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Samuel Clemens, American humorist who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain. Mark Twain by AF Bradley.jpg
Samuel Clemens, American humorist who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain.

A humorist is an intellectual who uses humor, or wit, in writing or public speaking, but is not an artist who seeks only to elicit laughter. [1] Humorists are distinct from comedians, who are show business entertainers whose business is to make an audience laugh. It is possible to play both roles in the course of a career. A raconteur is one who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way.


The iconic humorist

Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, 1835–1910) was widely considered the "greatest humorist" the U.S. ever produced, as noted in his New York Times obituary. [2] It's a distinction that garnered wide agreement, as William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature". [3]

The United States national cultural center, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has chosen to award a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor annually since 1998 to individuals who have "had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain". [4] Despite the name, conferral of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize does not make the awardee a humorist. As of 2019, the center has chosen to confer the prize on twenty-one comedians [5] and one playwright; [4] only two recipients, the comedian Steve Martin and the playwright Neil Simon, are commonly recognized as humorists in the sense of Twain.

Distinction from a comedian

Humor is the quality which makes experiences provoke laughter or amusement, while comedy is a performing art. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer lamented the misuse of humor (a German loanword from English) to mean any type of comedy. A humorist is adept at seeing the humor in a situation or aspect of life and relating it, usually through a story; the comedian generally concentrates on jokes designed to invoke instantaneous laughter. The humorist is primarily a writer of books, newspaper or magazine articles or columns, stage or screen plays, and may occasionally appear before an audience to deliver a lecture or narrate a written work. The comedian always performs for an audience, either in live performance, audio recording, radio, television, or film. [6]

Phil Austin, of the comedy group the Firesign Theatre, expressed his thoughts about the difference in 1993 liner notes to the Fighting Clowns album: [7]

To me, there is a great difference between a humorist and a clown, and I had hoped that life for the Firesign Theatre would have led more toward the world of Mark Twain than the world of Beepo. The humorist is a happy soul; he comments from the sidelines of life, safe behind the keyboard or pen; not forced to mold his thinking to the direct response of an audience, he has indirection on his side. He has time to think. Beepo, on the other hand, takes his chances directly facing—or mooning—the audience; a buffoon, a patsy, a performer, he is out in the open and his audience, unlike a humorist's, becomes necessarily half-friend and half-enemy.

Notable humorists


Britain and Ireland

Nancy Astor: "If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!"
Winston Churchill: "And if I were your husband I would drink it."

—Churchill is the most cited politician in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations with 32 quotes. [10]

Oscar Wilde is the most cited humorist in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. Oscar Wilde 3g07095u-adjust.jpg
Oscar Wilde is the most cited humorist in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.


Other countries

Comedians who become humorists

Sometimes a comedian will adopt a writing career and gain notability as a humorist. Some examples are:

Will Rogers (1879–1935) was a vaudeville comedian who started doing humorous political and social commentary, and became a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality during the Great Depression. He is an exception to the education rule, as he only completed a tenth grade education. [17]

Cal Stewart (1856–1919) was a vaudeville comedian who created the character Uncle Josh Weathersby and toured circuses and medicine shows. He befriended Twain and Rogers, and in 1898 became the first comedian to make sound recordings, on Edison Records.

Garry Moore (1915–1993), known as a television comedian who hosted several variety and game shows, after his 1977 retirement became a regular humor columnist for the newspaper The Island Packet of Northeast Harbor, Maine, with a column titled "Mumble, Mumble". He later released a book of his columns under the same name in the early 1980s.

Victor Borge (1909–2000) was a Danish-American comedian known for bringing humor to classical music. He wrote three books, My Favorite Intermissions [18] and My Favorite Comedies in Music [19] (both with Robert Sherman), and the autobiography Smilet er den korteste afstand ("The Smile is the Shortest Distance") with Niels-Jørgen Kaiser. [20]

Peter Ustinov (1921–2004) was an English comic actor who wrote several humorous plays and film scripts.

Woody Allen (born 1935), known as a comedian and filmmaker, early in his career worked as a staff writer for humorist Herb Shriner. [21] He also wrote short stories and cartoon captions for magazines such as The New Yorker .

Steve Martin (born 1945), comedian and actor, wrote Cruel Shoes , a book of humorous essays and short stories, in 1977 (published 1979). He wrote his first humorous play Picasso at the Lapin Agile in 1993, and wrote various pieces in The New Yorker magazine in the 1990s. He later wrote more humorous plays and two novellas.

Hugh Laurie (born 1959) is an English comic actor who worked for many years in partnership with Stephen Fry. He is a fan of the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse, and has written a Wodehouse-style novel. [22]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">P. G. Wodehouse</span> English writer (1881–1975)

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, was an English writer and one of the most widely read humorists of the 20th century. His creations include the feather-brained Bertie Wooster and his sagacious valet, Jeeves; the immaculate and loquacious Psmith; Lord Emsworth and the Blandings Castle set; the Oldest Member, with stories about golf; and Mr Mulliner, with tall tales on subjects ranging from bibulous bishops to megalomaniac movie moguls.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stephen Leacock</span> Canadian writer and economist

Stephen P. H. Butler Leacock was a Canadian teacher, political scientist, writer, and humorist. Between the years 1915 and 1925, he was the best-known English-speaking humorist in the world. He is known for his light humour along with criticisms of people's follies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ribaldry</span> Off-color humor

Ribaldry or blue comedy is humorous entertainment that ranges from bordering on indelicacy to indecency. Blue comedy is also referred to as "bawdiness" or being "bawdy". Like any humour, ribaldry may be read as conventional or subversive. Ribaldry typically depends on a shared background of sexual conventions and values, and its comedy generally depends on seeing those conventions broken.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fred Allen</span> American comedian (1894–1956)

John Florence Sullivan, known professionally as Fred Allen, was an American comedian. His absurdist topically-pointed radio program The Fred Allen Show (1932–1949) made him one of the most popular and forward-looking humorists in the Golden Age of American radio.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Erma Bombeck</span> American humorist and writer

Erma Louise Bombeck was an American humorist who achieved great popularity for her newspaper humor column describing suburban home life, syndicated from 1965 to 1996. She also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mark Twain Prize for American Humor</span> American award for the Performing Arts

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is an American award presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. annually since 1998, except for the years 2020 and 2021. Named after the 19th-century humorist Mark Twain, it is presented to individuals who have "had an impact on American society in ways similar to" Twain. The Kennedy Center chose Twain in recognition of his role as a controversial social commentator and his "uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly." A copy of Karl Gerhardt's 1884 bust of Twain is presented in an autumn ceremony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, during which the honoree is celebrated by his or her peers. The event is a significant fundraiser to benefit the Kennedy Center, which sells tickets as well as access to dinners and after-parties featuring the celebrities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Columnist</span> Person who writes for publication in a series

A columnist is a person who writes for publication in a series, creating an article that usually offers commentary and opinions. Columns appear in newspapers, magazines and other publications, including blogs. They take the form of a short essay by a specific writer who offers a personal point of view. In some instances, a column has been written by a composite or a team, appearing under a pseudonym, or a brand name. Some columnists appear on a daily or weekly basis and later reprint the same material in book collections.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Michael O'Donoghue</span> American actor and writer (1940–1994)

Michael O'Donoghue was an American writer and performer. He was known for his dark and destructive style of comedy and humor, and was a major contributor to National Lampoon magazine. He was the first head writer of Saturday Night Live and the first performer to deliver a line on the series.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">S. J. Perelman</span> American screenwriter (1904–1979)

Sidney Joseph Perelman was an American humorist and screenwriter. He is best known for his humorous short pieces written over many years for The New Yorker. He also wrote for several other magazines, including Judge, as well as books, scripts, and screenplays. Perelman received an Academy Award for screenwriting in 1956.

A comic novel is a novel-length work of humorous fiction. Many well-known authors have written comic novels, including P. G. Wodehouse, Henry Fielding, Mark Twain, and John Kennedy Toole. Comic novels are often defined by the author's literary choice to make the thrust of the work—in its narration or plot—funny or satirical in orientation, regardless of the putative seriousness of the topics addressed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Ade</span> American writer, newspaper columnist, and playwright

George Ade was an American writer, syndicated newspaper columnist, and playwright who gained national notoriety at the turn of the 20th century with his "Stories of the Streets and of the Town", a column that used street language and slang to describe daily life in Chicago, and a column of his fables in slang, which were humorous stories that featured vernacular speech and the liberal use of capitalization in his characters' dialog.

<i>The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today</i> Book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner first published in 1873. It satirizes greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America. Although not one of Twain's best-known works, it has appeared in more than 100 editions since its original publication. Twain and Warner originally had planned to issue the novel with illustrations by Thomas Nast. The book is remarkable for two reasons—it is the only novel Twain wrote with a collaborator, and its title very quickly became synonymous with graft, materialism, and corruption in public life. The novel gave the era its nickname: the period of U.S. history from the 1870s to about 1900 is now referred to as the Gilded Age.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dan DeQuille</span> American journalist

William Wright (1829–1898), better known by the pen name Dan DeQuille or Dan De Quille, was an American author, journalist, and humorist. He was best known for his written accounts of the people, events, and silver mining operations on the Comstock Lode at Virginia City, Nevada, including his non-fiction book History of the Big Bonanza.

American humor refers collectively to the conventions and common threads that tie together humor in the United States. It is often defined in comparison to the humor of another country – for example, how it is different from British humor and Canadian humor. It is, however, difficult to say what makes a particular type or subject of humor particularly American. Humor usually concerns aspects of American culture, and depends on the historical and current development of the country's culture. The extent to which an individual will personally find something humorous obviously depends on a host of absolute and relative variables, including, but not limited to geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, and context. People of different countries will therefore find different situations funny. Just as American culture has many aspects which differ from other nations, these cultural differences may be a barrier to how humor translates to other countries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Argentine humour</span>

Argentine humour is exemplified by a number of humorous television programmes, film productions, comic strips and other types of media. Everyday humour includes jokes related to recurrent themes, such as xenophobic jokes at the expense of Galicians (Spaniards) called chistes de gallegos, often obscene sex-related jokes, jokes about the English, the Americans, blonde women, dark humour, word and pronunciation games, jokes about Argentines themselves, etc.

Mark Twain is a documentary film on the life of Mark Twain, also known as Samuel Clemens, produced by Ken Burns in 2001 which aired on Public Broadcasting System on January 14 and 15, 2002. Burns attempted to capture both the public and private persona of Mark Twain from his birth to his death. The film was narrated by Keith David.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Dryden</span> American journalist

Charles Dryden was an American baseball writer and humorist. He was reported to be the most famous and highly paid baseball writer in the United States during the 1900s. Known for injecting humor into his baseball writing, Dryden was credited with elevating baseball writing from the commonplace. In 1928, The Saturday Evening Post wrote: "The greatest of all the reporters, and the man to whom the game owes more, perhaps, than to any other individual, was Charles Dryden, the Mark Twain of baseball."

Stoddard King was an American author and songwriter.


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