Steve Martin: Dare To Be Silly

This essay can be found in Steve Martin: The Television Stuff


There is, everyone says, no explaining comedy. And it’s true. Funny evades explanation as much as sexy does, and for the same reasons. Their causes may be subtly orchestrated, but their effects are entirely clear: having to say whysomething is funny or sexy means that it’s not. The too-well-explained old joke becomes the cause for the pained “mirthful” forced laughter that fills the theater at Ben Jonson comedies, and even sometimes at Shakespearean ones.

But though there’s no point in us trying to explain comedy, there is a way of figuring out why comedy explains us. Watching what this boxed set contains, which is mostly material from Steve Martin’s television specials and concerts from the 1970s, highlights of what we might now call Early Steve — with an eye to the other, sometimes darker Steve Martins that have emerged since — a whole sweet period in the history of American laughter comes back to life. Has there ever been anything more improbable than the rage, the mania, for Early Martin, the banjo-playing balloon-animal-maker man in the white suit, the wild and crazy guy — which filled stadiums in the late ’70s? As the concerts documented and preserved on these DVDs display, what had been an eccentric nightclub act filling the Troubadour (at five dollars a shot) became, in relatively short order, a stadium act, stuffing the same arenas where only Spinal Tap-ish rock bands were thriving in the same period.

What made it happen? Martin himself has brooded on it, in his fine, honest memoir Born Standing Up, revealing that it grew more slowly, and was more carefully deliberated, than one might think. Seen from a distance, and from the slightly more detached perspective of someone watching then and who is watching now, you also see it was the power of a period, a wave of good feeling, now forgotten, that swept the country in the much-misunderstood ’70s that helped make that moment happen . . . but mostly it was the sublime absurdity of a comedian who, putting all else aside, dared to be silly.

Seeing mint Martin from the mid-’70s, it is startling all over again to see what a sublimely, exclusively silly attitude he struck. The act, the man in the white suit (though here, earlier on, he just wears gray) surfs, even more resolutely than one had recalled, the up and down waves of phony performer’s emotion. “Professional show business” is the promise he smugly offers at the beginning of his act, and Steve, the character, really has mastered all the outward signs of pro show biz as it was practiced at the time. There are the intimate confidences offered close into the microphone (“I get my drinks here . . . half price,” with those matchlessly expressive eyebrows implying the self-congratulatory ellipsis); the smooth transitions between one “skill” and another (“I suppose you’ve heard that I’m into the . . . comedy thing. Sort of getting more into the music thing . . . ”); and the sheer, sweaty exhaustion of a performer who just, damnit, can’t help but give too much.

That the character offering this assured performance, these confident intimacies, is in truth the most ill-equipped and hapless entertainer in the history of the stage, is the first source of the comedy. It is the immense pleasure, thepride, he takes in his own cluelessness, even more than any pleasure the audience takes in him, that makes the show still giddily funny. Even as he ambles aimlessly from bit to bit, displaying his nonexistent (or completely irrelevant) skills as a card sharp, magician, balloon animal-maker, he thinks his act is a smash. Houdini at the height of his powers was not more self-assured. He thinks he’s great, and his self-confidence becomes contagious — we think then that he isgreat, in his own self-made way. The character Steve inhabited is a sort of divine fool of stand-up, an innocent of show business: his not getting it is what makes him get it. (Andy Kaufman would take the same type, the performer whose only experience is the clichés of performing, and find a more sinister hidden edge within the character that some found sublime, others just creepy.)

All comedy depends on shared social expectations. It’s a two-way street, with signals sent and gratefully received; and, despite an absence of topical humor, the comedy of early Steve is entirely generational. He depended on his audience knowing the clichés of Vegas and nightclubs by heart — though they took that knowingness from television, which had made the Vegas nightclub manner commonplace. Steve was working for perhaps the first generation whose experience of entertainment was almost entirely the experience of talk shows and variety shows, which is where the Vegas entertainers went to do their acts. (And they did them, perhaps not coincidentally, in a more rushed form for Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson than they did onstage; Steve’s super-rushed versions of the same act are in some ways parodies of an abridgement.) Comedy often works by pointing without embarrassment to some cultural piety that has died and that no one has been quite willing to admit is dead — the Marx Brothers get a lot of mileage just from knowing that grand gestures of the opera were, by 1940, ridiculous in themselves. By the early ’70s, the clichés of 1950s Rat Pack show biz, which had to an earlier generation seemed quite organic, thrilling in their spontaneity, had been shipwrecked on the shores of summer replacement variety shows.

