Monday, May 23, 2016

NEWSHOUR BOOKSHELF - "Chasing the Last Laugh"

"Step aside Seinfeld — meet Mark Twain, the stand-up comic" PBS NewsHour 5/18/2016


SUMMARY:  Mark Twain once said that “hunger is the handmaid of genius,” and he was speaking from personal experience.  By 1894, Twain was an esteemed writer, an international celebrity -- and dead broke thanks to a few bad investments.  To stave off debt, he embarked on the world's first stand-up comedy tour, chronicled in Richard Zacks' new book, “Chasing the Last Laugh.”  Zacks joins Jeffrey Brown for more.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  In 1894, at age 59, Mark Twain was the highest-paid writer in the land, a national celebrity, author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and a slew of other books that are still required reading more than 100 years after his death.

But he was also nearly broke, after several investments and business projects went bust.

A new book captures what happened next, “Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour.”  It tells of Twain's travels and performances across the American West, to Australia and New Zealand, India, and South Africa.

I joined author Richard Zacks recently at one of Mark Twain's favorite Washington, D.C., haunts, the historic Willard Hotel and its Round Robin Bar.

So, we know Mark Twain had a lot of talent, but what probably many of us — and I didn't know — was one of his greatest talents was losing money.

RICHARD ZACKS, Author, “Chasing the Last Laugh”:  Extraordinary, a genius at it.

He lost money with the Paige typesetter.  He lost money setting up his own publishing company.  And he lost enough money to go deeply in debt at the point in his career when he thought he was just going to retire as America's greatest writer.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Already very famous, a lot — so much behind him, ready to glide out.

RICHARD ZACKS:  He was greedy.  He wanted to get paid higher royalties.  And he was convinced that, if he owned the publishing house, he could pay himself 90 percent royalties.

The trouble was that he so mismanaged the publishing house, that there was no money left to pay him any royalties.

JEFFREY BROWN:  So this was a point in his life where he really didn't want to be performing anymore.  Right?  That was behind him.

RICHARD ZACKS:  Right.  He wanted to kind of a literary giant.  And he said — not wanting to go on stage, he said, once an audience has seen you stand on your head, they expect you to remain in that position.  And he felt it was humiliating.
JEFFREY BROWN:  Yes.  So this is not stand-up comedy, the way we think of it, joke after joke after joke.  This is storytelling.  So what made it work?

RICHARD ZACKS:  The delivery is almost unique.

I think he was a once-in-a-millennium humorist.  He wrote about the boatman on — the Arab boatman charging so much to cross the Sea of Galilee, that they understood why Jesus learned to walk on water.


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