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St. Mary's College of Maryland Annual Twain Lecture Celebrates 10 Years

ST. MARY'S, Md., March 14, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Since 2007, the Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture has presented the Annual Twain Lecture every spring. That event celebrates its 10th anniversary this April with best-selling author and arguably America's most recognized literary humorist, David Sedaris.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens adopted the name and persona of Mark Twain in 1865 and was known worldwide by that name. The name "Twain" became synonymous with American humor in Clemens' lifetime and still is. Twain's conception of humor reached far beyond his original goal of "exciting the laughter of God's creatures" to recognize humor as "the only thing, the saving thing," and that "against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." By "nothing," he meant all matter of prejudice and human folly. And from that broad definition of humor, the Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture took its cue.

Although always "annual," the Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture isn't always directly about Twain, and certainly isn't a lecture anymore. In fact, our seventh Twain lecture speaker, John Hodgman, found fodder for humor in the lecture's title in his opening remarks: "My name is John Hodgman. It is such a pleasure to be here to deliver the seventh annual Twain Lecture. I'm glad to be here, but I'm a little disappointed. I thought there was going to be a Mark Twain impersonator here. And, I was going to get to lecture him."

But let's back up to the beginning.

For the first two years, the Twain Lecture Series seemed typical of other lecture series, offering academic talks on the work of Twain and culminating in the annual Twain Lecture—a lecture on Twain. The inaugural Twain Lecture, in 2007, featured noted author Ron Powers delivering "Mark Twain: Making Him Fresh Again." In 2008 Twain historian/archivist Bob Hirst, who I call the "oracle of all things Twain" presented, "Better Shove This in the Stove: Tales from the Mark Twain Papers." However, in 2009, to gear up for the Twain Centennial, the annual Twain Lecture broke from the "lecture on Twain" format to bring a humorist who, like Twain, offered some cultural perspective. Iran-born author Firoozeh Dumas, who uses humor to illustrate "our shared humanity," read from her best-selling memoir, "Funny in Farsi," and answered questions following her reading.

In 2010, the Centennial Event, titled, "Twain's Relevance Today: Race, Religion, Politics, and the 'Damned Human Race'" returned to the format of discussing Twain. However, this event forever changed the face of the annual lecture in three distinct ways: from here on, it would no longer be focused solely on Twain, no longer be held in St. Mary's Hall and never draw an audience of less than 700.

Honoring the centennial of Twain's passing, this event featured Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me . . ."), Mo Rocca ("CBS Sunday Morning") Amy Holmes (then regular FoxNews and CNN commentator), and Twain scholar Professor John Bird. Over 1200 people (students, faculty, local community members, and D.C. and Baltimore residents) attended the event in the Michael P. O'Brien Athletics and Recreation Center. In his familiar role of host, Sagal engaged panelists in talking about Twain's influence on contemporary political humor, the limits of humor, and humor's ability to actually effect change. One highlight that night came from John Bird, who was asked about what Twain would have thought of the then-emerging Tea Party. Bird facetiously claimed to have channeled Twain earlier that day to ask him the same thing. Twain's response: "When my daughters have a tea party, they dress up in outlandish costumes and live in a land of make believe."

For the 2011 annual lecture, those expecting another Twain-focused event and possibly Hal Holbrook, dressed in white, performing "Mark Twain Tonight" (which, by the way, he still does at the age of 91), were treated instead to Larry Wilmore, then a "Daily Show" correspondent. Wilmore, who now hosts his own popular Comedy Central show, "The Nightly Report," used humor to address current issues of race and politics in a raucous stand-up routine. He satirized the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in America and was really a Muslim. "Such theorists require evidence for the obvious, but then you have to swallow the preposterous. For example, I know [Obama] was born in Hawaii because he said so; I took him at his word. George Bush said he went to an Ivy League school; I took him at his word. . . . But we're supposed to swallow the preposterous idea that [Obama's] a secret Muslim. How do you sneak praying to Allah five times a day in when you're the president?"

The annual lecture has not only been political but also poignant. In 2012, acclaimed essayist David Rakoff read from his various works, including excerpts from his just- published book, "Half Empty." In the book, Rakoff defends "defensive pessimism," a coping mechanism for dealing with the anxieties that face us all. During the question and answer segment of the evening, a student unabashedly asked, "I'm a diehard optimist. Were you and I to meet, what would you recommend me to do for a sustainable conversation?" After a long pause, Rakoff offered this analogy, "Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no seriously ill pessimists." Rakoff himself was seriously ill, yet courageously kept his promise to be our speaker for 2012. David Rakoff died less than four months later on August 9. The Twain lecture was his last major reading performance. As my colleague Beth Charlebois, put it, he was "Profound. Poignant. Insightful. Excoriatingly funny. Gracious." Rakoff too must have channeled Twain for he understood what Twain meant by humor being "nature's effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth."

Following the loss of David Rakoff, the 2013 Twain lecture certainly needed mirth. It got it in John Hodgman, best-selling author, actor, "Daily Show" correspondent, and "PC guy." A crowd of 1300 witnessed Hodgman's range of humor from making comedy out the Maryland flag being the only state flag to "induce seizures," to impersonating Mark Twain impersonating John Hodgman.

As the first seven years of the lecture exemplify, Twain's name allows for a wide range of topics to explore. For Twain, no subject matter was off limits; no line of thought escaped his brand of humor. The Twain Lecture embraces that same attitude as the next two years of the Lecture demonstrate. In 2014, cultural historian/humorist Sarah Vowell gave a reading in which she critiqued the Disney World version of U.S. Constitution and "literary legacy of Mark Twain" as well as the Americanization of Hawaii. In 2015, actor and "Daily Show" correspondent Aasif Mandvi broke our attendance record, packing the house with 1600 guests. Reading and performing from his book, "No Land's Man," he offered his unique perspective as a cultural "turducken, an Indian baby wrapped in an English schoolboy, wrapped in an American adult," which he claimed was useful on "The Daily Show" because [he] was able to tell stories [as an American and] as an outsider at the same time.

Now we come to the 10th anniversary of the Twain Lecture. It seems fitting to celebrate it with a contemporary name synonymous with American humor—David Sedaris. Like Twain, Sedaris avoids no topic and embraces many comic forms, writing openly about the human condition. Whether he's commenting on the tax benefits of being married under the "Same-Sex Marriage" Act or penning animal fables that critique all kinds of human foibles, or basing his own self worth on his ability to solve a New York Times crossword puzzle, David Sedaris is a funny and insightful writer. Only the namesake of this annual lecture (not really a lecture) would be better choice to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

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CONTACT: Media Contact: Arminta Plater (240) 8953073, ajplater@smcm.edu

Source:St. Mary's College of Maryland