Skip

A Wild and Introspective Guy
January 30, 2008 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Steve Martin on the development of his comedy.

The article also includes a link to a video clip of his performance on the Tonight Show that he references at the end of the article.

He has also just written a book about his life that covers some of this same ground.
posted by bove (61 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article is lifted straight from the book, which I'm reading right now. It's really wonderful -- he's got this gift for writing in such a quietly pretty way. His descriptions of working in Disneyland as a kid are great.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:19 AM on January 30, 2008




It is, in fact, the funniest essay ever written in the English language, but you don't get it yet.
posted by ardgedee at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Very interesting! Always fascinating to read insight straight from the true greats.
posted by pyrex at 9:37 AM on January 30, 2008


This is a fantastic article, and how thanks to Greg Nog's explanation, I think I may have to go out and get my hands on the book.
posted by piratebowling at 9:38 AM on January 30, 2008


I see from IMDB he's taking another piss on Peter Sellars' grave next year. Will the next book deal with stopping being funny?
posted by biffa at 9:41 AM on January 30, 2008


I think it was Knott's Berry Farm, wasn't it, Greg Nog? I base that on the New Yorker piece which I think was also a book excerpt.

He's a brilliant person as well as a great comedian. And he's a good bluegrass player. Here he is in the late 70s playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and here more recently playing it again, with Earl Scruggs.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on January 30, 2008


Is there anything Steve Martin cannot do?
posted by Optamystic at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2008


He also spoke about the book on Charlie Rose back in September. As someone who grew up wearing a hole in my Steve Martin LPs, the book and this interview were a real treat.
posted by Old Man Wilson at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2008


D'oh!
posted by Optamystic at 9:43 AM on January 30, 2008


Greg Nog - I was going to ask that! I read a review of his book somewhere, then I saw him on Charlie Rose. And it sounds like the book is great. I'm now inspired to pick it up.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2008


He worked at Disneyland first, then Knott's. It's all in the book (I finished it last week -- pretty good overall and a great description of how he came to become a legend in comedy but also kind of weird in that he mentions every girlfriend he had and the account is hyperdetailed from roughly 1968 until 1981 but the times before and after are a blur barely worthy of mention).
posted by mathowie at 9:54 AM on January 30, 2008


I read the book over Christmas, which is to say I read the whole thing on Boxing Day. It's a pretty thin book, despite the thick cover, all the pictures, and double-spaced 14-point typeface. There's nothing particularly interesting in it, and the overall impression I got was that Martin only wrote it so people would quit asking him about his stand-up years.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:55 AM on January 30, 2008


I see from IMDB he's taking another piss on Peter Sellars' grave next year. Will the next book deal with stopping being funny?

Seriously. What has he said in his defense for raiding Seller's legacy, completely failing in the most predictable ways, and then planning to go back for more? This is not the Steve Martin I knew. But I think he is still a good writer.
posted by christopherious at 9:55 AM on January 30, 2008


Seller's -> Sellers'
posted by christopherious at 9:59 AM on January 30, 2008


I can't remember how old I was when I first saw The Jerk, but I bet I was 10 or 11 at most. It was a revelation in a way I couldn't put my finger on. Now I can - probably one of the first things I ever saw that, as he describes it, didn't tell me where the jokes were.

And this line about his first live TV appearance?

What happened while I was out there was very similar to an alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I'm convinced it occurred.

This is exactly what appearing on live TV feels like when you're not accustomed to it.
posted by gompa at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


going back to some of the video from his 70s standup, it's interesting just how thoroughly his sensibility, weirdness, even his timing has been integrated into the culture. Flashing from a deadpan to that idiotic chuckle, the mock Vegas singing ("We're having some fun noww, yeahh..."). You look at it today and it feels so familiar, in a way that it didn't even after the 500th listen to "Let's Get Small" did back then.

I was disappointed by the book. He is a graceful writer (he dispenses with nemesis John Frankenheimer very deftly) and often funny, but the book had a bittersweet tinge to it -- partly because of his account of the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father, but mostly, I think, because he seems to not like that period of his life very much. I guess because I enjoyed his work so much in those years, it's a bit sad that he turned his back on it so definitively, and today rents himself out on throwaway movies.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2008


After seeing Trail of the Pink Panther I find I can stand pretty much any affront to Sellers' legacy. The original films are classics and will remain so.

Plus, anything with Jean Reno in it can't be that bad.
posted by ODiV at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2008


I saw bowfinger the other day. Oof... that being said, the book is great and I never realized he worked with Super Dave Osborne! Boy, looking at his site, why do these great comic folks have such underwhelming Web sites? Smothers Brothers, Don Rickles...others?
posted by kylefreund at 10:07 AM on January 30, 2008


I was struck by two things:

1) How similar Steve Martin's theory of comedy was to to the Monty Python's team (and Spike Milligan's, for that matter). I guess it must have been steam engine time for punchline-free jokes.

