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Step aside Seinfeld — meet Mark Twain, the stand-up comic

May 18, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
Mark Twain once said that “hunger is the handmaid of genius,” and he was speaking from personal experience. By 1894, Twain was an esteemed writer, an international celebrity -- and dead broke thanks to a few bad investments. To stave off debt, he embarked on the world’s first stand-up comedy tour, chronicled in Richard Zacks’ new book, “Chasing the Last Laugh.” Zacks joins Jeffrey Brown for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: “Hunger is the handmaid of genius.” That’s Mark Twain.

In this latest edition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf, Jeffrey Brown explores the long, complicated tale of Twain’s own life, and how one of America’s greatest writers was also a pioneering stand-up comic.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1894, at age 59, Mark Twain was the highest-paid writer in the land, a national celebrity, author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and a slew of other books that are still required reading more than 100 years after his death.

But he was also nearly broke, after several investments and business projects went bust.

A new book captures what happened next, “Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour.” It tells of Twain’s travels and performances across the American West, to Australia and New Zealand, India and South Africa.

I joined author Richard Zacks recently at one of Mark Twain’s favorite Washington, D.C., haunts, the historic Willard Hotel and its Round Robin Bar.

So, we know Mark Twain had a lot of talent, but what probably many of us — and I didn’t know — was one of his greatest talents was losing money.

RICHARD ZACKS, Author, “Chasing the Last Laugh”: Extraordinary, a genius at it.

He lost money with the Paige typesetter. He lost money setting up his own publishing company. And he lost enough money to go deeply in debt at the point in his career when he thought he was just going to retire as America’s greatest writer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Already very famous, a lot — so much behind him, ready to glide out.

RICHARD ZACKS: He was greedy. He wanted to get paid higher royalties. And he was convinced that, if he owned the publishing house, he could pay himself 90 percent royalties.

The trouble was that he so mismanaged the publishing house, that there was no money left to pay him any royalties.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this was a point in his life where he really didn’t want to be performing anymore. Right? That was behind him.

RICHARD ZACKS: Right. He wanted to kind of a literary giant. And he said — not wanting to go on stage, he said, once an audience has seen you stand on your head, they expect you to remain in that position. And he felt it was humiliating.

JEFFREY BROWN: He went out big time, right, the biggest ever.

RICHARD ZACKS: Right. Right.

It’s the first time a stand-up comic has ever done a round-the-world tour. And he didn’t know how he would be received, because he was a little on the tail end of his career. So, here he is going out there, and he is going to Australia, New Zealand, well, India, and his performing style is so dangerous.

He would put a hand like this, stand there dressed in an evening suit, and talk in a very low-key — very, very slowly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So this is not stand-up comedy, the way we think of it, joke after joke after joke. This is storytelling. So what made it work?

RICHARD ZACKS: The delivery is almost unique.

I think he was a once-in-a-millennium humorist. He wrote about the boatman on — the Arab boatman charging so much to cross the Sea of Galilee, that they understood why Jesus learned to walk on water.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, that’s a little quick — that’s a good joke. Right?

RICHARD ZACKS: Yes. He didn’t do that much of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But he would spin out these stories for a long time. Right?

RICHARD ZACKS: Excellent point.

He did seven-to-15-minute stories. He did 90 minutes total. He had three full performances memorized, three 90 minutes. And I’m telling you, audiences were gasping for air.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he’s building and building and building.

(CROSSTALK)

RICHARD ZACKS: He’s building and building, and there’s drama, and you don’t see it coming. Right. How are you going to make that work?

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

All right, so, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, give me one place or example that grabbed you in your research that you loved.

RICHARD ZACKS: It’s just so easy to pick.

India. He adored the glamour, the exoticness. And he rode elephants in India. And he got what I would consider the greatest perk in the history of celebrities perks. They set aside 35 miles of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that he could use as personal roller coaster. I mean, who gets that?

JEFFREY BROWN: This is very steep, through the mountains, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

RICHARD ZACKS: Yes, it’s 7,000-foot elevation. They had zigzag — four places were so steep, they had to reverse the train and zigzag it.

And Twain goes down with his family in a handcar, open canvas seats, no seat belts we’re told about, and the only thing that can stop them is a hand brake. And some of the drops are over 1,000 feet. He said it was rousing, tingling pleasure, the best day of the entire trip.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one of the pleasures of this story is that, while it’s begun out of poverty in a sense, almost, or trying to fight it off, he lives a really high life, right, I mean, only the best hotels, the cruise ships, the train trip.

RICHARD ZACKS: He is such a contradiction, which is I think is why he is so unbelievably funny.

He wanted to be a man of the people, and he wanted to live the most aristocratic life. He wanted to be the funniest man, and he wanted to be a literary giant. He travels around the world to pay off debts, but because his wife was an heiress, he thought she should stay at the absolute best hotel in every city.

And he burned up like maybe a quarter of his potential profits on hotel and first-class steamer tickets.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he wanted to be, in the end, a great writer, right, not a kind of clown act or anything like that.

RICHARD ZACKS: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he feel like he got there?

RICHARD ZACKS: I think he had mixed feelings about whether he got there, because he is always referred to as the great humorist. It really irritated him that he wasn’t accepted.

And the interesting thing is that he chose as his best book to his dying day “Joan of Arc,” “Joan of Arc,” “Personal Recollections.”

JEFFREY BROWN: A book that nobody would even — most of would not remember that he wrote.

RICHARD ZACKS: Right. He sometimes said “Huckleberry Finn” to certain audiences, but he more often in the final years said “Joan of Arc.”

And Livy had no doubt. His wife was convinced “Joan of Arc” was his greatest book.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had to spend several years with him. What came out about his personality or his life? What did you come to like most?

RICHARD ZACKS: What I came to like most was the unbelievable humor, the ability to rephrase things. “Few of us can stand prosperity, another man’s, I mean.”

I mean, Twain lived at those fringes. And he had like an inner battle between his inner riverboat gambler and his inner Joan of Arc. And it was like — it was fascinating.

JEFFREY BROWN: The end of this trip is where that famous line that we remember, right, my — “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

RICHARD ZACKS: I love this story.

So, Twain is living in seclusion in London, and he is writing his book. And The New York Herald reports he is dying in poverty. And the rival paper, The New York Journal, says — sends a telegram and says, if Twain dying in London in poverty, send 500 words. If Twain has died in poverty, send 1,000.

And so the reporter naively hands the telegraph to Twain, to Twain’s servant, who carries it upstairs, and Twain scribbles a note. And he says: “Reports of my illness grew out of my cousin’s illness. Reports of my death was an exaggeration.”

It has changed to, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

And one more point. He was more irritated by the report of the poverty than he was of the death. The death, he can handle. Everyone dies, but that he had died in poverty, he was furious.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Chasing the Last Laugh.”

Richard Zacks, thanks so much.

RICHARD ZACKS: Thank you. It was great.

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