Friday, August 12, 2016

The NRR Project #18: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company’

Cal Stewart as Uncle Josh.
'Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company'
Cal Stewart
America started off with barnyard humor, ‘cause that’s about all there was at the beginning – both as subject and stage. Americans were farmers principally for generations, and the minute port towns began to grow into cities, the classic division and mutual suspicion between country and city folk, long documented in human history, spring up here as well.

“Rubes” were figures of fun, and often were possessed in their native habitat with what used to be termed “foxiness” – the capability of outwitting the city slicker. Here lie the reputations of the “sharp” Yankee peddler and his battles of wit with his peasant customers, and the archetypal “Brother Jonathan” of New England.

An epitome of this tradition is Cal Stewart (1856-1919), who worked a prolific and widely loved hybrid of standup comic and village sage, Uncle Josh Weathersby, an inhabitant of the imaginary Punkin Center, a hamlet located somewhere in the then-wilds of New England. In countless stage performances and more than 100 recordings, the latter on cylinder and disc between 1897 and 1919, Stewart honed his jovial, skeptic, gentle, wisecracking persona.

He stole it from someone else. Denman Thompson wrote a sketch for vaudeville in the character of Joshua Whitcomb, a “hayseed” who goes to the big city. He first performed it in Pittsburg in 1875, and later developed it into a popular four-act play, “The Old Homestead.” Read RandyMcNutt’s marvelous essay, which accompanies the NRR listing, right here for complete details. Stewart evidently lifted the concept and adapted it to his own purposes, creating a whittling, tobacco-chewing, cracker-barrel wit that made him a major draw for decades.

It was a style most humorists of the time were using. Whether termed rural humor or dialect humor or ethnic humor, people such as Washington Irving, Mark Twain, “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne); “Petroleum V. Naseby” (David Ross Locke), and Bret Harte all practiced in this vein. Most of it, Twain aside, is not that funny now, but this was the gut-bustin’, knee-slappin’ kind of stuff that made Lincoln delay Cabinet meetings.

Stewart’s Uncle Josh represents common values – he is an advocate of plain horse sense, an enemy of pretension, and a scoffer at anything new-fangled. He functions in the Bergsonian sense of humor as a social corrective. His humor reinforces the status quo, and articulates what the attitude of the “normal” person inside it should be. And in truth, at the time who could make a living creating transgressive comedy, something no family would buy and play in their home?

Stewart has many descendants. Will Rogers, Charley Weaver, Lum and Abner, Minnie Pearl, Judy Canova, Parker Fennelly’s “Titus Moody” radio character, the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movie series, Jerry Clower, the antics of CBS’s 1960’s-era rural comedy shows, TV’s syndicated “Hee Haw,” Jeff Foxworthy, Garrison Keillor, and many more take up the Western/Southern/”hillbilly”/Far North axis of American rural comedy history.

Here Stewart recycles the old “barrel of bricks” routine, which has been traced by Snopes back to at least 1895. In it, a man hoisting bricks in a barrel gets hurt about five different ways. Here’s the routine:

In keeping with his persona, Uncle Josh frames it with another joke about the expense, impractability, and unreliability of an insurance company. He’s a master storyteller, and he stands equidistantly between Twain and Keillor as a brilliant practitioner of extemporaneous comedy, something developed roughly and varied in each telling. Uncle Josh’s soliloquies rises above mere satire by poking as much fun at himself as at anyone else.

Whether or not you find his signature chuckle ingratiating or not, listeners will find its homey gags and platitudes a familiar template.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.

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