2) What the hell is up with Johnny Carson's suit? Was that normal for back then? Or was it intentionally humorous?
posted by Kattullus at 10:11 AM on January 30, 2008


it's interesting just how thoroughly his sensibility, weirdness, even his timing has been integrated into the culture.

I remember my parents getting in a fight when I was a kid, and my dad responding to some accusation of my mom's with, "Welllllllllll EXCUUUSSSSSSSEEEE MEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" I thought he was just being a jerk.

Which I guess he was. But years later I realized he was also imitating Steve Martin.

(It can't have been much more than a year later that they got divorced.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:23 AM on January 30, 2008


And to bring it full circle, my dad got me this book for Christmas this year! I haven't read much of it yet. What I did read struck me as the standard celeb-memoir in a lot of ways, written in that flat "This happened. Then this happened." journalism 101 style.

Which is surprising, given what a talented prose writer he is. Like someone said, I guess maybe it was more about getting stuff off his chest. I think a novel by Steve Martin, with a lead character based on Steve Martin in the 70s, would have been great. Imagine the absurd possibilities!
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 AM on January 30, 2008


even his timing

You mean his "timeING?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:28 AM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I am in the process of watching his first appearance on The Tonight Show. I haven't read the article yet or anything. I will, but I'm still kinda busy being freaked out that Johnny Carson wore that jacket on television in all seriousness. This is going to take me time to get over. I'm watching Steve Martin's act but my eyes are still pulsating from the plaid. So I'll let you know what I think about the article and stuff later when I've stopped shaking my head and rubbing my eyes. Just give me time. Thanks.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:38 AM on January 30, 2008


lynn, it wasn't hist first appearance, it was his 16th. Johnny even says at the beginning that he'd been on the show a number of times.
posted by piratebowling at 10:49 AM on January 30, 2008


Wonderful. One loves genius.

And Katullus: 2) What the hell is up with Johnny Carson's suit? Was that normal for back then? Or was it intentionally humorous?

Sadly, no. That was considered "cool" (or "sweet" as you kids would say now.)
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:53 AM on January 30, 2008


Sadly, no. That was considered "cool" (or "sweet" as you kids would say now.)

He looks like the Sixth Doctor. And that isn't a compliment.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:19 AM on January 30, 2008


[NOT GALLIFREYIST]
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I guess it must have been steam engine time for punchline-free jokes.

I'm reading the book now, and it does seem that way. He kept getting these amazing bookings, for private celebrity events and such, that it appears there was a real hunger for post modern anti-comedy. "You don't get it? Ha, Ha, the jokes on you, its not supposed to be funny!"
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:28 AM on January 30, 2008


I love him for this article and for L.A. Story and for many, many other things. Thanks for the link.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:45 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wasn't expecting that to be as entertaining or as enlightening as it was. In short, entirely like watching someone dance about architecture.
posted by Eideteker at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2008


I'm looking forward to the chapter in his book that discusses the decline of his comedy, and explains the two Cheaper by the Dozen movie, the Pink Panther films, the Out of Towners, Sgt. Bilko, the Father of the Bride movies, Mixed Nuts, and Bringing Down the House.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2008


Astro Zombie: Edgy, comedic insight doesn't pay the property taxes on your Malibu estate very well nowadays.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2008


"And he's a good bluegrass player."

I've said it before and I'll say it again, my favorite side of my Steve Martin Brothers LP is not the comedy side.
posted by Eideteker at 12:22 PM on January 30, 2008


What I did read struck me as the standard celeb-memoir in a lot of ways, written in that flat "This happened. Then this happened." journalism 101 style.

I would say breezy and effortless, rather than flat, and I actually prefer that to the more finicky, mannered prose style he used in the only other book of his I've read, Pure Drivel.

I really enjoyed this one, and would recommend it to anyone who's interested in the philosophy and mechanics of performance comedy.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:31 PM on January 30, 2008


It is, in fact, the funniest essay ever written in the English language, but you don't get it yet.
posted by ardgedee at 11:34 AM on January 30


I dunno.... this line jumped right out at me as comedy gold:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. I didn't quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights.
posted by Doohickie at 12:32 PM on January 30, 2008


"How many people have never raised their hands before?"

Wow. I'm not worthy to read the rest of the article.....
posted by Doohickie at 12:47 PM on January 30, 2008


miss lynnster writes "I haven't read the article yet or anything. I will, but I'm still kinda busy being freaked out that Johnny Carson wore that jacket on television in all seriousness."

