Research Communications

The Humor Pioneer: How Mark Twain created the concept of a branded comic persona that could generate publicity and profit 

By Jeff Worley

Mark Twain lived his robust life as a printer, riverboat pilot, soldier, miner, reporter, lecturer, editor, inventor, humorist, author, and publisher. He was also the first American author-celebrity to blaze the trail of "branding" himself and his work, according to Judith Yaross Lee, a professor of communication studies at Ohio University, in her newly published book from the University Press of Mississippi, Twain's Brand.

"In traditional analyses of Twain's significance, literary scholars have tended to believe that Twain's humor belongs to a trivial 19th century popular culture of dialect writing, hoaxes, and tall yarns, while his themes—especially race and politics—belong to the more serious 20th century literary canon," Lee says.

She believes this overly general dichotomy fails to recognize Twain's contributions to American humor and culture in both centuries.

"Samuel Clemens adapted 19th century comic traditions to burgeoning 20th century cultural trends in ways that won popular and economic success in his own time, while anticipating American humor and culture decades into the future," Lee says. "And his comic capital remains productive and still profitable today."

Clemens—whose life spanned two centuries, bookended by successive appearances of Halley's Comet in 1835 and 1910—marketed himself as Mark Twain through his published newspaper articles, short stories, novels, essays, and even three patented inventions.

Throughout his lifetime, she says in her book, Clemens treated Mark Twain as a comic commodity to be marketed through modern media buzz.  He exploited the links between publicity and profit and the synergy among various media as early as the 1860s when he was a cub reporter on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. 

At the newspaper, Twain didn't necessarily let the facts stand in the way of a good story.  Lee mentions several outright hoaxes—sensationalist articles he fabricated and published in the Enterprise—that were designed to sell more newspapers and get his new pen name lodged into the minds of the reading public.

 Twain_illustration_web
Illustration: Christina Ullman

Lee writes that at this point in his young life, Twain used his notoriety as a journalist to promote his lectures, and in years to follow built on his performances as a lecturer to subsidize book writing (Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Following the Equator), used his books to sell magazine pieces, and fiction to supply lecture material. The process eventually moved from the stage to literary readings of his work and to after-dinner and "occasional" speeches, but it continued to trade, commercially, on Mark Twain's name and celebrity.

"At the beginning of his lecture career, he rented the hall himself, did his own publicity, and charged $1 per seat," Lee says. "And then he toured the Midwest and gave lectures in New York City, picking up a few hundred dollars at a time."

Twain estimated that he amassed $1,200 or $1,500 from his earliest West Coast tour in 1866 and 1867, which was about half the gate. That would be about $20,000 in today's dollars. Some of this income went toward supporting his career as a writer, she adds, and all of his professional activities helped to strengthen his "brand."

"What I call 'Twain's brand' highlights the interrelationship among culture and commerce in American humor, and Mark Twain's role in linking the three," Lee explains. "The exchange of humor for laughter—and from the audience's perspective, the exchange of money for humor—underscores that humor belongs to an economic system as well as an aesthetic one."

She stresses the fact that Clemens consciously built his brand in an international context. By the time he first visited England in 1872, for example, he'd already successfully marketed Mark Twain there as the embodiment of American humor. Clemens capitalized on his international fame in an 1895-1896 global tour of live performances not only to pay off the debts of his bankrupt publishing house, Webster & Co., but also to convert his travel experiences into a new book, Following the Equator.

The Nature of the Brand

In her book Lee focuses on four hallmarks of Twain's brand that were central to his career and reputation, but are also significant for American humorists in many media in the 20th century, including stand-up comedy, short stories, novels, and even comics. Sixteen color plates illustrate the chapter titled "The Vernacular Vision and the Visual Vernacular" in which she discusses contemporary comics, such as The Simpsons and cartoonist Lynda Barry's elaborate multimedia collages, as graphic extensions of Twain's mocking of conventional modes and celebration of vernacular American speech.

"Whether lampooning the media's obsession with celebrity (while exploiting it for his own ends), or presenting his fictional persona as both 'real' and extravagant invention, Twain's brand of humor laid down the tracks for much of American humor today—in print, on television, in graphic novels, and in comedy clubs," says Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of The Oxford Mark Twain and the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and professor of English at Stanford University. "Lee adds to our appreciation of the originality of his talent, and his genius for marketing it."

Lee's central focus in the latter part of her book—and the first "hallmark" she discusses—is stand-up comedy and the importance of the "performed self," which was at the center of Twain's early stage humor. Comic lectures brought him visibility as a humorous personality as well as a writer. In particular, his development as a stage persona only slightly removed from his biographical self intrigued and amused audiences. What Lee calls the performance of an "unstable self" is also a hallmark of many stand-up comics today, including Jon Stewart, Garrison Keillor, Margaret Cho, and Jerry Seinfeld.

A second hallmark Lee calls the alliterative "comic cross-cultural contrast."

"Throughout his career, Mark Twain mined a nationalist strand of literary humor that celebrated American separation from imperial Britain through comic contrasts of American values, language, characters, and experience with those of other cultures, especially the more 'cultivated' European aristocracies," Lee writes.

She points out that Americans' love of dialect humor reflects this tradition, but it also lives on in novels such as Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which jokes about cultural differences between Americans and others in ways that— more recently—Philip Roth has likewise explored in fiction.

