On Wednesday, September 6, 2017, Milford Museum sponsored a presentation by Dr. Larry Koch, a former teacher, professor, historian and stand-up comic on “Abe Lincoln as Humorist.” Dr. Koch, who studied the writings of Lincoln and those who knew him, said that the man was not as stoic as he appeared in photographs.
“Lincoln was known as a man of the people and was an American first before anything,” Dr. Koch said. “He was a self-made man, coming from literally nothing. He was raised in a lean-to with nothing more than a dirt floor. He had nothing and built a career on his own. Like most people, however, President Lincoln had many identities. What most people do not know about Lincoln was that he was an outstanding storyteller and that he included humor in almost everything he did.”
Dr. Koch said that there have been few presidents who used humor the same way that Lincoln did. Ronald Reagan was the most recent president to include humor in his speeches. However, because Reagan had a Hollywood background, he used his acting training to implement humor in the White House. Other presidents who used humor in the White House included John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“At one point, President Millard Fillmore came to Illinois because he was told he needed to meet this man named Abraham Lincoln,” Dr. Koch said. “When he got there, he found Lincoln in a local saloon, sitting on a stool, surrounded by friends. Lincoln never drank, but he spent time in saloons just telling stories for hours. The only thing I can compare it to in today’s world is the ‘Blue Collar Comedy Tour,’ where the comics sit on stools and just pass the jokes around. It was similar to that.”
As a young man, Lincoln was known well for telling stories and he often chastised people who told him to stop telling them. Once, during the Civil War, he was asked how he could tell funny stories when men were dying and he replied that if he could not tell those stories, he would die. Instead of talking about the right of the South to secede, he would retell a story about a five-legged dog. At the end of the story, he would tell those listening that there was “no such thing as a five-legged dog, just like there is no such thing as allowing a state to secede in the Constitution. It isn’t real.”
According to Dr. Koch, when Lincoln was asked a question, he often replied that it “reminded him of a story.” He would then tell the story, ending with how it related to the question, often giving the person who asked an answer with the moral of the story.
“People always ask me why, if he was so humorous, he never seemed to smile in photos,” Dr. Koch said. “In that era, it took time for the camera to take the photo so you had to hold the pose for the entire time. People didn’t smile as it was too difficult to hold it that long. People who knew him said that when he told his stories, Lincoln was very animated, using his entire body, his arms and facial expressions. He was an excellent mimic and, as a lawyer, used that skill in court often.”
Because he grew up poor, Lincoln only had access to a few books and those he read, he memorized. He could recite ‘Macbeth’ from memory and often recited entire passages from the Bible. He often told jokes about immigrants, including Germans, the Irish and African-Americans. He never told jokes about the poor or uneducated and he refused to tell off-color jokes when women were present.
“Lincoln was able to laugh at himself,” Dr. Koch said. “Everyone who knew him said he was an ugly man and Lincoln used his ugliness in his jokes. He also loved pranks and used sarcasm regularly.”
Many of his friends wrote about how Lincoln used humor to deal with the seriousness of his office as President.
“Wit, with that illustrious man, was a jewel whose mirth-moving flashes he could no more repress than the diamond can extinguish its own brilliancy,” wrote I.N. Arnold, a friend of Lincoln’s. “In no sense was he vain of his superb ability as a wit and story-teller.”
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