while contributing articles to the San Francisco Call.

Nothing seemed to work out for him. At one point, he only had a silver 10-cent piece to his name. Alone in his room and suffering through a deep depression, one time he pointed a revolver to his head.

“Many times I was sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed that I tried,” he wrote in later years.

In early 1866, the Sacramento Union sent him on a plum assignment to write travel articles about the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). He met Hawaiians and Christian missionaries, explored volcanoes and visited the sugar plantations on Maui.

Although the visit lifted his spirits, on his return to California, he still needed cash.

Frank Stewart, Twain’s good friend from California’s gold mines, suggested the writer give a humorous lecture on his comical experiences in Hawaii. Twain thought it a stupendous idea. So he hired out a hall in San Francisco and prepared for his new enterprise.

But Twain was cautious. Before embarking on the possible embarrassment of public speaking before San Francisco society, Twain decided to do a test run of his travel talk.

And where was the place to, as he so diplomatically phrased it, “try it out on the dog”? South Valley’s own neighbor to the north, the (then) village of San Jose. That’s where Stewart operated a shoddy saloon on Fountain Alley near First Street.

Stewart invited his pal down to his bar for a practice-run discourse. The 30-year-old journalist rode the train to San Jose, and on one long-forgotten night at Stewart’s trashy tavern, Twain gave his very first comic talk to a paying audience. He made history that night.

In his drawling, almost mumble of a voice, he joked about comical incidents with the characters he’d met during his exploration of the Sandwich Islands: “At noon, I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and I sat down on their clothes to prevent them from being stolen.

He poked sarcastic fun at the hypocritical missionaries he’d encountered who tried so righteously to convert the Hawaiian natives to the Protestant faith: “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves on this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.”

We of the 21st-century world can only imagine what Twain thought of history’s very first stand-up comedy gig. Rowdy drunks, hecklers – and wave after wave of laughter.

The evening was a triumph. The boisterous San Jose crowd gave Mark Twain the confidence he sorely needed to give his talk to a more prestigious audience farther north.

Back in San Francisco, he proved his skill with stand-up comedy was no one-time fluke. In the immense lecture hall, he regaled the audience for a little more than an hour with his Sandwich Island adventures.

Twain continued for virtually the rest of his life making people laugh on the lecture circuit. His comic talks helped pay for the large debts he built up with his high living.

Of course, before Mark Twain, there were prototypical speakers who wove humor into their formal lectures.

But Mark Twain created the formula for what we now call “stand-up comedy.” He set the style for a comic talk whose exclusive purpose is to make the audience erupt in belly-quaking laughter.

Twain once noted: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I’d think he’d be mighty pleased a popular comedy club – the San Jose Improv on Second Street – has been established in recent years in laughing distance from the spot where he invented the art of stand-up comedy.

Today, the greatest acclaim a stand-up comic can gain is to receive the “Mark Twain Prize.” It’s presented annually at the New York City’s Kennedy Center. Brilliant funny folks such as Whoopie Goldberg, Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters have received this prestigious award.

Their careers – as well as the comedy we enjoy in films, sitcoms, and TV skit shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV” – can all be traced back to the day a nervous Mark Twain rode the train down to the rural village of San Jose and invented stand-up comedy in Frank Stewart’s rundown saloon.

Check out some comedy

San Jose Improv: Various performers. 62 S. Second St., San Jose. Wed-Sun. $15-20. Check Web site or call for times and performers www.improv.com (408) 280-7475

ComedySportz: Comical improv skits. Bella Mia Restaurant, 58 S. First St., San Jose. Fridays. $12 for 8 p.m. show, $6 for 10:30 show. (408) 985-5233

Rooster T. Feathers: Various performers. 157 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale. Thurs-Sun. Check Web site or call for times and performers.(408) 736-0921

Rose and Crown: 547 Emerson St., Palo Alto. Mondays. Free (but one-drink minimum) (650) 327-7673

Crow’s Nest: 2218 E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. Sundays. $7. www.crowsnest-santacruz.com (831) 476-4560

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