From the Archive — From the May 2014 issue

Humor

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Repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. I undertook to prove the truth of this forty years ago in San Francisco on the occasion of my second attempt at lecturing. My first lecture had succeeded to my satisfaction. Then I prepared another one but was afraid of it because the first fifteen minutes of it was not humorous. I felt the necessity of preceding it with something which would break up the house with a laugh and get me on pleasant and friendly terms with it at the start.

San Francisco had been persecuted for five or six years with a silly and pointless and unkillable anecdote which everybody had long ago grown weary of — weary unto death. I resolved to begin my lecture with it, and keep on repeating it until the mere repetition should conquer the house and make it laugh. I began with a description of my first day in the overland coach; then I said: “At a little ’dobie station out on the plains, next day, a man got in and after chatting along pleasantly for a while he said, ‘I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the buttons all off of Horace’s coat and finally shot his head clean through the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to go easier — said he warn’t in as much of a hurry as he was a while ago. But Hank Monk said, “Keep your seat, Horace, I’ll get you there on time!” — and you bet he did, too, what was left of him!’ ”

I told it in a level voice, in a colorless and monotonous way, without emphasizing any word in it, and succeeded in making it dreary and stupid to the limit. Then I paused and looked very much pleased with myself and as if I expected a burst of laughter. There was a dead silence. As far as the eye could reach that sea of faces was a sorrow to look upon; some bore an insulted look; some exhibited resentment; my friends and acquaintances looked ashamed; and the house, as a body, looked as if it had taken an emetic.

For a while I said nothing, but stood fumbling with my hands in a sort of mute appeal to the audience for compassion. Many did pity me — I could see it. But I could also see that the rest were thirsting for blood. I presently began again and stammered awkwardly along with some details of the overland trip. The house perceived that I was working up toward the anecdote again and its indignation was very apparent. Then I said, “Just after we left Julesburg, on the Platte, I was sitting with the driver and he said, ‘I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the buttons all off of Horace’s coat and finally shot his head clean through the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to go easier — said he warn’t in as much of a hurry as he was a while ago. But Hank Monk said, “Keep your seat, Horace, I’ll get you there on time!” — and you bet he did, too, what was left of him!’ ”

I stopped again and looked gratified and expectant, but there wasn’t a sound. I looked embarrassed again. I fumbled again. I tried to seem ready to cry, and once more, after a considerable silence, I took up the overland trip again, and once more I stumbled and hesitated along — then presently began again to work up toward the anecdote, trying all the while to look like a person who was sure that there was some mysterious reason why these people didn’t see how funny the anecdote was, and that they must see it if I could ever manage to tell it right, therefore I must make another effort. I said: “A day or two after that we picked up a Denver man at the crossroads and he chatted along very pleasantly for a while . . . ” Then I told the whole story once more, winding up with, “ ‘Keep your seat, Horace, I’ll get you there on time!’ — and you bet he did, too, what was left of him!”

All of a sudden the front ranks recognized the sell and broke into a laugh. It spread back, and back, and back, to the furthest verge of the place; then swept forward again, and at the end of a minute the laughter was as universal and as thunderously noisy as a tempest.

It was a heavenly sound to me, for I was nearly exhausted with weakness and apprehension, was becoming almost convinced that I should have to stand there and keep on telling that anecdote all night before I could make those people understand that I was working a delicate piece of satire. I am sure I should have stood my ground and gone on favoring them with that tale until I broke them down, under the unconquerable conviction that the monotonous repetition of it would infallibly fetch them some time or other.


From the December 1958 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This article, which originally appeared with three other unpublished pieces by Twain, is among the more than one hundred contributions the author made to Harper’s. All of Twain’s work for the magazine — along with the entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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  • RobNYNY1957

    What a gentle genius. Brilliant humor at no one’s expense but his own.

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