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Cleveland's Artemus Ward remembered as pioneer of stand-up comedy

During the heart of the Civil War, a newspaper writer from Cleveland gave America something to laugh about. In 1858, Charles Farrar Browne started writing humorous letters to The Plain Dealer under the pseudonym Artemus Ward. The character was so popular with readers that Browne eventually took him on stage.

Comedian-turned-historian Ritch Shydner makes the case that Artemus Ward was America’s first stand-up comic. Shydner was inspired to research the origins of stand-up by his friend, and a comedic pioneer in her own right, Phyllis Diller.

“We both thought Mark Twain was the first. And I found Artemus Ward by reading a Mark Twain essay,” Shydner said. “Mark Twain said Artemus was the funniest guy he ever saw, and he based everything in his own performance on what he saw Artemus Ward doing, which was making people laugh just on his wit.”

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Cleveland elementary school named for Artemus Ward [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

A native of Waterford, Maine, Browne began his journalism career at newspapers in Tiffin, Ohio, and Toledo before he was hired as an editor at The Plain Dealer in 1857. A few weeks later, he started writing letters to the editor under the guise of a fictional traveling showman named Artemus Ward. Most likely, Browne lifted that moniker from a Revolutionary War general, Shydner said. These humorous dispatches from the road gained Browne a devoted following of readers.

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Artemus Ward's desk at The Plain Dealer [Ritch Shydner]

“He obviously had comedic instincts,” Shydner said, describing Browne's creation of his alter ego.  “He chose an old, unsuccessful failure, which was funnier than a young, ambitious man or an old successful man.”

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An 1858 newspaper illustration of the Artemus Ward character [Ritch Shydner]

Artemus Ward was a very human character, someone the average reader could identify with.

“I mean, it's tough to believe, because nobody's ever heard of him,” Shydner said. “But at that time, he's one of the first showbiz stars. He was a huge star. The Civil War started in 1861. He started doing standup in 1860.”

Shydner noted that it was a huge gamble for Browne to take his character on stage, given the cultural context of the time.

“Any sort of performance had to have value to it, like a moral lesson or an educational lesson, and just a little bit of humor be put in to help the medicine go down,” he said. “Back then, their attitude was if you laugh too much in public, you were laughing at somebody and it was considered rude. So, when he proposes to go on stage and just make people laugh for an hour, it was radical. People would actually walk out during a show. And they complained to the ticket booth, saying, ‘I laughed, but I didn't learn anything. It's a waste of time.’”

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Booking a performance in Albany [Cleveland Public Library]

But, despite his critics, Artemus Ward’s fanbase kept growing – all the way to the White House. Ward did a show in Washington, attended by Abraham Lincoln.

“This was early on before Lincoln had to just stop going out to plays in public, because it would look unseemly for him to be enjoying himself while the war was going on,” Shydner said. “He just loved hearing funny stories, so that he could retell them.”

Eventually, Artemus Ward’s fame started spilling outside of the country.

“In fact, he went to England and they were blown away. That's where he died, in England,” Shydner said. “The London Times said he's ‘an American original, we've never seen anything like it.’ This one person, making an entire audience laugh, controlling hundreds and hundreds of people's minds with just his wit.”

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Poster for Artemus Ward London appearance [Ritch Shydner]

Shydner got a taste of that during his own stand-up days in the 1980s. He did the circuit, playing the clubs, graduating to prime spots on television with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Merv Griffin. He had a recurring role in the TV series “Married With Children,” and he was even featured in a documentary on stand-up comedy before retiring from the stage. Now, he’s drawn to studying that life, and what makes comedians tick.

“I guess I didn't become interested in history until I became history,” Shydner said, wryly. “You know, George Burns said the comic soul's eternal. And if you look at Artemus Ward and how he acted, he just chased laughter right into the grave. He was dying of tuberculosis in England. They kept saying, you know, 'Stay off stage, take it easy.' He's like, ‘I can't. I have to go out. I have to have this laughter. It's what's keeping me alive, keeping me going.’ I relate him to every comic today.”

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Portrait of Artemus Ward taken by famed 19th century photographer Matthew Brady. [Ritch Shydner]

It’s all part of what Shydner calls a “temporary art form,” that can tell you a lot about a culture, if you just listen closely.

“Mark Twain said, comedy lasts 30 years, at most,” he said. “Jokes just don’t time travel well. But, it's very reflective, and, at any time, you can tell what's going on in the American zeitgeist by what kinds of jokes are popular at the time or what kind of humor is popular at the time. And I like going back and showing that from different eras, how things changed. I like that. It's fun.”

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On the right, the bust of Mark Twain in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. On the left, the pedestal for the missing (stolen?) bust of Artemus Ward. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

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