Around the same time, or a few years earlier, George Carlin had made a similar revolt against the mannered clichés of television and show business, but he had based his comedy on hipness — to other kinds of in-group references, those of the drug and “counterculture,” which had previously been ignored. Steve Martin, coming from a similar kind of television background, didn’t turn to hipness but to anti-hipness, creating a character so out of it that his out-of-it-ness became another kind of hip — the meta-hip of the knowing rather than the moralizing hip of the satirical-minded. He was showing a hip audience what absolute unhipness was like, and how much fun it might be. He was pretending, as Pauline Kael remarked, to be a comedian, loyal to show biz rituals, while his audience pretended to be an audience, receptive to them.

There was also, in the absence of obvious topical “thrust” in Steve’s early comedy, an implicit kind of social truce, also typical of the 1970s. “I knew that the war was over,” is how Martin puts it today, simply — meaning not just that the war in Vietnam was over (though it was), but more broadly that the conflicts between generations had mostly ended, with, as always happens, the younger generation routing the old. Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Liveand one of Steve’s key supporters in this period, says that his program flourished, in part, “because the pillars of society were discredited — post-Watergate, you couldn’t trust the government or the press — but also because we were just the first young people to have a television. We came on and no one could object to what we were doing, because everyone had learned that they couldn’t trust anything.” The triumph of what had seemed an embattled countercultural idea of comedy meant that certain permissions were also given. “Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin had been doing self-consciously important work. Steve, when he showed up in the white suit, arrow in the head, making balloon animals —it was just silly and had the nerve to be silly,” Michaels adds.

So there is both mockery and a kind of affectionate salute to worn-out show business mannerisms in Steve’s comedy. The show biz affectation of sincerity is his favorite subject. “We’ve had some fun out here, and I think it’s so important to do that,” he announces in a confidential tone, eyes half-shut, toward the end of his act, in just the manner of a Sammy or a Dean or even a Frank after they had finished the wild, daring part of their performance and wanted to close out with something a little deeper, a little more misty-eyed. “Not trying to get corny with you or anything . . . ” he then murmurs, matchlessly corny, and the eyebrows and the modest tilt of the head are so expertly worked that they almost mislead one, still today, into thinking that something straight might be about to happen. “A day without sunshine is like [long, emotive pause] . . . night!” he concludes.

The character Steve inhabits is constantly trying to move past the comedy thing to something more sincere, sensitive, important. But circumstances conspire against him. “I’d like to thank each and every one of you for coming out tonight,” he says, lowering his voice an octave, from fun to full-of-feeling — and then literally has to thank each and every one: “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou . . . ” (In a strange way, Steve’s character in ascent in the ’70s mirrors Elvis Presley in descent over the same time — for it was in this same era that Elvis released, or had released in his name, the somewhat grotesque Having Fun With Elvis On Stage albums, where his “comedy thing” is about as awkward as Steve’s singing. Not to knock Elvis, who knew which way was up and was an early Monty Python fan; it was desperation, not complacency, that drove him.)

The satiric point in Steve’s early work was that sincerity had been so cheapened by cynical overuse that the only way to be authentic was to mock sincerity at every moment. (It is surely, as the more portentous kind of social critic would point out, no accident that the absolute nadir of professional show biz “sensitivity,” the song “Feelings,” came out just at this time; it was exactly the dead piety Martin was mocking.) In a later television bit, he begins his “Christmas message” with a prayer for all the children of the world to come together for world peace — and then quickly, and astutely, revises the message to make a 30-day orgasm engineered by Paulina Porizkova his first wish, placing the kids way back there.

