The Year of Twain is finally, and sadly, over. Though the Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture officially began on March 2, 2007 with Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy-winning journalist and Twain biographer Ron Powers, this past Year of Twain commemorated 175 years since his birth, 125 years since the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and 100 years since his death. Last year, on April 24, 2010, a panel hosted by NPR’s Peter Sagal, and which included comedian Mo Rocca, CNN contributor Amy Holmes, and Twain scholar at Winthrop University John Bird discussed Twain’s writing and his influence on modern culture as the beginning of the Year of Twain. This Friday’s two-part program with Larry Wilmore, comedian and current regular contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, concluded the Year of Twain.
Earlier in the afternoon, Wilmore headed a writer’s craft talk in Daughtery-Palmer Commons during which he discussed his career as a writer, how he began, and other aspects of humor writing. Wilmore, who has worked on shows such as In Living Color; Sister, Sister; The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; Whoopi; The Bernie Mac Show; The PJs; The Office; and most recently, The Daily Show, commented that he originally began as a stand-up comedian.
A lover of comedy since a young age, he began stand-up in high school in southern California. Wilmore particularly enjoys stand-up because, as he said, “you can practice it without being hired.” By collecting and writing jokes all the time (he’s a self-described “hunter-gatherer” type of comedian, meaning he finds and searches for comedy everywhere), he was able to practice his comedy and stand-up anywhere and any time without ever having a job or an audience.
Because he lived so close to Hollywood, Wilmore explained, he and his friends used to sneak onto the movie lots and “dine and dash.” Directly out of college he was cast in a show and appeared on a couple episodes of The Facts of Life. Eventually, a friend was able to get him a writing job on In Living Color, and his career progressed from there. He mentioned being particularly proud of The Bernie Mac Show, because although it was a show about a black family, the plot didn’t always revolve around racial issues.
Wilmore characterized The Daily Show as “comedy concentrated,” and as something which changed the whole direction of his career. Though he did act in an episode of The Office called “Diversity Day” (which was an idea he pitched), his frequent acting appearances on The Daily Show made him want to return to acting, some of which he’d done in college. He described his audition for the show as his first on-air appearance and explained how hard it was. Originally, Wilmore said, he was to do two bits but neither was working in their rehearsal. When they began to do the final rewrite before the taping, Stewart told him to scrap the second bit and focus on the first. Together, they rewrote the bit by verbally discussing it, and in the audience taping, Wilmore said, he got huge laughs.
Wilmore has a book already out called I’d Rather We Got Casinos, and is currently working on a book of his “life philosophy.” During the talk, WIlmore applied it to writing, citing the necessity of clarity in writing and thought. He differentiated between plot (the events that happen) and story (a character’s journey) and between shock (which takes you out of the narrative and lessens our emotional connection) and surprise (which makes us feel more connected and involved and is always satisfying).
Senior Lauren Grey said, “I really liked it…especially the end. Sort of the insights into stories and writing stories…I think what he said is really true and it’s not what I think about often.”
Wilmore also partook in an question and answer session, during which audience members asked about getting into the business, advice for young writers, and his opinions on taking jokes too far, among other things.
Later in the evening, Wilmore also performed a stand-up routine and engaged in an interview with President Joseph Urgo. Though the program was part of the Twain series, his routine revolved more around racial issues than around literary ones. Wilmore joked about the “levels” of blackness, commenting that Obama and Oprah are on one level, while rapper Flava Flav is on a totally different level. Also on the subject of Obama, Wilmore touched on the more recent issue of the legitimacy of the President’s birth certificate and on the skeptics who believe he is a Muslim. When questioning how Obama would hide praying five times a day, Wilmore joked, “Oops! I dropped my contact!” and bent over to mimic praying.
During the interview with Urgo and students, Wilmore commented that while the previous generations big issues revolved around race, he believed the current generation’s issues deal with homosexuality, a subject which received fewer laughs during his routine. When a joke about homosexuality and slavery received less of a positive audience response, Wilmore said, “Oh, I touched a nerve!”
Though Wilmore said he wants his comedy to make people think, ultimately, he boiled it down to: “If they laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t laugh – no, no; not funny … Laugh, happy. No laugh, Larry sad.”
“It was great. He was hilarious,” sophomore Mark Lehtonen said. “I thought it would be more about Twain because the first one last year was all about Twain, [but] this one was not about Twain at all. But it was fine because he was funny.” However, some audience members seemed dismayed that Wilmore brushed legitimate questions aside, joked during the audience questions, or didn’t go into great enough detail. “Larry was really funny… He told a lot of funny jokes but he cut students off when they were asking questions and I thought that was kind of inconsiderate.”
The final question Wilmore took seriously, however. When asked whether he preferred boxers or briefs, he paused, then responded. “Briefs … Or sometimes boxer-briefs. With boxers, there’s just too much hanging free down there.”