The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County by Mark Twain, 1865
The magic trick:
Constructing a conceptual joke about storytelling
Happy Leap Year 2016! Seems like a perfect day for a jumping frog. What with the leaping and all. Yeah? Huh, huh? All right!
So, I hadn’t read this one since seventh-grade, and I was surprised to learn upon re-reading that nothing all that funny happens. I remembered it as some kind of slapstick comedy but it’s really not. The joke isn’t in the story; it’s in the telling. Twain gently mocks/salutes the notion of American tall tale. The layers of storytelling make the whole thing completely unreliable. The details the storyteller pick out to relate are preposterous. So it’s actually very sophisticated comedy, and very funny at that. And that’s quite a trick on Twain’s part.
I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley—Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley—a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him.
Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was anything ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse. To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd. As I said before, I asked him to tell me what he knew of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and he replied as follows. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once: