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Humor's path from past to present

Humor is important in Arkansas history, in part because it has a lot to do with the state's backward reputation. The boundaries which separate comedy and tragedy are mighty thin.

The first Arkansan to be heralded nationally for his humor writing was Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, usually known as "Fent." Noland was a lawyer and Whig political leader in Batesville, but his many contributions to a popular New York sports magazine, Spirit of the Times, earned him a place in the antebellum literary movement known as "Southwestern humor."

I am not much of a fan of Southwestern humor. It is usually written in a dialect which is, to modern ears, unnatural and contrived. But Pete Whetstone, Noland's roughhewn narrator from the Devil's Fork region of the upper White River, could paint an entertaining picture.

On May 4, 1839, Spirit of the Times reported that Pete Whetstone had visited a gambling establishment in far-off Louisville, Ky., where he lost money but saw some sort of stage show featuring elegant women. Whetstone was impressed with several of the ladies, especially Madame Augusta--"I knew she was a sprinkling past common."

Whetstone wrote that Madame Augusta's dancing was a treat to observe: "She stood on one toe and put her other foot as high as her head, and then she would [do] something like a double shuffle--and it warnt a double shuffle neither. All the men, and the old looking ones in particular, were down in the [gambling] pit, and when she raised her foot it made me feel mighty comical."

Opie Read, a Little Rock journalist and later a Chicago publisher, was perhaps the best known humorist associated with Arkansas in the years between the Civil War and the 1920s. Born in Tennessee in 1852, Opie Pope Read came to Arkansas in 1876 and with a partner established a newspaper at Carlisle known as the Prairie Flower. The paper folded in a few months, and Read eventually settled in Little Rock, working at first for the Arkansas Democrat and later becoming city editor at the Arkansas Gazette.

Along with a partner, Read founded the Arkansaw Traveler newspaper in 1882. Before the magazine folded in 1916, Read used the Traveler pages to tell stories about country bumpkins, naive black folks, and visitors to the state. On one occasion he described a man from Austin, Texas, who "follered a wagon from Texas into Arkansaw to see the hind wheel catch up with the fore wheel ..."

Many Arkansans resented Opie Read's rustic humor, believing it contributed to the stereotyping of Arkansas as hopelessly backward. But Read was a veritable cheerleader for the state compared to Thomas W. Jackson. In 1903 Jackson published On a Slow Train Through Arkansas, believed to be the most widely sold joke book in American history.

Jackson's humor could be set anywhere, but he chose Arkansas because it already had a reputation as backward and slow. Here's an example: "It was down in the state of Arkansaw I rode on the slowest train I ever saw. It stopped at every house. When it came to a double house, it stopped twice. They ­made so many stops I said, 'Conductor, what have we stopped for now?' He said, 'There are some cattle on the track.' We ran a little ways further and stopped again. I said, 'What is the matter now?' He said, 'We have caught up with those cattle again.' "

Radio and movies were home to some surprisingly successful Arkansas humorists. Lum and Abner and Bob Burns were among the most successful. In 1931 two Arkansans from Mena, Chester Lauck and Norris Goff, burst onto the national entertainment scene when the Lum and Abner radio program began broadcasting nationally. The show was set in the mythical town of Pine Ridge, Ark., but it was modeled on the settlement of Waters in the western part of Montgomery County. Broadcast from 1931 to 1954, the Lum and Abner Show was a national smash with millions of Americans gathering around their radios several times weekly to listen to the 15-minute serials.

Between 1940 and 1946, Lauck and Goff also made six Hollywood films while continuing to perform on the radio. The Lum and Abner Show ceased broadcasting in 1955 as the growing popularity of television wreaked havoc on radio programming.

Born in 1890, Bob Burns grew up in Van Buren. He got his start in 1935 when he began appearing on Paul Whiteman's national radio show. Soon he was appearing as a regular on Rudy Vallee's popular radio program. He developed a musical instrument called a bazooka, which he played between his humor skits.

Contemporary writer Charles Portis, author of the renowned novel True Grit, is one of my favorite humorists. True Grit has its share of funny dialog, but I begin giggling simply thinking about Portis' 1985 novel Masters of Atlantis.

Contemporary Arkansas comedians are not well known, but they are surprisingly numerous. Fort Smith native Rudy Ray Moore worked as an actor and film producer, but he was perhaps recognized most for his comedy LP albums. Known for his raunchy skits involving a clever black pimp, Moore's humor is generally thought of as part of the blaxploitation genre.

Ralphie May, who grew up in Clarksville, had a standup routine by the time he was 13. In 2003 he was second place on the first season of NBC's Last Comic Standing competition. May's Comedy Central special, Ralphie May: Austin-Tatious, was on television in 2008 and was later released on DVD.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 09/10/2017

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