Samuel Clemens, American humorist who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain.

A humorist is an intellectual who uses humor, or wit, in writing or public speaking, but is not an artist who seeks only to elicit laughter.[1] Humorists are distinct from comedians, who are show business entertainers whose business is to make an audience laugh. It is possible to play both roles in the course of a career. A raconteur is one who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way.

Distinction from a comedian

Humor is the quality which makes experiences provoke laughter or amusement, while comedy is a performing art. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer lamented the misuse of humor (a German loanword from English) to mean any type of comedy. A humorist is adept at seeing the humor in a situation or aspect of life and relating it, usually through a story; the comedian generally concentrates on jokes designed to invoke instantaneous laughter. The humorist is primarily a writer of books, newspaper or magazine articles or columns, stage or screen plays, and may occasionally appear before an audience to deliver a lecture or narrate a written work. The comedian always performs for an audience, either in live performance, audio recording, radio, television, or film.[2]

Phil Austin, of the comedy group the Firesign Theatre, expressed his thoughts about the difference in 1993 liner notes to the Fighting Clowns album:[3]

To me, there is a great difference between a humorist and a clown, and I had hoped that life for the Firesign Theatre would have led more toward the world of Mark Twain than the world of Beepo. The humorist is a happy soul; he comments from the sidelines of life, safe behind the keyboard or pen; not forced to mold his thinking to the direct response of an audience, he has indirection on his side. He has time to think. Beepo, on the other hand, takes his chances directly facing—or mooning—the audience; a buffoon, a patsy, a performer, he is out in the open and his audience, unlike a humorist's, becomes necessarily half-friend and half-enemy.

Notable humorists

Main article: List of humorists

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Britain and Ireland

Nancy Astor: "If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!"
Winston Churchill: "And if I were your husband I would drink it."

—Churchill is the most cited politician in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations with 32 quotes.[8]

Oscar Wilde is the most cited humorist in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.[9][10]


Other countries

Comedians who become humorists

Sometimes a comedian will adopt a writing career and gain notability as a humorist. Some examples are:

Will Rogers (1879–1935) was a vaudeville comedian who started doing humorous political and social commentary, and became a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality during the Great Depression. He is an exception to the education rule, as he only completed a tenth grade education.[15]

Cal Stewart (1856–1919) was a vaudeville comedian who created the character Uncle Josh Weathersby and toured circuses and medicine shows. He befriended Twain and Rogers, and in 1898 became the first comedian to make sound recordings, on Edison Records.

Garry Moore (1915–1993), known as a television comedian who hosted several variety and game shows, after his 1977 retirement became a regular humor columnist for the newspaper The Island Packet of Northeast Harbor, Maine, with a column titled "Mumble, Mumble". He later released a book of his columns under the same name in the early 1980s.

Victor Borge (1909–2000) was a Danish-American comedian known for bringing humor to classical music. He wrote three books, My Favorite Intermissions[16] and My Favorite Comedies in Music[17] (both with Robert Sherman), and the autobiography Smilet er den korteste afstand ("The Smile is the Shortest Distance") with Niels-Jørgen Kaiser.[18]

Peter Ustinov (1921–2004) was an English comic actor who wrote several humorous plays and film scripts.

Woody Allen (born 1935), known as a comedian and filmmaker, early in his career worked as a staff writer for humorist Herb Shriner.[19] He also wrote short stories and cartoon captions for magazines such as The New Yorker.

Steve Martin (born 1945), comedian and actor, wrote Cruel Shoes, a book of humorous essays and short stories, in 1977 (published 1979). He wrote his first humorous play Picasso at the Lapin Agile in 1993, and wrote various pieces in The New Yorker magazine in the 1990s. He later wrote more humorous plays and two novellas.

Hugh Laurie (born 1959) is an English comic actor who worked for many years in partnership with Stephen Fry. He is a fan of the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse, and has written a Wodehouse-style novel.[20]

Twain as the iconic American humorist

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Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, 1835–1910) was widely considered the "greatest humorist" the U.S. ever produced, as noted in his New York Times obituary.[4] It's a distinction that garnered wide agreement, as William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature".[5]

The United States national cultural center, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has chosen to award a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor annually since 1998 to individuals who have "had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain".[21] Despite the name, conferral of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize does not make the awardee a humorist. As of 2019, the center has chosen to confer the prize on twenty-one comedians[22] and one playwright;[21] only two recipients, the comedian Steve Martin and the playwright Neil Simon, are commonly recognized as humorists in the sense of Twain.


