The Times, 24 December 2010. By Russell Jenkins.
Christmas cracker jokes likely to induce groans around the dinner table tomorrow can be blamed on the Victorians’ passion for imported American humour, research suggests.
They developed an insatiable appetite for what they called “Yankee jesters” between the 1870s and 1890s almost half a century before the arrival of Hollywood and the “talkies”.
Humorists such as Mark Twain and the lesser-known Artemus Ward started popular lecture tours, opening the way for the invasion of American jokes into popular English culture.
Bob Nicholson, a historian at the University of Manchester, suggests that our infatuation with American culture began with joke books that were popular Christmas gifts and the cracker gags they inspired.
He said: “American humour was characterised by sharp one-liners which are found in Christmas crackers. While British jokes would often be clumsy and over-explain the punchline, American gags had a more recognisably modern rhythm, quick set-up followed immediately by a punchline.
“American jokes were also edgier than British ones and tackled subjects such as death and divorce that were still taboo for some Victorians.”
Mr Nicholson, who won the Gale Fellowship sponsored by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, was intrigued when he stumbled across 19th-century newspaper columns dedicated to American one-liners sometimes known as “Yankee Snacks”.
“The Victorians could not get enough of American jokes,” he said. “Here, half a century before Hollywood, was a form of American popular culture taking Britain by storm. For decades we have assumed that the British love affair with modern America started in the 20th century, but, in fact, it was the Victorians who cast the first flirtatious glances across the Atlantic.
“These jests were particularly popular near Christmas, a time that was sometimes referred to by Victorians as ‘joke season’. Books of American humour were regularly advertised in the press as perfect Christmas presents.”
In 1866 Ward, real name Charles Farrar Browne, enjoyed a vogue and was on the verge “superstardom” when he died in Southampton in 1867 of tuberculosis. He was effectively, said Mr Nicholson, an early US stand-up.Twain built on Ward’s success with his popular lecture tour in the 1870s.
The craze for US humour coincided with the popularity of Christmas crackers, first made in London in 1847. American gags also suited the size of paper that could be fitted in a cracker.
In 1879 The Times suggested that many Englishmen could boast of a pretty extensive acquaintance with the new and humorous literature of the West. The reviewer added: “The alternation of dry Eastern humour with the rollicking and rowdy Western fun has had an immense success in Great Britain.” The Penny Illustrated Paper, reviewing Ward at the Egyptian Hall in London in 1866, said “sidetickling joke follows side-splitting joke”. In America, professional joke writers could churn out hundreds a day. One, Thomas L Masson, claimed to have penned 50,000 in his career.
Many jokes revolved around the whisky-drinkin’, gun-totin’, straight-talkin’ Texan, the wise-cracking New Yorker and the much-divorced, Chicago woman. The Victorians appeared to appreciate exaggeration, what they called “Yankee tall talk”.
A typical gag would run: Chicago woman: “How much do you charge for a divorce?” Chicago lawyer: “100 dollars, ma’am, or six for 500.”
They became so popular that in 1881 the Detroit Free Press launched a London edition and sold up to 300,000 a week. Mr Nicholson said: “The Victorians were not the dour lot many might imagine. They enjoyed a laugh and produced a lot of home-grown humour.”
Dr Julie-Marie Strange, senior lecturer in Victorian studies at the University of Manchester, said: “This suggests Victorians would have sat around their Christmas trees telling Yankee jokes.”