Was Oscar Wilde the first ever stand-up?
As a paid up comedy geek, I'm fascinated by the history of stand up -- the pedigree that leads from one comedian to the next, from Ted Chippington to Stewart Lee, or Richard Pryor to Chris Rock. You can trace American stand-up back to Bob Hope and vaudeville, and British stand-up to music hall turns like Ken Dodd (still going strong!) and Max Miller. But where did these mid-century greats come from? Did they spring into existence from nowhere, a bunch of originals?
I'm working on a comic book about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and, reading back over his lectures of 1882-3, it seems to me that the Apostle Of The Beautiful was creasing up audiences before the ‘first’ stand-ups were even born. True, his lecture on The English Renaissance, which he premiered only days after landing in New York, was as dry as it sounds. It sent many audiences to sleep. Those who did find Wilde funny were not chortling at his jokes. As Wilde told one interviewer, he was inclined to laugh himself at the generosity of audiences who, ‘after they have seen me and satisfied their curiosity as to my costume and long hair, would be glad to go away again without sitting through a lecture on a subject that doesn’t interest them". Wilde wanted to keep his punters entertained as well as educated. But how?
On his return to England, Wilde prepared a new lecture: Impressions of America. At the outset of the new one-man show, he confessed that, despite having travelled from New York to New Orleans and Saratoga to San Francisco, he knew next to nothing about the States. This was probably true, because, like many a touring stand-up, Wilde saw little of the cities he visited other than his hotel room. This was fine for working up observational material about the newfangled and ubiquitous cast-iron stove (‘a necessary nuisance, like a dull relation’), or the American habit of hanging pictures up near the cornice (‘it was not until I saw how bad the pictures were that I realised the advantage of the custom’).
So touring was as tedious then as it is today. No matter. Wilde dramatised his journey, crafting one of the earliest comic monologues. And just as modern stand-ups take a mundane experience and ask themselves "how can I make this funny?", Wilde twisted half-truths into bizarre, almost surreal scenarios to amuse his audience.
He was warned, he said, that if he visited the lawless Wild West town of Leadville, the gunslingers there ‘would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me’. The saloon in the same town displayed a sign that read: ‘Please do not shoot the pianist: he is doing his best’.
On a trip to Salt Lake City, Wilde was told how, after the death of the Mormon President, the man who would succeed him ‘stood up in the Tabernacle and said that it had been revealed to him that he was to have the Amelia Palace [the home of the President], and that on this subject there were to be no more revelations of any kind!’ These stories may have had a kernel of truth, but each has been amplified into absurdity.
Did Wilde's public find his jokes amusing? We know they did, because journalists who reported on the performances for British local newspapers printed routines verbatim and, as a favour to future historians of comedy, indicated where audiences showed their approval: ‘I met the Indians ... Their language struck me as resembling German metaphysics -- very fine as long as it is not understood. (Laughter).’
Despite the national stereotyping, it is easy to imagine an audience laughing at Wilde's stories, just as they laughed at Richard Pryor's tales of growing up in a whorehouse frequented by a mayor with a penchant for ice cream, or as they laugh today at Bridget Christie's routine about a book store whose male shop assistants, whenever they feel the urge to pass wind, dash to the feminist literature section.
Wilde didn't set out to usher in a new art form. But maybe, without realising - and so stealthily that nobody else realised either - he invented stand-up comedy.
• Robert Marland is woking on a graphic novel about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour. Find out more at oscarwildecomics.com.
Published: 5 Sep 2013