Artemus Ward of Cleveland Recognized as Pioneer of Stand-Up Comedy | Arts & Culture


In the midst of the Civil War, a journalist from Cleveland made America laugh. In 1858, Charles Farrar Browne began writing humorous letters to The Plain Dealer under the pseudonym Artemus Ward. The character was so popular with readers that Browne eventually took him on stage.

Comedian-turned-historian Ritch Shydner argues that Artemus Ward was America’s first stand-up comic. Shydner was inspired by the research into the origins of stand-up by her friend and full-fledged comedy pioneer, Phyllis Diller.

“We both thought Mark Twain was first. And I found Artemus Ward while reading an essay by Mark Twain, ”said Shydner. Mark Twain once said that Artemus was the funniest guy he had ever seen, and he based it all in his own performance on what he saw Artemus Ward do, which made people laugh right on his mind. . “

Cleveland Elementary School is named after Artemus Ward [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

A native of Waterford, Maine, Browne began his career as a journalist with newspapers in Tiffin, Ohio and Toledo before being hired as editor at The Plain Dealer in 1857. A few weeks later he began writing letters to the editor under the guise of a fictional showman named Artemus Ward. Most likely, Browne lifted this nickname from a War of Independence general, Shydner said. These humorous headlines from the road have won Browne a devoted following of readers.

Artemus Ward’s office at The Plain Dealer [Ritch Shydner]

“He obviously had comedic instincts,” Shydner said. “He chose an old failed failure, which was funnier than an ambitious young man or a successful old man.”

Artemus Ward was a very human character, someone the average reader could relate to.

“I mean, it’s hard to believe, because no one has ever heard of him,” Shydner said. “But at this time, he was one of the first stars of showbiz. He was a big star. The Civil War began in 1861. He began to stand-up in 1860.

Shydner noted that it was a huge gamble for Browne to get his character on stage, given the cultural context of the time.

“Any sort of performance had to have value, like a moral lesson or an educational lesson, and just a little bit of humor to help the medicine go down,” he said. “Back then, their attitude was that if you laughed too much in public, you laughed. To someone and it was considered rude. So when he offers to go on stage and make people laugh for an hour, that’s radical. People were actually going out during a show. And they complained at the box office saying, “I laughed, but I didn’t learn anything. It’s a waste of time.'”

But, despite his criticism, Artemus Ward’s fan base has grown steadily – right down to the White House. Ward put on a show in Washington, attended by Abraham Lincoln.

“It was very early in the day before Lincoln had to stop going out to perform in public, because it would seem unseemly to have fun during the war,” said Shydner. “He just liked hearing funny stories, so he could tell them. “

Eventually, Artemus Ward’s fame began to spread outside the country.

“He actually went to England and they were blown away. That’s where he died, in England, ”said Shydner. “The London Times said he was ‘an American original, we’ve never seen anything like it.’ This one person, making an entire audience laugh, controlling the minds of hundreds and hundreds of people with just his mind.

Poster for the appearance of Artemus Ward in London [Ritch Shydner]

Shydner got a taste of this during his own stand-up days in the 1980s. He did the circuit, performed in clubs, earning prominent television degrees with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Merv Griffin. He had a recurring role on the “Married With Children” television series, and he was even featured in a stand-up comedy documentary before retiring from the scene. Now he is drawn to studying this life and what makes comedians tick.

“I guess I wasn’t interested in history until I became history,” Shydner said wryly. “You know, George Burns said the comic soul is eternal. And if you look at Artemus Ward and how he acted, he just chased the laughter down to the grave. He was dying of tuberculosis in England. They kept saying, you know, ‘Stay off the stage, take it easy.’ He says to me ‘I can’t. I must leave. I must have this laugh. It’s what keeps me alive, keeps me going. I relate it to every comic today.

Sculptor Frank Jirouch puts the finishing touches on the bust that will be placed in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in 1948, next to a bust of Mark Twain [Ritch Shydner]

It’s all part of what Shydner calls a “temporary art form,” which can tell you a lot about a culture, if you just listen closely.

“Mark Twain said, comedy lasts 30 years at most,” he said. “Jokes don’t travel well through time. But, it’s very thoughtful, and, at any point, you can tell what’s going on in the American zeitgeist by what types of jokes are popular at the time or what type of humor is popular at the time. era. And I like to go back and show that from different times, how things have changed. I like this. It’s funny.”

Ritch Shydner will share some of that fun in two presentations he gives this weekend at Pickwick and Frolic in downtown Cleveland: one on stand-up comedy history and one on a guy named Artemus Ward. , who may have invented the form right here in Cleveland.

Right, the bust of Mark Twain in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. On the left, the pedestal of the missing (stolen?) Bust of Artemus Ward. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

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