What’s So Funny?

Is there a gene for being funny?  There seems to be a gene for almost everything else, so why not?  When comedians are interviewed about the source of their talent or their proclivity for humor, they often name a parent as their inspiration, but that could also mean it’s learned.  While behavioral tendencies can be inherited, the key to comedy, as we are often told, is timing, a rhythm that we might pick up after hearing the beat tapped out for us every day by a family member.

According to “The Lovewell Family,” the first family member to make a name for himself as a humorist was Thomas Lovewell's son Stephen Rhodes Lovewell.  As Gloria Lovewell put it, "He was good at making speeches and would do so whenever called upon.  His style was similar to that of Will Rogers.  He was quite a wit and spoke to many appreciative audiences down through the years.”

No one said the same about Stephen's father, not in so many words, although there are clues here and there which suggest that there was often a twinkle in those clear, gray eyes.  This was, after all, a man who picked April Fool’s Day to celebrate his wedding anniversary.  There is even one story about Thomas Lovewell that takes the form of a carefully-constructed and fairly amusing anecdote, one which I lightly touched on last November in “Ripping Good Yarns."

The story that filtered through the family usually takes this form:  When Thomas was an old man, he liked to attend reunions with some of his associates from the old days on the frontier.  One of these was held in Kansas City, apparently in the back room of a funeral parlor and furniture store.  The friends reminisced far into the night, their memories stoked by occasional nips of liquor.   When Thomas, who seldom drank, eventually slumped into a stupor, his companions saw their chance to play a prank on him.  They laid him out in a coffin, folded his hands across his chest, tucked flowers around him, and waited.  Upon rousing, he is supposed to have looked around groggily to take stock of his situation before exclaiming, “Yippee!  It’s resurrection day, and I’m the first man up!”

I was as surprised as anyone to discover that the story is essentially true, although a few details have been rearranged for the sake of amusement.  It did not occur in Kansas City, but in Belleville, Kansas, and Thomas was not an elderly and slightly befuddled victim.  Have a quick look at the mustached figure in the tall hat, third man from the left in the back row of the Civil War reunion picture on this site.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  When he was laid out in the coffin at a local funeral home, Thomas was seven years younger than he was when that photograph was taken.

Did he really make the quip when he woke up?  It’s not the original punchline from the story, as it was first reported in the Belleville Telescope in 1878, but the accuracy of the line may be less significant than the fact that people bought it.  It seemed to be the sort of thing he might have said.  

The same year Thomas posed for the photo on the banner at the top of this page, he was quoted in the Courtland Register as not only denouncing the growing Populist movement as “crazy,” but ominously predicting that, “Everybody that would read that Western Advocate will soon go crazy.”  The Western Advocate, printed in Jewell County, was seen as a friend of the Farmers’ Alliance and its political arm, the People’s Party, which was starting to win elections in Kansas in the 1890’s.  Thomas Lovewell's comment may strike us as the idle and unfunny grumbling of some cranky Republican, unless we know what happened next.  Days later, the same paper printed a story about someone taking Thomas’s good, but possibly misguided friend John Doxon to the county seat, having a word with the judge, and getting Doxon declared insane.  It did not say how long John Doxon was supposed to have cooled his heels in a padded cell before being sprung.

We also can’t be completely sure whether Thomas played an actual, physical prank or merely planted a news item with his local correspondent, as if he had (The idea that there was a single padded cell in Jewell County, let alone an asylum, seems transparently far-fetched).  Either thought makes me smile.  I’m also heartened to know that the family humor gene has not been diluted.  A few days ago, when I questioned whether the Lovewells really arrived on American shores with Robert Lovell and the Rev. Joseph Hull’s company of Puritan dissidents, Stephen Lovewell’s grandson Dave emailed a response.

"When asked about my ancestors I always say that the first Lovewells came to America in 1635.  Then I go on to say that they were supposed to come on the Mayflower but they got to drinking beer and playing cards at the tavern and lost track of the time."

Okay, I can picture Will Rogers saying that.


© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com