Friday, 30 August 2013

Was Oscar Wilde the First Stand Up Comedian?

Funny people: they all have at least one hand.

The Edinburgh Festival came to a close last week, and I was pretty chuffed that one of my favourite stand-ups, Bridget Christie, won the award for best comedy show. I first saw her playing a crown-green bowls clubhouse in a Welsh village (she threw a water biscuit at my head), but I think we can safely say she's now hit the big time (we can say that; she never would).

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 kernal 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.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at

Friday, 16 August 2013

Oscar Wilde in the Catskills

It's the height of summer, the sun is shining, and I'm having fun working on the synopsis for my Oscar Wilde comic. One hundred thirty one years ago today, Wilde was touring the summer resorts of up-state New York and having slightly less fun than I am.

On the 11th of August, Wilde was at Hathorn Spring, only a few days into his short tour of upmarket hotels. He stopped to take two glasses of spring water, "somewhat to the disappointment of the fair sex, who seemed to think that he should have differed in some way—perhaps stood on his head or drank two at once".

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11th August 1882

In Saratoga, shortly afterwards, he was mobbed by eager young women and their even more eager mothers. "To balk the pursuit utterly, I fled to the bar-room," Wilde later told a reporter. "Why didn’t I say, “What’ll you have, ladies?” Oh, it wouldn’t have done any good, and all the country would have said I had insulted the ladies at Saratoga." New Ulm Weekly, 4th October 1882.

His grumpy demeanour was possibly due to the sarcastic tone of most journalists. Audiences weren't much friendlier. The New York Times reported that the rich vacationers saw Wilde as a mountebank, but were unable to keep themselves from his lectures. ""I hear he has made over $25,000 in this country," one gentleman was heard to say. "Alas," sighed his companion, "I fear he will add the price of my ticket to his bank account."" New York Times, 17th August 1882.

At Long Branch there were walk outs. Those who remained, "snickered". Wilde requested the landlord keep order, and the guests complained that "they had paid for [the] hotel accommodations and had as a good a right to enjoy them as anybody". One forthright attendee suggested the "blasted Britisher" be subjected to an impromptu dip in the ocean. If this threat was carried out, no evidence of the dipping has survived. Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, 19th August 1882.

Another Oscar Wilde had a much more successful summer, at the Saratoga race track. On the 8th of August a five year-old chestnut gelding named Oscar Wilde won the fifth race of the day, and a purse of $250, when he overtook two other horses on the final stretch to pass the post with a two length advantage. Way to go, Oscar!

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9th August 1882

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at

Friday, 2 August 2013

Where's Wilde?

I decided to redraft the first act of my comic about Wilde's American lecture tour. I read somewhere that problems with the ending of a story are usually due to problems with the beginning. If you don't make it clear where your protagonist is at the outset of their journey, you can't expect the audience to be wowed by their transformation. Fair enough.

To place Wilde in his social context prior to the tour, I'm referring to an excellent resource: a painting by William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. The picture is a who's who of early 1880's London society - you can see actors, aristocrats, and everybody in between. The Prime Minister is even rubbing shoulders with a pair of cartoonists!

[Click picture to enlarge]

I've added labels so I can keep track of everybody in the jumble. Wilde isn't marked out, but you should be able to spot him. Move over, Wally (or Waldo, for my international chums)!

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at