A third hallmark, the "vernacular vision," goes to the heart of what so many readers love about Mark Twain's humor—the naïve ironies and antisocial antics of a young rascal like Huckleberry Finn. Lee devotes an entire chapter of her book to exploring how Twain's brand of vernacular presentation in Huck drives both its literary satire and a range of contemporary counterparts from The Simpsons to Lynda Barry, and Aaron McGruder's newspaper strip The Boondocks.

Finally, there's the brand-name marketing of humor itself.

"From books and magazines to cell phones and the Internet, the humor business of recent decades depends on the same brand-name promotion and cross-media synergy that Samuel Clemens pioneered a century ago when the information economy was young," Lee points out. "Like any brand name, the name Mark Twain associates certain traits and values with its signature product."
 Judith Yaross Lee
Judith Yaross Lee/Ohio University

Twain's visual identity, she adds, is central to the brand: The slender man in suit and bow tie with thick, wavy hair, bushy eyebrows, and a flowing, drooping mustache is well fixed in the popular imagination.

If there were any doubts about the brand's continuing success, the publication of Mark Twain's autobiography, which he mostly dictated during the last few years of his life with the caveat that it not be published until a hundred years after his death, underscored this success. Print runs on the book rose from an initial 40,000 copies to more than 400,000 while the book remained on the New York Times Best Sellers list for more than eight weeks during the 2010 Christmas shopping season.

Standing Up and Branding Up

A major focus of Twain's Brand is that Clemens was a forerunner for a range of comedians in America from the mid-20th century to today who perform the fictional self and use these performances as a starting point to build a comic brand on which to trade.

But she is quick to point out that her book is not an influence study.

"I don't make an argument that later humorists consciously modeled their humor on his; instead, I argue that Twain's humor not only expressed views of self and society well ahead of its time, but also inaugurated a tradition of comic branding through several media and in doing so anticipated contemporary comic practices," she says.

There have been several 20th century variations of the humorist who plays a fabricated version of himself or herself. This strand of performance humor was the basis of television adaptations of radio hits such as The Jack Benny Program and The Burns and Allen Show, as well as situation comedies springing from nightclub routines, such as the one-sided telephone calls of The Bob Newhart Show. Other TV programs based on comedians playing fictional versions of themselves include The Cosby Show, Ellen, Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, Everybody Hates Chris, and The Sarah Silverman Program.

In her book Lee provides an extended discussion of three contemporary comedians who she believes are the closest to Twain's brand of stand-up: Garrison Keillor, Margaret Cho, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Keillor has delivered weekly mock-news reports from the fictitious Lake Wobegon for the last 35 years on the radio program A Prairie Home Companion.

"Though Keillor has described his monologues as sit-down rather than stand-up comedy, the weekly news from Lake Wobegon generates humor from the incongruity between the sincerity of Keillor's narration—full of realistic detail and sympathy for human foibles—and the originality of his imagination," Lee says. 

With Midwestern modesty, she adds, Keillor uses the comic tool of self-deprecation, which was a common trait in Twain's lectures and speeches.

"But while Keillor and Twain share a Midwestern approach to writing and performing comedy, especially in their middle American vernacular and moral standpoints, what unites their oral humor is their choice to put a comically unstable self at the center of their performances," Lee adds. "And both found this self a platform for branding other, more lucrative writing and commercial activities."

Margaret Cho's stand-up routines play a bit differently with the performance of the self, both proclaiming and destabilizing her identity, Lee states. As Cho recounts her experiences as the daughter of Korean immigrants, the target of racism, and a bisexual, she artfully shifts accents and tones. In stark contrast to Keillor and Seinfeld, Cho is "notorious," she proudly claims, for on-stage "trash talking."

But the impact of her humor clearly goes beyond this, Lee says. Cho's stand-up comedy imitates ordinary conversation, especially the pointed anecdote and her stories from supposedly personal experience. She shifts identities, acts out transgressions, and mimics opposing perspectives to convert outrage to ridicule.

"Together, Cho's strategies illustrate how Twain's brand of stand-up comedy relies on performance of a distinctive, unstable comic self. Keillor and Cho continue Twain's brand of humor by feigning artless presentations of purportedly authentic experiences, those that are evidently their own and those that are obviously fictitious, or comically exaggerated, personas," Lee explains.

Cho's stage performance served as a launching pad for a sitcom vehicle for her in 1994, All American Girl, at exactly the time when Seinfeld topped all records for TV ad sales. "These sales speak to the importance of a stand-up comedian as a commodity suitable for marketing extensions in various media," Lee notes.

Seinfeld began as a sitcom that would show where comics get their material by alternating scenes from Jerry Seinfeld's daily life with clips from his stand-up act. The comic gap between on- and off-stage personas has always fueled the celebrity sitcom, Lee says, but the show about the daily life of a comedian, Seinfeld, turned the tradition on its head.

"The conceit emphasizes the origins of stand-up in autobiography, thereby branding the self twice over as a comic commodity," Lee says, "first to the network that bought the series and then to the advertisers who financially supported the show."

While Lee focuses on Keillor, Cho, and Seinfeld in this analysis of Twain heirs apparent, she argues that dozens of contemporary stand-up comedians have used these concepts to extend their brands. While Clemens may have used newspapers, novels, and essays, modern humorists are employing situation comedies, late-night television, films, and social media to merge "physical presence, a unique and edgy imagination, and a biographical identity with a comic persona," Lee says.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship and creative work of Ohio University faculty, students and staff.