When Lincoln Did Improv

Lincoln’s birthday was yesterday. It made me think about how great Lincoln was for this country. Sure, he grew up in a log cabin, hailed from Illinois, and ended slavery. But I’ve also heard he was a founding father of improv.

The way I’ve heard it told, Lincoln never intended to go into politics. Being a lawyer and politician was his day job, something he did where he could take time off for auditions and have nights free to do shows.

He had been born in Kentucky. It’s been said that as a kid he listened obsessively to Mark Twain’s comedy albums. He knew them by heart. So he moved to Illinois, because that’s what everyone does when they want to do improv.

He settled in Springfield, which I believe at that time had a burgeoning improv scene, sharing a two-room flat with one bed with three guys from Michigan State. They started a group called the “Side Splitters.”

In Springfield, Lincoln studied with Dale McClose, a fire-eater and improv guru, until McClose took some hallucinogens and ended up following a young musician named Jerry Garcia to the West Coast.

The pinnacle of Lincoln’s improv career came on a Thursday afternoon in November 1863, when he was standing behind a podium on the battlefield at Gettysburg. That day, according to some recently discovered memoirs, Lincoln was performing in front of the biggest crowd he’d ever played to, even bigger than when the Side Splitters had done their college tour.

Suddenly, he spotted someone he knew. It was his old roommate, Lars Petric Robertson, who had performed with Lincoln in The Side Splitters. Their relationship had soured over the years.

“We had creative differences,” Robertson had said. “I wanted to do less improv and more sketch, and he wanted to do things like free the slaves.”

Lincoln looked down at the podium, his head feeling heavy from drinking way too much draft beer the night before. While most politicians wrote down their speeches, Lincoln did not. He preferred to make them up on the spot, ad libbing, or performing what was referred to in those days as “old thymey make ’em ups.” As he looked out over the crowd ― tired, hungry, ravaged by war ― he knew one thing: He better not bomb.

Though there are different accounts about what happened next, historian all agree that Lincoln cleared his throat and asked the throngs of people for a suggestion. Some historians say a man yelled “tea bag!” Others say the suggestion was “coleslaw.” Still others say the word was “freedom.” Whatever it was, Lincoln was inspired to begin.

“Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln began. He paused. Not the laugh he was expecting.

Lincoln recovered. “Our fathers brought forth (air quotes) on this continent a new nation (air quotes), conceived in liberty (more air quotes),” Lincoln said as he thrust his hips back and forth.

Then he began using his bare hands as puppets, making up different voices for General Grant and General Lee. Some historians believe he continued to rif on the suggestion into the late evening, until he called, “And scene.”

Unfortunately, for the three soldiers who were still left, that was a little too inside baseball, and they left feeling confused that the speech was over.

Afterwards, he wrote a letter to his wife, Mary, explaining how it went that day. “Mary, it was my finest day. The laughter was a-plenty and the applause overwhelming. Had the right people seen me, I would not be headed back to Washington right now. Instead, I would be coming to you Live From New York.”

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