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Kevin J Bochynski <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 28 Sep 1998 16:44:35 -0400
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Note: I am posting this on behalf of Siva Vaidhyanathan who switched servers
recently (his new address appears at the end of this message. Please update
your address books).  --Kevin B.

In response to the recent comments (and silence) on Richard Pryor from

Richard Pryor is the ideal recipient of the first Mark Twain Prize from
the Kennedy Center. First of all, Pryor is not "just" a standup comic.
Secondly, Mark Twain WAS a standup comic. Thirdly, why should we
consider textually rendered humor more important or praiseworthy than
orally delivered humor? And finally, few humorists in the 20th century
exemplify the spirit and irreverent style of Mark Twain than Richard
Pryor does. They shared many traits. And lastly, if Pryor did not
receive the award in 1998, he might not be around to get it in the
future. He is very ill. Most of the other worthy people mentioned by
this list are much healthier, and will be just as pleased getting such
an honor (and being thought of on the level of Richard Pryor) in the
next few years.

As Mel Watkins explains in his excellent book _On the Real Side,_
Richard Pryor was the most original and influential comic voice of the
last half of this century. His standup inspired a generation and a half
of standup acts, from Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy to Richard Belzer
to Whoopie Goldberg to Chris Rock. And as I showed in my article "Now's
the Time: The Richard Pryor Phenomenon and the Triumph of Black
Culture" (in David E.E. Sloane, ed., _New Directions in American
Humor_, 1998) Pryor's work has influenced novelists and poets such as
Claude Brown, Cecil Brown and Ishmael Reed. Pryor is also undercredited
for helping to write one of the funniest films of all time, _Blazing
Saddles._ Mel Brooks has simply not been as funny since he stopped
working with Pryor. Pryor went on to write or contribute to the scripts
of  at least five more films, and inspired dozens more.

Mark Twain's success as a standup comic -- as perhaps America's most
beloved live performer of his time -- should be recognized by any Twain
fan. His lectures helped sell his books, and his books helped sell his
lectures. Rupert Murdoch did not invent media synergy. Twain did. See
Paul Fatout's work, Randall Knoper's _Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in
the Culture of Performance_ or Hal Holbrook's  forward to _Speeches_ in
the Oxford Mark Twain.

Oral presentation was essential to Twain's success as a writer, both
for precise comic effect and sincere discourse. Twain, as he said and
wrote many times, tried to write like he talked. Without being able to
sense an audience's reaction, he could not have been as keen a
self-editor. The rhythm of his sentences, the pace of his essays and
short stories, and the outright wackiness of his work would not have
been as funny without practicing his stuff out live. This is why
writers of all types still hit the lecture circuit while revising their
work. Orality and textuality have always interacted to "make" American
literature. It's one of those things, thanks in large part to Twain,
that makes American literature special.

Besides making their respective abused substances of choice material
for their jokes, Twain and Pryor shared many other traits as humorists.
First and foremost, they exploited the rich comic resources of the
American dialect. After too many frustrating years in the 1960s telling
mere jokes, Pryor finally broke through to success when he started
incorporating voices from his Illinois childhood in his standup act. Of
course, Twain learned that lesson early, and spent most of writing and
lecturing life mastering others' voices. And while we rely on Twain to
help us make sense of the painful era just after reconstruction, we
will for many years turn to Pryor to help us deal with the pain of the
end of what historian Manning Marable has called the "second
Reconstruction," 1954-1980. Twain and Pryor grew up on opposite sides
of the Mississippi and on opposite sides of the terrible racial schism
of this nation. But each dared to peer over the precipice and try to
make sense of the whole. They both revealed the hypocrisies, injustices
and indignities that the schism generated and generates.

But the legacies of Mark Twain are not completely fulfilled by giving
this award to the most important American humorist of the last half of
this century. Others deserve this honor. Names that come to mind
include the already mentioned Keillor, Chuck Jones, Roy Blount, Jr. and
Vonnegut. How about Toni Morrison, who wrote a novel that stands up
with Huck Finn as the best explorations of the philosophical
ramifications of slavery? Political columnist Molly Ivins writes with
the relaxed, country "innocent" voice that made Twain's social
commentary so trenchant. Steve Martin, while stylistically unlike Twain
(or Pryor), has left his mark on American film, comedy, drama and
literature. Has any American since Twain influenced the culture of
boyhood in America as Stephen Speilberg has? A creative lineage can
connect Twain to Will Rogers to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan. Twain was
big enough to justify honoring all of these people in his name.

Siva Vaidhyanathan
Wesleyan University