  1. ^ Bergson, Henri (1900). "The Comic Element in Situations and the Comic Element in Words". Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Brereton, Cloudesley; Rothwell, Fred. The Macmillan Company (published 1912). Archived from the original on 2022-04-08. Retrieved 2021-01-17. A humorist is a moralist disguised as a scientist, something like an anatomist who practises dissection with the sole object of filling us with disgust; so that humour, in the restricted sense in which we are here regarding the word, is really a transposition from the moral to the scientific.
  2. ^ "Humorist vs Comedian: What is the Difference?". Archived from the original on December 9, 2017. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  3. ^ Austin, Phil (1993). Fighting Clowns (liner notes). Archived from the original on December 26, 2017. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  4. ^ a b "MARK TWAIN IS DEAD AT 74; End Comes Peacefully at His New England Home After a Long Illness". The New York Times. 1910-04-22. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2023-08-28. Retrieved 2023-08-28.
  5. ^ a b Jelliffe, Robert A. (1956). Faulkner at Nagano. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, Ltd.
  6. ^ "Obituary", Variety, February 1, 1956
  7. ^ Whitman, Alden (August 29, 1971). "Bennett Cerf Dies; Publisher, Writer; Bennett Cerf, Publisher and Writer, Is Dead at 73". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2016-08-18. Retrieved 2013-12-12.
  8. ^ "Jane Austen tops humour league for Oxford dictionary compiler". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  9. ^ "Oscar Wilde named most quotable figure in the English language". The Irish News. Archived from the original on 5 March 2021. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  10. ^ "Which are Oscar Wilde's wittiest quotes?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 12 November 2020. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  11. ^ "Satire, sewers and statesmen: why James Gillray was king of the cartoon". The Guardian. 2 September 2020. Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  12. ^ Voorhees, Richard (1985). "P.G. Wodehouse". In Stayley, Thomas F. (ed.). Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists, 1890–1929: Traditionalists. Detroit: Gale. pp. 341–342. ISBN 978-0-8103-1712-3. [I]t is now abundantly clear that Wodehouse is one of the funniest and most productive men who ever wrote in English. He is far from being a mere jokesmith: he is an authentic craftsman, a wit and humorist of the first water, the inventor of a prose style which is a kind of comic poetry.
  13. ^ "Terry Pratchett". Guardian Unlimited. September 24, 2014. Archived from the original on September 24, 2014. Retrieved September 24, 2014.
  14. ^ "Interview de Terry Pratchett (en Anglais) (Interview with Terry Pratchett (in English))". Nathalie Ruas, ActuSF. June 2002. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  15. ^ "Adventure Marked Life of Humorist". The New York Times. August 17, 1935. Archived from the original on October 15, 2009. Retrieved July 20, 2007.
  16. ^ Borge, Victor; Sherman, Robert (August 1971). My favorite intermissions. Doubleday. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  17. ^ Borge, Victor; Sherman, Robert (1980). Victor Borge's My favorite comedies in music. Dorset Press. ISBN 978-0-88029-807-0. Archived from the original on 16 October 2023. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  18. ^ Borge, Victor; Kaiser, Niels-Jørgen (2001). Smilet er den korteste afstand -: erindringer (in Danish). Gyldendal. ISBN 978-87-00-75182-8. Archived from the original on 16 October 2023. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  19. ^ "Woody Allen: Rabbit Running". Time. July 3, 1972. Archived from the original on February 20, 2007. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
  20. ^ Host: James Lipton (31 July 2006). "Hugh Laurie". Inside the Actors Studio. Season 12. Episode 18. Bravo. Archived from the original on 10 February 2017. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  21. ^ a b "The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor". 2017. Archived from the original on 2014-06-27. Retrieved 2014-06-25.
  22. ^ The Kennedy Center revoked Bill Cosby's Mark Twain award in 2018.