"Am I different? Yeah. Have I changed my pants? No. Deep down, you really want to wear wider bottoms, you're just afraid."

- James Traficant
posted by krinklyfig at 12:49 PM on January 30, 2008


And this line about his first live TV appearance?

What happened while I was out there was very similar to an alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I'm convinced it occurred.

This is exactly what appearing on live TV feels like when you're not accustomed to it.


I just saw Martin's second appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1977. He did one bit which I know he did in his stage appearances: he picked up an Instamatic, took a picture of himself, and then gesturing at the camera, said "You people get to see a show. All I have are... memories."

Now I realize just how close to the truth that really was.
posted by Spatch at 12:58 PM on January 30, 2008


Interestingly, the "naming" bit that Steve Martin does in the video linked to the Smithsonian article is very similar to a bit that many have accused Dane Cook of stealing from Louis CK.

Hackers all around?

P.S. Dane Cook is right up there with VD and the Plague in my opinion, only less effective.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:05 PM on January 30, 2008


He worked at Disneyland first, then Knott's.

Yeah, it's the Disneyland part that I particularly liked, where he talks about his joy in perfecting magic tricks, and talks about the old-timey patter the magic shop guys would use.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:08 PM on January 30, 2008


A one-link post is not suitable FPP fodder.


Unless it's the right link.
posted by Doohickie at 1:09 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


whimsicalnymph: Interestingly, the "naming" bit that Steve Martin does in the video linked to the Smithsonian article is very similar to a bit that many have accused Dane Cook of stealing from Louis CK.

As much as I hate to come to Dane Cook's defense, but the name-your-kid-something-funny bit is old as dirt. The old version, like Steve Martin does it, has the mom call the kids in for dinner and it makes for a punchline.
posted by Kattullus at 1:24 PM on January 30, 2008


"You don't get it? Ha, Ha, the jokes on you, its not supposed to be funny!"

That more or less describes the genius of Andy Kaufman. You were expecting teh funnay and all you got was anguish and loathing. Martin's jokes may not have been funny, but his delivery was spectacularly funny.

Btw, I'm surprised not to see Gern Blanston on this thread.
posted by psmealey at 1:39 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I still think that Martin's funniest line, in a long career of very clever dialog was the opening to The Jerk:

"Huh? My story? Okay. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child."
posted by quin at 1:41 PM on January 30, 2008


Though "that cat was the best fuck I’ve ever had" has to be a close second...
posted by quin at 1:42 PM on January 30, 2008


For some strange reason my favorite line of his is:

"Carlotta was the kind of town where they spelled trouble 'T-R-U-B-I-L.' And if you tried to correct them... they'd kill you."
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:13 PM on January 30, 2008


Dreamy.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:16 PM on January 30, 2008


Sadly I have to add myself to the list of people who didn't like the book much - in fact I gave it away after reading only a portion. The writing was incredibly flat and uninteresting. Love his stand up and his early movies, but the book read like a synopsis, not a book itself.
posted by twsf at 2:16 PM on January 30, 2008


I'm glad he found his special purpose.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:20 PM on January 30, 2008


BTW, I used to LOVE the old business cards Steve had printed up. I SO wanted to copy the idea. He handed them out to people, geez, I think I remember it from about ten years ago. They said:

"This certifies that you had a real encounter with Steve Martin and found him to be kind, courteous, charming and witty."
posted by miss lynnster at 2:35 PM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Everything was learned in practice, and the lonely road, with no critical eyes watching, was the place to dig up my boldest, or dumbest, ideas and put them onstage. After a show, preoccupied by its success or failure, I would return to my motel room and glumly watch the three TV channels sign off the air at 11:30, knowing I had at least two more hours to stare at the ceiling before the adrenaline eased off and I could fall asleep."

That is wonderful and evocative.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:26 PM on January 30, 2008


In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it.

So that's why farts are funny.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:42 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Cruel Shoes is the best book Steve Martin ever wrote.

Sorry, Steve, but I have to post this complete story from the book (I like to read this out loud to tolerant people during the holidays):


"Gift Of The Magi Indian Giver"

Carolyn wanted so much to give Roger something nice for Christmas, but they didn't have much money, and they had to spend every last cent on candy for the baby. She walked down the icy streets and peered into shop windows.

"Roger is so proud of his shinbones. If only I could find some way to get money to buy shinbone polish." Just then, a sign caught her eye. "Cuticles bought and sold." Many people had told Carolyn of her beautiful cuticles, and Roger was especially proud of them, but she thought, "This is the way I could buy Roger the shinbone polish!" And she rushed into the store.

