On Apr. 24 at 7 p.m., one of St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s last big events of the academic school year took place: The 4th annual Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture.
For many St. Mary’s students, this current semester of Spring 2010 might seem like one of the college’s most memorable semesters.
First, SMCM was assaulted with the major snowstorm that left the cancellation of various classes in its wake, which was then succeeded by the men’s basketball team entering into the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
But, finally, it was time for the annual Mark Twain Lecture Series, which first took place only three years ago in 2007, all thanks to the English Department Chair Professor Ben Click.
This year’s lecture, titled “Twain’s Relevance Today: Race, Religion, Politics, and the ‘Damned Human Race,’” boasted the appeal of having four guests speakers, compared to the single guest speaker that was traditionally chosen for the past three years. These four panelists also managed to draw a large crowd due to the fact that they were more famous than what the St. Mary’s campus is typically used to hosting.
Moderated by Peter Sagal, NPR’s host of “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” the lecture focused on asking questions in the framework of a Mark Twain mindset in order to spark debate and conversation among the other three guests, which included CNN Political Analyst Amy Holmes, Humorist/Comedian/Actor Mo Rocca, and renowned Twain scholar Dr. John Bird.
“It’s a special version of the annual Mark Twain Lecture,” said Dr. Ben Click, who also stated that he had been working as late as last spring in order to put this lecture together in memory of the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death.
Held in the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center, which (according to Dr. Click in his e-mails promoting the event) has also now been nicknamed as the “Mike”, attendees started filing in about an hour beforehand, leaving the gymnasium packed by the start of the lecture at exactly 7:15 p.m.
While the myriad of campus residents, staff and faculty members, local high school students, and other community members located their seats within the auditorium, the crowd was treated to approximately ten songs by the band The Rusty Spurs, which later prompted speaker Mo Rocca to ask if St. Mary’s was a “hippy-dippy campus.”
Reaching the podium on the platform stage in order to introduce the guest speakers at the start of the event, Dr. Click set the mood of the lecture by joking with the audience. “You’re all here for the 100th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy, right?” said Click. “It’s his anniversary this year, too. But he’s not funny.”
While the approximate two hours that the lecture lasted were filled with commentary on politics, race, and media within the culture of the past and present, the conversations were also constantly interrupted with laughter and applause. The hilarious anecdotes ranged from how a student once stated “that Dr. Click has a ‘bromance’ with Mark Twain” to Peter Sagal placing his cell phone up to the microphone so that the audience could hear the singing voice of a 10-year-old named Emily whom he had met at Thompson’s Corner Kafe in Leondardtown earlier that afternoon.
Despite the many jokes and funny anecdotes, the panelists also conversed on various topics including the affect of media (specifically the work of comedic commentators) on politicians and public views, the difference between partisanship and politics, and what Mark Twain would think of mass media and culture today, as well as other subjects.
One of the most referred to cultural topics was that of Tina Fey’s now famous Saturday Night Live impressions of Sarah Palin. This prompted various discussions on how media has affected the way that the masses view politics, as well as the politicians. “It is unseemly to see these politicians tripping over themselves to get on late night shows,” stated Rocca. “Is Washington, D.C. the Hollywood for ugly people?”
Dr. John Bird added his view to this specific topic by even quoting Mark Twain. “‘Against the assault of laughter,’” said Bird, “‘nothing can stand.’ Laughter is a very powerful force. A very powerful force in society.”
After the close of the general discussion (and a couple of kicks and Seahawk cheers from Rocca), the Q&A session began, which then brought the entire lecture to an end. The finale of the event garnered a round of applause, as well as a standing ovation from various audience members as the panelists made their way to a table at the side of the stage in order to sign books and posters.
While this Mark Twain Lecture was aimed at discussing Twain’s view of the “damned human race”, one of the best opinions of the night was given by Mo Rocca. “Toward the end of [Mark Twain’s] life, as he got angrier and angrier,” he stated, “he did believe he was part of the damned human race. Well, I’m an optimist. And I believe we’re all a part of the best damned human race!”