In recent years, Cornwall has produced some excellent comedians that have provided their audiences with a laugh out loud release from everyday life. However, comedy isn’t just a recent export from the Cornish shores. Samuel Foote, an 18th century Cornish funny man, is considered to be the first ever stand-up comedian. We explore his life and his impact he had on comedy, and how comedy quickly turned to tragedy in his later life.
Born in Boscawen Street, Truro in January 1720, Samuel Foote was born into a family of lawyers and positions of power.
Educated at Truro Grammar School, before entering Worcester College, Oxford, Foote was instructed to follow his family into law, but as a prankster and a joker, he soon became tired of education.
Reckless spending, excessive gambling and time spent at various debtors’ jails plagued his early life, and an ill-fated marriage to a woman with a substantial dowry didn’t last long when the money ran out. His next visit to jail landed him in London upon his release, in which he began to frequent the stylish coffee houses of Covent Garden.
With a larger than life persona and a natural talent at impersonation, coupled with a quick wit, he quickly made a name for himself as ‘The funniest man in London’, and ‘The Coffee House Comic’. He was to become the first ever stand-up comedian.
In 1747, his first satirical play ‘Diversions of a Morning – to drink a dish of tea with Mr Foote’ (the origin of the term ‘Tea Party) became a rage of the season, succeeded by ‘An Auction of Picture’, whereby Foote would impersonate notorious and public figures of the time. This was the first time a performance of this kind had ever been done.
The Wrong ‘Foote’
However, in 1766, Foot had a terrible accident that was also the resulting cause of the most successful point in his career. Whilst visiting friends at the Duke of York’s residence, he took a bet he would be able to ride an untamed horse around the grounds. The horse bucked, flinging him off and breaking his leg to such a severity, it had to be amputated above the knee.
Foote recovered remarkably well, and went on to wear one of the first designs of moveable prosthetic legs. A comedian with one leg, called Foote – comedy gold! Foote did not shy away from using to his advantage. The Duke felt responsible for Foote’s misfortune and procured him a Royal Patent for a Summer Theatre.
Later Life and Death
However, sadly in Foote’s later years, his performances turned less light-hearted and a lot sourer. It is believed that during the fall, Foote also hit his head and caused some brain damage, resulting in a marked shift in his personality. He became more aggressive, targeting people on stage, which resulted in few court battles, and contribute to his demise as a celebrity.
In 1775, he sold his patent, theatrical wardrobe and only appearaed on stage three times after that. He died of a stroke on 21st October 1777. Foote’s portrait hangs in London’s Garrick Club.