Later at home, she waited anxiously as Roger came up the steps of their flat. He opened the door and wobbled over to the fireplace, suspiciously holding one arm behind his back. "Merry Christmas!" they both said, almost simultaneously. Roger spoke. "Hey, Nutsy, I got you a little something for Christmas." "Me too," said Carolyn, and they exchanged packages.

Carolyn hurriedly opened her package staring in disbelief. "Cuticle Frames?! But Roger, I sold my cuticles so I could afford to buy you some shinbone polish!"

"Shinbone polish!" said Roger, "I sold my shinbones to buy you the cuticle frames!" Roger wobbled over to her.

"Well, I'll be hog-tied," said Carolyn.

"You will? Oh, boy!" said Roger. And it turned out to be a great Christmas after all.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:45 PM on January 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


MiltonRandKalman writes "So that's why farts are funny."

That's also Frank Zappa's philosophy of music in a nutshell - tension and release, and the balance between the two. Not a novel concept, but he took it and ran with it and arranged his concept of music theory around it.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:49 PM on January 30, 2008


I guess I should mention that Martin's always been a favorite comedian/writer/actor. He's not always consistent, but his writing is elegant and concise. His early days on SNL and comedy albums were a staple of my childhood. I love some of his later work, including "Roxanne" (retelling of "Cyrano de Bergerac"), though admittedly some stuff was plenty cheesy, and he had his share of clunkers like any entertainer. "The Man With Two Brains" is still one of my all-time favorite comedy movies ... so many, many golden lines. Also, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid." He is the consummate entertainer, able to sing, dance, tell jokes, play music and act, and write and philosophize to boot - and he's actually quite good at all of them. He came onto the scene as a "wild and crazy guy," but he later revealed he's really a modern renaissance man. Funny, I remember in a somewhat recent interview, he said he saw too many intellectual comedians in his younger days, and he wanted to go out there and just be silly. But his comedy is deceptively intelligent, like slapstick with brains, comparable to geniuses like Peter Sellers, Laurel and Hardy, and even Charlie Chaplin.

I just wish he'd stop with the Pink Panther movies already and leave Sellers' legacy alone.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:07 PM on January 30, 2008


The stuff he said about winding down after a set or not remembering sets I have had happen to me DJing, exactly like that. Not remembering anything from a 2 or 3 hour DJ set, and having to leave right afterwards and be by myself because I felt like I just left a warzone. I think anybody who does anything like live performance has to identify with that. Adrenaline is a crazy thing.
posted by empath at 6:44 PM on January 30, 2008


I haven't read the book yet, but I did read the excerpt in the New Yorker. Far from thinking his prose style flat, I thought it was reflective, meditative, and quiet. He wasn't writing as Funny Guy, but as Older Guy revisiting his life as though it really were another country.

That opinion may change when I read the book, but I enjoyed his style. I did think he was painfully detailed about the girlfriend story in the piece I read. If there's a lot of that, it might impact the feeling of the book overall.
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on January 30, 2008


"Be so good they can't ignore you."

Dammit! Why didn't Steve Martin tell me that twenty-five years ago!?
posted by ZachsMind at 8:09 PM on January 30, 2008


He showed an elegant, physical, comedic grace in All of Me.

He's also fun in the unofficial-yet-perfect sequel to Goodfellas, My Blue Heaven. "My name's Todd. It's Italian for...extra-special."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:32 PM on January 30, 2008


but the book had a bittersweet tinge to it

Much of his writing has that, actually (Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company, for example); this memoir is not the exception. It's one of the reasons I respect him as a writer -- that this master of comedy can be surprisingly introspective and beautifully capture the sadness as well as the comedy.

I'm reading the memoir now. He does seem to focus a bunch on the girlfriends -- I thought it might be because he had to contact many people to get a record of his life from different time periods, and if these girlfriends gave him access to old postcards and pictures and memories and such, he might have felt obligated to pay tribute to them in book. He sort of does the same thing with his old male friends, too, though it might not be as noticeable. As I read these little vignettes I kept thinking, "he is being really nice to these people." I'm not sure if he really is that way, generally (Shopgirl made me think the opposite), or if he was trying to make up for possibly not having been nice to them in the past.

I'm enjoying the book for the look into a time of his life that no one really knows that much about. It's a really interesting question -- how does someone who is recognized at some point to be a Master of Comedy get to be that way, what are the steps they took, what were their epiphanies, etc. And, some of the pictures are really wonderful. He seems quite the nerd when he was younger. Yum!
posted by onlyconnect at 7:53 AM on January 31, 2008


« Older "That half-destroyed paperwork is a tantalizing...   |   "You stink. God Rocks. I hate you." Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post