Thursday, November 1, 2012

Even that poor satisfaction was denied me - let's murder some Mark Twain jokes!

Let’s strangle some jokes today.  Just writing about them makes them shrivel.

This one is from “’Mark Twain’ on the Launch of the Steamer ‘Capital’” (1865); the conceit is that Twain is a journalist going to cover a tedious boat launch.  He and the other journalists find a bar:

We proceeded, two-by-two, arm-in-arm, down to the bar in the nether regions, chatting pleasantly and elbowing the restless multitude.  We took pure, cold, health-giving water, with some other things in it…

I should create categories.  This one is a combo of some sort, with the innocent adjectives not funny on their own but made hilarious by the reversal at the end, even though the switcheroo is an old gag and entirely expected.

All right, that one does not seem to be breathing any more.

A running gag in early Twain is the fashion correspondent piece, dresses and so on at “The Pioneers’ Ball” (1865):

Mrs. W. M. was attired in an elegant pate de foi gras, made expressly for her, and was greatly admired…   Miss R. P., with that repugnance to ostentation in dress which is so peculiar to her, was attired in a simple white lace collar, fastened with a neat pearl-button solitaire.  The fine contrast between the sparkling vivacity of her natural optic, and the steadfast attentiveness of her placid glass eye, was the subject of general and enthusiastic remark.

The surprisingly expressive glass eye is another recurring joke, one that always makes me laugh.  What category is this?  Incongruity, so many jokes are based on nothing but surprising incongruities.

I would assume that the mangled French of the “pâté de foie gras” is also a joke of some sort, but Twain fixes it in the 1875 Sketches, Old and New.  So maybe just a botch.  You never know with Twain and French.

Maybe I should attach a reader's poll to each joke: funny or not funny?  No one has any obligation to find any of this funny.  No obligation to me, I mean.

Twain is visiting Niagara Falls for the first time in “A Day at Niagara” (1869).  He is annoyed by the signs:

It was because I noticed at last that they always happened to prohibit exactly the very thing I was just wanting to do.  I desired to roll on the grass: the sign prohibited it.  I wished to climb a tree: the sign prohibited it.  I longed to smoke: a sign forbade it.  And I was just in the act of throwing a stone over to astonish and pulverize such parties as might be picknicking below, when a sign I have just mentioned forbade that.  Even that poor satisfaction was denied me, (and I a friendless orphan).

This piece is pretty much pure nonsense – Twain of course goes over the falls at the end (“However thus far he thinks only six of my wounds are fatal.  I don’t mind the others”).  It is that last insertion that I would love to be able to mimic.  The silliness that comes before it seems achievable; the sense of exactly when to deploy the “friendless orphan” gag I fear is innate.


  1. I considered just presenting some of Twain's jokes, which might give them a chance to live. But then there was no room for me to horn in - even that poor satisfaction would be denied me. So the lives of the jokes had to be sacrificed for my greater good.

  2. I laughed at the foi gras, for what that's worth.

  3. The "fashion report" is a rock-solid bit.