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The following review appeared 26 February 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In her new book Twain's Brand, Judith Yaross Lee examines Mark Twain's influence on humor in American culture. Lee's previous books Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (1991) and Defining New Yorker Humor (2000) have shown how humor influences the development of regional American culture. Lee's new book discusses how Twain's humor and his unique style of "branding" have influenced the development of humor into the twenty-first century. She states that "the belief that Twain's humor belongs to a trivial nineteenth-century popular culture of dialect writing, hoaxes, and tall yarns" (p. 3) has hampered students and scholars from viewing his contribution to humor as a whole. Twain's Brand examines his innovations, themes, topics and how Mark Twain marketed himself. Lee proposes that contemporary humorists, stand-up artists, and cartoonists have been following his lead ever since.
The book contains five chapters: "Twain's Brand and the Modern Mood," "Standing Up: The Self Made Comedian," "Humor and Empire," "Kid Stuff: The Vernacular Vision and the Visual Vernacular," and "Comic Brands: More than Funny Business." In addition, there is an excellent section of notes, bibliography, and index pages, and twelve pages of color plates to accompany Lee's text on comics and "unstable" personae.
Chapter One discusses how humor functions in popular culture and how Twain's branding of himself facilitated his popularity and influenced the business of humor beyond his own lifetime. Lee discusses the ways in which Mark Twain anticipated today's contemporary humor and how comedy became big business. She states that "What I call Twain's brand, then, is more than a metaphor for the legacy of America's most famous humorist: rather, it highlights the interrelationship among culture and commerce in modern American humor and Mark Twain's role in linking the three" (23). She sees the hallmarks of Twain's self-branding as the performed self, the comic cross-cultural contrast, the vernacular vision, and brand-name marketing.
The second chapter looks at the legacy of stand-up comedy, courtesy of Mark Twain. Lee outlines the nineteenth-century lecture platform comedians, and Twain's debt to and divergence from them. Lee then discusses today's performers who owe a debt to Twain's innovations in persona and marketing technique. "Twain bequeathed to contemporary stand-up comedy a brand of humor that simultaneously fulfills and mocks the myth of the self-made American" (34). Lee discusses the marketing approaches Twain used in the nineteenth century lecture tours to promote his new books. His adoption of the name Mark Twain outside his written work and the signature white suit offered a model for contemporary techniques. Examples offered in this chapter include Garrison Keillor, Jerry Seinfeld, and Margaret Cho. Today the most successful comedians become famous by creating their own personae, "a distinctive brand of humor as comic identity" (69), and marketing that brand into other marketplaces, such as film, television, and text.
Chapter Three discusses Mark Twain's contribution to the literature of humor in his later works, primarily Connecticut Yankee and King Leopold's Soliloquy. Lee shows the influence of Twain on contemporary author Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and The Great American Novel. Lee's examination of Roth's novels show him to be using parody and lampooning public figures--mainstays of Twain's satire in his critique of American culture, including governmental abuse and corruption and contrasts between America and Europe that expose "patriotic myths . . . and clash with the details of the nation's practices of internal colonization, present and past" (99).
In her chapter entitled "Kid Stuff" Lee continues to trace Twain's influence on comics and graphic novels. She discusses The Katzenjammer Kids and The Yellow Kid along with more contemporary comics like The Boondocks and The Simpsons.
Lee's final chapter discusses how Twain pioneered a cross-over multimedia approach to marketing himself as a humorist and tracing that development through more contemporary media. The marketing of comedy and humor have developed into big business for companies like Disney, Marvel comics, and magazines such as the New Yorker as these entities extend their brand into other media. Text branches into film, comics transition into television and films--and all license products for purchase such as t-shirts, lunch boxes, action figures, etc. All become a part of recognizable branding. Lee states that "the comics business model subsidizes young fans in order to cultivate lifelong interest in the brands, a strategy validated by the success of the comically inflected Superman films and, in 2011, the brand extension to Spiderman on Broadway" (169).
Lee's book is a broad look at both humor and Mark Twain. It is a study of the "business" of humor--its branding and licensing which "invite America's capitalist postindustrial democracy to put our money where the laughs are" (179). She brings together a variety of texts, images, films, and animations--inviting her readers in turn to see similarities we might have missed while we were laughing, and recognize that what we are seeing didn't happen in a vacuum.