Funny man: The life of a comedian (1899)

Marshall P Wilder

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Marshall P Wilder often joked about his short stature, but that was only a small part of his schtick. While affected by both dwarfism and kyphosis (a hunchback), Wilder didn’t let that define him. In an era where many performers with physical disabilities were confined to circus sideshows, he became a legitimate Vaudeville star based on his own talents as a humorist, stage actor and sketch artist.

Marshall P Wilder

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by Merrily Yours, Marshall P Wilder

To be called a funny man is a hard thing. A merry or jovial man if you like, but not funny. Placed on the programme as a funny man, you come out, and the faces of all look as if to say, “Now, let us see you make us laugh.”

For fifteen years, I have followed the life of an entertainer and schooled myself thereto. Now this, of course, is a very difficult profession. You are called upon to entertain different kinds of audiences, and I have in my repertoire 300 sketches of ten minutes each and 1000 or more stories. You are called upon to entertain all kinds of audiences, sometimes a Sunday school, then a dinner party, then an old ladies’ home, then a newsboys’ lodging-house, then you appear at some theater, instantly you have to know what to do. They say, “Wilder, be funny,” and you have to pull a face and your joke does the rest.

marshall p wilderNow, as for a joke. There is a vast difference between the English and American humor. Take, for example, the English humor, although they have a keen appreciation of the English style, yet an American would have to get acquainted with their English style.

For example, a story I told there about an Irishman in America who said, “Last night I dreamed I was dead, but the heat woke me up.”

Afterward, an English gentleman said to me, “Mr Wilder, you must have very hot weather over there.”

Another example: During the late jubilee, I said to an Englishman, “Are you going to the naval parade next Saturday down to Expectorate Point?”

He said, “I never heard of the place.”

I said, “Down to Spithead.”

He said, “Oh, are they going to call it that?”

So you see I am accustomed when I go to England to hear them say, “Mr Wilder, those stories you told last year were so funny.” It takes them a year to see the joke.

When I first appear on the platform, it is amusing to me to see the faces of my audience, for when you read a great deal of a man you get a long idea of him, and I am supposed to be the short end of that idea. Some time ago I gave an entertainment down in New Jersey. Two members of the committee came to welcome me.

I heard one member say to the other, “Well, I guess he ain’t here, no one got off the train but that little boy. Guess he ain’t here.”

I went up and said, “Is this Mr Jones?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “I am Wilder.”

“Well, where ls your father?” he asked.

On another occasion I read a notice of mine in one of the Western papers which said: “Marshall P Wilder is in town. We have always understood that Wilder was a self-made man, but we think he did not take time to finish the job.” There is one thing about being a short man — you are obliged to marry a tall woman; it would never do for a man to marry a woman beneath him.

There are a great many reasons why I am short. I tell so many old stories that people keep calling me down, and it seems hard to keep up with the strain. This, as a rule, puts me on good footing with my audiences, and by the time they become acquainted with my short figure I start in with a little sketch of my trip on the steamer or railroad or whatever I may have had the pleasure of using. I won’t say when I speak of pleasure that one gets much pleasure in riding on the Southern Pacific. I have always understood that no prisoner or convict ls ever sent on that road, as the State of California does not think it just to punish a man twice for the same offense.

Now, for a joke. Many who have read this joke will recognize another form of the same story, but I have dressed it up a little. For example: Four animals went to the circus; $1 was required to let them in. The lamb gave up four quarters, the duck gave up a bill, but the poor dog was not allowed in, as he had only a scent.

Feeling badly, he went around in front of the Bohemian Club, where he met a sardine, who said: “What’s the matter?”

“They won’t let me into the show. I only have a scent.”

“Oh, don’t mind,” said the sardine. “Come in with me; I have a box.”

It is not always what I say on the stare that pleases so much as my manner, because I claim that there is nothing new in the way of a story; but I do not think there is any such thing as a chestnut. A story well told is always acceptable, otherwise we would get tired of the sun shine, and surely California never gets tired of the sunshine, yet in one sense it becomes a chestnut.

You know an old story such as this one.

“Did Jones die suddenly?”

“Yes, for him.”

It is the way a person hides the end that makes it effective. Many times a story will be told to you, and the man who tells it will string it out so long that by the time he gets to the end of it, off goes your hat, and some remark about the weather leads him to suppose that you do not appreciate his wit.

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