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"Barry F. Crimmins" <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 22 Jan 2002 17:18:07 -0500
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Dr. Mark Coburn
A.B., University of Chicago
M.A. and Ph.D., Stanford wrote:

>I want to add loud cheers to Wes Britton for his message titled
>The one that suggests, "We scholars are an interesting breed."
>Does it never occur to some of you nit pickers that Twain himself was  a man
>wholly in Ken Burns' tradition, and a man very remote from the constipated
>traditions of academic writing & scholarship?


I suppose it would be nit-picking to ask how someone could be wholly
in the tradition of a man he predeceased. So I won't.

It's apples and oranges to compare Twain and Burns. Twain didn't bill
himself as a documentary film maker. He was a noted teller of tall
tales. He rarely failed to remind his audience that he stretched the

Burns gets a lot of credit for making good non-fiction films. The
Twain film has lead a lot of people to the great man, and here's to
that.  Ken's non-fiction version of things reached more people in a
few nights than Twain's versions of things did in years. Like someone
said, Burns has immense resources and the ability to use them to get
things right. I'm guessing Clemens didn't have any history interns on
the "Roughing It" project.

I'm anything but an academic. In fact I may be the only working
satirist on this listserv. I'm certainly no Sam Clemens but I do feel
an obligation to speak up for my fellow humorist/ writer/public
speaker when it comes to properly attributing his work. My biggest
complaint with the Burns special is that it didn't provide proper
context for many words attributed to Clemens.

Most everyone has some sort of a sense of humor. Humor loosens people
up. Loosened people feel its no big deal to simply approximate when
it comes to anything related to any stripe of humorist. "Hey, it's
just comedy, lighten up! It makes us laugh, don't wreck it for us!"

I can't tell you how many humor civilians have explained to me why
its OK for people to steal jokes. It's all part of your business,
they tell me. This same people would be outraged if someone signed
another artist's painting but when it comes to humor they have no
problem with people misappropriating the bread from a comic's table.
Don't get me wrong, after nearly 30 years as a paid humorist I am far
beyond being upset about this stuff. I am simply providing context
from the third tier of my comedy cake.

Because the humorist's craft causes pleasant sensations people begin
to assume relaxed standards are in order. Humor seems easy to the
impervious Sir Dinadan's of the world but to someone like Sam
Clemens, striving for the incisive and original, it was an exacting
science that required enormous work. So when I saw Burns do sloppy
work, I spoke up when others would have me lighten up.

Others spoke up for other reasons and they did a pretty good job of it.

Too bad Burns didn't take this quote and dance with it a bit:

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your
satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly & logically perceive what it
is that you really want to say."  -- Mark Twain, 1902.  (_Mark Twain's
Notebook_, pg. 380)

Sorry, Doctor, I can't say for sure what Twain would say about Burns
special. My guess is he would want his serious work, whether or not
it provoked laughter, to have been treated with accuracy that would
indicate proper respect for his lifetime of formidable efforts.

Barry Crimmins