Pudd’nhead Festival honors Mark Twain
Honor knows no statute of limitations. — Mark Twain’s autobiography
Launched quietly three years ago with a gala event, The Pudd’nhead Literary and Humor Festival presented by the Mark Twain Library in Redding has grown each year to become a weekend of four events encompassing the gala, a comedy Hoot’nanny, the Pudd’nhead Parade and NPR’s popular radio show Selected Shorts.
Scheduled Friday, Sept. 15, through Sunday, Sept. 17, a conflict arose when this year’s Pudd’nhead Prize for Outstanding Humor awardee Seth Meyers learned his show is up for an Emmy for writing and the awards are being presented the same weekend in Los Angeles. The gala was rescheduled for Sat., Sept. 23; the other events will go on as planned.
The idea for the festival came from comedian, author and actor Michael Ian Black, who moved to Redding with his family in 2003. It is chaired by Jennifer Wastrom and Pam Robey, both longtime volunteers at the association library.
“When we were looking to buy a house, a friend suggested Redding, and we fell in love with it. I used the library a lot when I was a kid, and I think the one here is the best resource in the community,” said Black
“I participate in a variety of festivals,” said Black, “and after the [March 2013] appearance for my book [You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations], I started thinking about doing something to tie in with the history of Mark Twain in the town. Within the comedy writing profession, Twain practically the patron saint; I felt Redding was underutilizing the connection.
“Mark Twain is arguably the funniest man to ever walk the planet and Redding is the place he chose to live out his life, but most people don’t know that,” Black continued. “I thought Redding should have a festival to honor him. Plus this place is so beautiful in the fall.”
He contacted Robey and Wastrom. “When I met with them, they bought in immediately, but agreed, as with the founding of the library by Twain himself — he donated 3,000 books and raised money from his many guests and spurred the community to participate — it had to be a community effort.”
“We wanted to start small, centering around a prize, but with some kind of inaugural event that was noteworthy and could help raise money for the library,” said Wastrom.
Since PBS already presents a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the trio knew they would need a different name for their prize and Wastrom started calling it “the Pudd’nhead,” after Twain’s tale The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. The name stuck. And since you need a spoon to eat pudding, that seemed a natural shape for the award. “So now 200 people witness a famous person getting a giant spoon — it makes you laugh, it’s so tongue in cheek,” said Black. “Twain would have loved it.”
“We knew we needed a special setting for the event,” said Wastrom, “and Michael Marocco allowed us to use his spectacular property, InSitu, an eight-acre sculpture garden where nature and art dramatically interact. We hoped to get 100 people to attend, and we did.” The next year, it was decided to double the number of tickets available, which is the maximum that can be comfortably accommodated. The evening gala includes a cocktail hour, elegant fare and entertainment; the $300 tickets for 2017 have already sold out.
That first year, Roz Chast of Ridgefield was honored. A cartoonist for The New Yorker since 1978, she had recently published Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which humorously chronicles her shifting relationship with her parents as they age.
When presented with their four-foot engraved prize, Black admitted, “I have been surprised that our guests of honor actually take it.” A “collective” spoon hangs in the library, engraved with the name of each recipient.
“Each year we add an event,” said Black. “The second year included the Pudd’nhead Parade, a free event featuring a children’s author to speak and draw; the kids also create jester hats and I lead the parade around the library where they dance and make funny noises and then we end eating foods that begin with P — pudding, popsicles, popcorn, pizza…”
This year’s author and honorary grand marshal is Bob Shea, artist and author of more than a dozen picture books, including the popular Dinosaur vs. and Ballet Cat series. It will take place at the library, 439 Redding Road (Route 53), Saturday 10:30 to 12:30; signed books will be available for purchase. Reservations are required.
Last year, the Hoot’nanny was introduced, featuring a trio of New York City-based comedians in a barn on Umpawaug Road. Judy Gold is this year’s headliner; she will be joined by Ana Drezen and Emily Galati. There will be two shows on Friday evening, at 6:30 or 9:30. Tickets are $50 and beverages and snacks will be offered.
New this year is Pudd’nhead Presents: Selected Shorts on Sunday, at Wilton Playshop, 15 Lovers Lane (off Route 33) from 2 to 3:30 pm. Actors Black (Wet Hot American Summer), Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live, People of Earth) and Josh Charles (The Good Wife, Masters of Sex) will read an assortment of comic fiction from classic and contemporary writers, which will be recorded and rebroadcast on NPR. Tickets are $40.
“This brings back in the literary component,” said Black, “and we hope that NPR will want to make it an annual event. It is also the first of what we hope will be many festival events outside of Redding. The plan is that the festival grows geographically throughout Fairfield County, attracting a regionwide or larger audience.”
When inviting one of his show business contacts to be the Pudd’nhead Prize recipient, Black’s approach is simple; he sends an email querying, “How would you like to come to a tiny town in Connecticut to receive a prize you haven’t heard of yet?” After Roz Chast, Ben Stiller, Jim Gaffigan and now Seth Meyers have said yes.
For tickets, Pudd’nhead Parade reservations or additional information, visit marktwainlibrary.org or call 203-938-2545.