Written By: Nicholas Ashenfelter
The Mark Twain Lecture Series is a fixture at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), even though it has only been around for 14 years. On Oct. 13, Jordan Klepper called in over Zoom to discuss Twain, modern politics and the nature of humor.
Dr. Ben Click, a professor of English at SMCM, founded and organized the Mark Twain Lecture Series. From the beginning, he says, his goal has been “to educate people about the power and seriousness of humor.” To this end, he selects speakers that can “[bring] something new to St. Mary’s.” In particular, Klepper was selected due to his abilities “as a thinker and as an improvisational artist,” and due to his presence “on the front lines of the political landscape.”
The event began at 7:40 p.m. with an introduction by SMCM president Tuajuanda Jordan. She described Twain as a “novelist, philosopher, humorist, [and] intellectual,” praising his work and acknowledging that “no matter where you stand politically […] we all can use a little levity.” She then introduced Click, who gave his own introduction of the event.
Click added, with some amusement, that “Mark Twain probably would have caught covid, and maybe died from it.” He then cited a relevant historical example. Twain dearly wanted to see The Acropolis, but as disease was afoot, he was told to quarantine on a boat for a period of time before he could enter Greece. This, of course, did nothing to dissuade him, and with a few other men, he snuck into the country to get a peek anyway. With Twain’s character thus demonstrated, Click turned the mic over to Klepper.
A common complaint is that comedy is becoming too political. However, Klepper explains that humor is not a “monolith,” it is “reading the room.” Like it or not, there is a demand for this sort of entertainment. More than that, Klepper explains that “the role of comedy isn’t to fight injustice, but in the times we’re living in, I don’t know what else you’d do with it.” He expressed his purpose as providing important information to a broader audience that journalists would not be able to reach.
Klepper discussed a variety of issues, but one prominent question he asked was “is Trump good for comedy?” to which he replied “no, not at all.” Klepper found himself “exhausted by the news cycle,” as so often, it was the same content on repeat. He called Trump the “elephant in the room” that could not be avoided. Programs like The Daily Show are structured around satire, which Klepper described as “show[ing] you the bullshit through action.” Through satire, he tries to “out-crazy the news cycle.” This he reported to be a challenge when facing crazy headlines, which he readily attributed to Trump, noting that if Biden won the election, he could “take half the year off.”
His use of satire included visiting Trump rallies to speak to the participants. Klepper was asked if he believed this sort of content furthered the polarization of our nation, and he replied with clear thought and concern. He stated he didn’t want to “amplify something,” and always tried to “punch up” in his criticism — that is, satirize what is more powerful than himself. He went to events to learn about the voter base supporting Trump, as their opinions and political desires impact Trump’s actions.
After the event, Click was proud to announce an audience of “1,200 registered”, meaning “probably two to three times” that number actually watched. He was disappointed to “lose the energy of the live crowd,” noting that “the students and the community really bring a lot to the gym!” That said, he also said that a benefit to streaming over Zoom was that “anyone from the globe could watch.” After all, Click made a point of emphasizing that this series is not just for SMCM students — it is for “the community, too.”