The Adventures of Mark Twain in California – Part 4: The Stand Up Comedian

While it might be a stretch to describe Mark Twain’s ascent to literary rock-stardom as luck, he truly did not expect what was about to happen. After 88 days of hiding out, recuperating, taking a break in a cabin in the Sierra foothills surrounded by quintessential storytellers, “yarners,” (and avoiding a $500 bond he owed for springing friend Steven Gillis out of jail) Twain was ready to return to San Francisco. What he wasn’t ready for was a humble frog that suddenly hopped onto the scene.

 If you’ve never read the short story that launched Mark Twain’s career, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” you can find it here.

A Quick Summary

It’s a yarn about Jim Smiley who was so crazily-addicted to gambling that he would bet on nearly anything at all. So obsessed was he with betting, that he actually trained a frog to jump and catch flies at his command, just so he could win money from non-believers.

One day a stranger came to town and Smiley bet him that his frog (named Dan’l Webster) could out-jump any frog in Calaveras County. The stranger declared he didn’t see anything remarkable about Jim Smiley’s frog. When Smiley had cinched down the bet, he entrusted Dan’l Webster with the stranger while he rushed off to the swamp to catch another frog to compete against. While Smiley was away the crafty stranger poured pounds of lead shot into poor Dan’l Webster, who could then hardly move much less jump. 

Needless to say, Smiley lost the bet and paid the stranger, who promptly disappeared. It was only after the stranger had gone that Smiley hefted Dan’l Webster, who promptly belched up much of the lead shot. Discovered he’d been cheated, Smiley searched high and low for the stranger, who was never seen again.

Nag, Nag, Nag…

Illustration of Mark Twain on the lecture circuit

Previous installments in this series describe the relationship between Twain and Artemus Ward. Ward was an immensely popular stand-up comic and humorist (called “lecturers” in those days) Twain had met in Virginia City, NV. After a week of bar-hopping and general carousing around together, Ward was convinced Twain was a man who was going places. Ward had returned back East, but had kept in touch with Twain, dearly wanting him to contribute something for a book Ward was in the process of writing.

Twain was suffering from severe writer’s block. He made several attempts at writing something for Ward, but judged these  just weren’t good enough. He stalled and stalled, but Ward kept badgering him. Eventually Twain’s procrastination caused him to miss Ward’s publication deadline, but he didn’t know that at the time. 

Artemus Ward, considered by many as the first standup comic

Twain later wrote, “A still, small voice began to make itself heard. ‘Try me… try me.” It was the little frog! Out of sheer exasperation Twain wrote out the story and sent it to Artemus Ward, a story he had overheard in a tavern in Angels Camp.

Since Ward had already submitted his book manuscript for publication, he instead sent Twain’s story to The New York Saturday Press where it appeared in November, 1865. The story was simple enough, but captured unique elements of life and language “out West,” which were of particular interest to readers on the East Coast. 

Twain’s story was an instant sensation. Soon it was printed and reprinted in newspapers and magazines all across America. Suddenly Twain’s name was on everyone’s lips, but he’d never forgotten Artemus Ward’s advice, that writing was well and good, but “lecuring” (being a stand-up comedian) paid better at the time. 

When the Sacramento Union newspaper offered to send him to the “Sandwich Islands” (Hawaii) for a series of humorous observations, Twain jumped at the chance. He stayed several months. Upon returning to San Francisco he was urged to try “lecturing” by his friend Thomas Maquire who owned several theaters. Twain had no experience whatsoever on stage, but the practiced eye of Artemus Ward (considered the George Carlin, Robin Williams or Jim Carey of his day) had indeed seen something in him. Twain accepted.  

Twain later wrote he had been positively terrified, but he had the presence of mind to memorize his lecture on the Sandwich Islands word-for-word, and then practiced so it appeared spontaneous. He even paid a few folks to laugh at all of his jokes, which was common at the time. 

Taking the stage in front of a sold-out San Francisco crowd, Twain stood stiff, silent and mortified for an entire minute before uttering a word. But once he started, he took to it like a natural-born stage performer. The crowd loved him. Few modern readers even know that during his lifetime Twain was just as famous as a stage performer as he was a writer. Over the next 30 years he went on to give hundreds of lectures on a variety of subjects all over America and abroad. 

Finding his “Voice”

California had given Samuel Clemens the “voice” of his persona, Mark Twain. Refined Easterners had no idea how people really talked in the wild west, and Twain’s uniquely western “twang” came straight from the barrooms, honky tonks and mining camps of California. He learned to imitate great “yarners” like Jim Gillis and Artemus Ward in a voice (both written and spoken) as authentic as a spittoon. It is because of Mark Twain we have some idea of how Mississippi River pilots, escaped slaves and professional con-men of the 1860s might have sounded. Many of these have become some of the most beloved and recognizable characters in American fiction.

Twain spent about seven years in California before going on to international literary rock-stardom, but they were critical, formative years. When he left, Twain took pieces of California and Californians with him to forever resonate through the best of American literature.

Read more about Mark Twain:

The Chronicles of Mark Twain in California – Part 1: The Stories Behind the Pen Name

The Chronicles of Mark Twain in California – Part 2: Getting Fired in San Francisco

The Adventures of Mark Twain in California – Part 3: Jackass Hill and Jumping Frogs

Mark Twain’s Account of the Naming of Yreka, California

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button