As editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley once received a letter requesting an autograph of the late Edgar Allan Poe that Greeley might possess from his correspondence. Greeley replied, “I happen to have in my possession but one autograph of the late distinguished American poet Edgar A. Poe. It consists of an IOU, with my name on the back of it. It cost me just $51.50, and you can have it for half-price.”
When a former leader of the Tijuana cartel was shot in the back of the head by a man dressed in a clown costume, five hundred clowns from around Latin America joined together at the International Clown Meeting in Mexico City and staged a fifteen-minute laughathon “to demonstrate their opposition to the generalized violence that prevails in our country.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, was well known in his lifetime as a comic dramatist. An early performance in Florence of The Mandrake caused Pope Leo X to insist that its actors and scenery be brought to Rome in 1520. In the prologue to Clizia, a play inspired by Plautus, Machiavelli wrote, “Comedies were invented to be of use and of delight to their audiences.”
In 1662 diarist Samuel Pepys saw two plays by William Shakespeare performed in London. Of Romeo and Juliet he wrote, “It is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream he described simply as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”
A review of the sitcom The Hank McCune Show in a 1950 issue of Variety described the first known use of a laugh track on TV: “Although the show is lensed on film without a studio audience, there are chuckles and yucks dubbed in. Whether this induces a jovial mood in home viewers is still to be determined, but the practice may have unlimited possibilities if it’s spread to include canned peals of hilarity, thunderous ovations, and gasps of sympathy.”
Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in 1947, “A typical American film, naive and silly, can—for all its silliness and even by means of it—be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious English film can teach one nothing. I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film."
In Moscow in 1921, a group of actors formed the Blue Blouses, a theater company that acted out scenarios from the news. Their success inspired the creation of many similar amateur troupes. One joke that emerged from the movement went: Bim and Bom were the most popular clowns in revolutionary Moscow. Bim came out with a picture of Lenin and one of Trotsky. “I’ve got two beautiful portraits,” he announced, “I’m going to take them home with me!” Bom asked, “What will you do with them when you get home?” “Oh, I’ll hang Lenin and put Trotsky against the wall.”
Shortly before Ezra Pound was indicted for treason for his anti-American broadcasts on Benito Mussolini’s Radio Rome, Ernest Hemingway wrote to poet Archibald MacLeish, “If Ezra has any sense he should shoot himself. Personally I think he should have shot himself somewhere along after the twelfth canto, although maybe earlier.”