The following review appeared 30 March 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Joseph B. McCullough
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
In The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes Clifton Fadiman relates an anecdote about Charlie Chaplin, perhaps one of most imitated actors of his day. It seems that Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike competition in Monte Carlo. He came in third. Whether this story is true or not is, of course, debatable, but it does have a certain metaphorical truth. Famous Las Vegas imitators are frequently asked to provide the "voices" of well-known, living celebrities, because they sound more like the celebrity than does the celebrity himself! Perhaps no other writer has been more impersonated than Mark Twain. Scores of actors have recreated Mark Twain in one-man stage shows. But unlike impressionists recreating other famous people--Will Rogers, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Truman, Clarence Darrow, to name only a few--we have no memory or examples of the "real" Mark Twain, save for a brief piece of a silent film. While Twain made copious notes about his public lectures, and we have available a record of many of his speeches, we have had to imagine Twain as he would appear if he were with us. Indeed, it is not so much that Twain himself casts a large shadow over those devotees who wish to impersonate him; that role appears to have been left to Hal Holbrook. So ubiquitous is Holbrook that virtually every other impressionist is compared not to the "real" Twain, but to Holbrook's re-creation of Twain.
Ken Richters as Mark Twain, America's First Stand-up Comedian presents yet another rendition in a long line of accomplished impressionists bringing Mark Twain back to life. Richters' one-man stage show is based on his stage performances as Twain, which first earned national acclaim in 1981. Mercifully, Richters gives his own interpretation of Twain, rather than simply providing a weak imitation of Holbrook's well-known routines. He does, of course, present himself, as nearly all Twain impressionists do, as an elderly Twain, reminiscing about experiences from his childhood on, and wearing his signature white suit. I guess that this image of Twain is so dominant in the public imagination that few, if any, impersonators wish to present themselves on stage as a younger Mark Twain. Also, and perhaps a minor quibble, the title itself America's First Stand-up Comedian is not, in fact, accurate. Simply titling the work Stand-up Comedian would be closer to the mark, since even Twain acknowledged other well-known platform performers, notably Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, and James Whitcomb Riley, as influencing his own platform humor. But it is accurate to say that Twain was probably the most famous 19th Century stand-up comedian.
Richters gives us a genial Twain, whose biting humor is often at odds with his seemingly innocent presentation. What I especially liked about this performance was the fact that Richters used material not often found in performances by other impressionists. It's true that some of the particular stories may be of dubious origin (such as the bobcat story or the routine dealing with mathematics), while others alter Twain's original telling (such as the treatment of Brigham Young), but all in all the performance is credible and enjoyable to watch. Richters seems to get Twain's dead-pan humor just about right. While I would have preferred having the camera focus less on the audience in order to gage their reaction to Twain's humor, Richters himself remains in character throughout the entire performance. Perhaps his most sustained story, and the one which provides the best example of Twain's own criteria of storytelling, is the unhurried treatment of the Cadets of Temperance.
Finally, since Richters is a Connecticut actor, and since the program takes place in Connecticut, it is fitting that he includes near the end of the show Twain's well-known, and outrageously funny, story about Harford's Colt Arms Factory, its Accident Insurance Company, and the Fire Insurance Companies.
Richters ends his program with a touching and wistful speech about the importance
of having a sense of humor, and ties humor to a quality associated with childhood,
while suggesting the importance of holding on to both. This was finally a solid
and engaging performance, and it's just possible that if Mark Twain showed up
in Hartford the night of the show, he may well have come in second.