Well, excuuuuse me! He’s a wild and crazy guy! And now introducing, Mr. Steve Martin. Applause here please.
I recently read Steve Martin’s lastest book, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. Martin describes his book as the story of, “why I did stand-up and why I walked away”. Born Standing Up takes the reader on the journey of his start in comedy beginning in his teen years working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm through his success in selling out stadiums packed with fans wanting to see and hear his routine. I’ve enjoyed Martin’s comedy for years but his book helped me gain a depth of insight and a new appreciation for his work.
Born in Waco, Texas in 1945, he began his path into comedy through magic. His earliest routines in California coffeehouses included many standard magic tricks but he soon began to transform his performances. “A guy didn’t walk into a bar, I did. I didn’t want it to appear that others were nuts; I wanted it to appear that I was nuts.” Although this is a common comedic strategy today, this was avant garde and highly unusual when Martin began to use it.
Martin’s stand-up comedy often parodies comedy and society. For years, he opened his routine with, “I think there’s nothing better for a person to come up and do the same thing over and over for two weeks. This is what I enjoy, so I’m going to do the same thing over and over and over….I’m going to do the same joke over and over in the same show, it’ll be like a new thing.”
Steve Martin was a part of a wave of new comedians that burst onto the scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. Martin attributes Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart as the two icons of this “new school comedy”. They told jokes and stories you would actually believe and delivered them in a different kind of style.
In Born Standing Up, Martin describes the revolutionary direction of his comedy: “[W]ith conventional joke telling, there’s a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it’s the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song. A skillful comedian could coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope’s ‘But I wanna tell ya’) or even a slight body shift. Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand. One night, watching him on The Tonight Show, I noticed that several of his punch lines had been unintelligible, and the audience had actually laughed at nothing but the cue of his hand slap. These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh… This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh”.
And so began Steve Martin’s direction in creating comedy that delivered spontaneous laughter, and crafting his unique and brilliant comedic vision first to stand-up and then through film.
A few of my favorite Steve Martin film picks:
The Jerk (1979): this is an essential film, clever and brilliant. “Well I’m gonna to go then. And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything except this. [picks up an ashtray] And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game, and that’s all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball….”
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982): Yet another clever film where Martin parodies 40’s mystery films and uses the actual films to create this new one. He plays “alongside” Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Fred MacMurray, and Ingrid Bergman.
The Man With Two Brains (1983): Introducing Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, a famous brain surgeon who falls in love with a brain trapped in a bottle and is himself trapped in a loveless marriage.
All of Me (1984): In this film, Steve Martin plays a lawyer whose body becomes possessed by a dead woman. She controls one half of his body while he controls the other half. His ability to portray two different genders, two separate beings in possession of one body, is truly remarkable.
Plains, Trains, and Automobiles (1987): Martin co-stars with another great comedian, John Candy. This is a tender comedy where Martin plays the “straight man”. Two men find themselves traveling by every mode of transportation while trying to make it back home for the holidays.
My Blue Heaven (1990): This film only received mixed reviews but I find it quite funny. Martin plays an ex-Mobster from the streets of New York City who enters the witness protection program after informing on his buddies. The FBI moves him to a nice, suburban California neighborhood where he doesn’t fit in very well.
Also be sure to check out his comedy on CD:
Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy: this CD hit #2 on the charts when it was released in 1978 and includes his infamous “Wild and Crazy Guy” and “King Tut” routines.
But before I go, once again, Mr. Steve Martin:
“First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me.”
“Boy, those French: They have a different word for everything!”
“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. ”
Ann Marie is the Library Director for OWL.