It was, in retrospect, a moment in time when the whole self-important enterprise of “social satire” had become lead-footed, corny. The Monty Pythons in England, with whom Martin in the ’70s made a kind of lunatic Grand Alliance, had arrived intuitively at the same moral: satire, done as such, is embarrassing because it’s so obvious. Pure nonsense cuts deeper because it assaults the whole structure of rationality. A man who pretends a dead parrot isn’t one makes more fun of the whole range of capitalist shoddiness than a satiric song about General Motors. In the same way, Steve, making fun of the language of show business that had become the lingua franca of American wholesomeness — “But seriously, folks,” “ . . . a close personal friend,” “ . . . a great humanitarian” — was pointing out the silliness of a society for which the clichés of show business were the only common language.

Minimally “topical” — there is buried in the concert material a single reference to Jimmy Carter, then President — Martin’s comedy was still ravishingly satiric because what it was making fun of was not one passing thing but everything, the entire empire of show business and personality and faked feeling that unitedthe country. “I get paid for doing this!” Steve announces gleefully, and there is at that moment a kind of Surrealist/Dada edge of absurdity that felt more giddily liberating than any number of stand-up lectures about politics. An arrow through his head, earnestly capturing the monotone grunts of American Indian song while interrupting them with Sinatraish side ornaments — this kind of thing does the essential work of satire, which is not so much to send up our issues as to pillory our pieties.

It doesn’t seem excessive to say that a certain kind of “postmodern” popular entertainment was born here; performance that depended for its effects not on what you saw out in the world, but on a complete knowledge of the conventions of other kinds of performance. But this irony was made irresistible by Martin’s born gifts as a physical comedian — or maybe we should say a silent comedian, an instant cartoonist of emotion. He’s particularly sublime in registering the moment when his character’s puzzled, outraged incredulity shades over into intense embarrassment without ever paying even a passing visit to reflective intelligence. (As when he recalls, “My mom called me and asked me for money to buy food.”) We can explain why there’s more satire in the silliness than might at first appear; but those moments, beyond explanation, are what makes the comedy great.

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The concerts show the act in pure, undiluted form. The four television specials also included here dance between old and new kinds of comedy. “Variety specials” of this kind, Steve points out, were “just what you did. It was still very much a living form for someone like Carol Burnett. And it was sort of what you were expected to do.” Steve’s comedy on the specials is in part retrospective, recalling the quick-sketch parodies of the great Sid Caesar on Your Show Of Shows, and in another way anticipates the kind of work he was just starting to do in the movies. Some of it emerges in a slightly Monty Python mode — as in the wonderful piece where the unskilled Steve becomes the world’s greatest diver — and other segments have a lovely, offbeat erudition, as when Steve becomes the only Socrates known to history who had no idea that hemlock was poisonous.

There are also, within these sketches, smaller acting moments that are touched by other feelings. There is no pathos in Martin’s comedy, but just discernable is the trace of the melancholy and stoical sadness that would eventually blossom in his movies, and especially in his finest movie, Roxanne. All of Steve’s early comedy is, above all, fun — and it is perhaps no accident that it took a Californian to make a comedy of pure fun: “California invented fun,” as Lorne Michaels points out. But the other side of fun is glum, and California blue is a rich vein that runs right alongside California giddy.

Martin is, as everyone knows, a great lover and student of contemporary American art, but perhaps we shouldn’t look for clues to his work in those po-mo conceptualists. More, perhaps, in the pop artists of California, who also turned to the small stuff that most people looked past — Ed Ruscha to big billboards; Wayne Thiebaud to small commercial cakes — on their way to making something new; and who also made art that was at once satiric, self-mocking and just a little sad. Martin turned to the small props and play of comedy — bunny ears, a fake arrow through the head — to make his own new thing. But, as his subsequent work shows, and as his memoir makes plain, there was plenty of melancholia there too. Buried even in the sublime silliness of the man-in-the-white-suit is the truth that his banjo playing is always actually quite excellent, virtuosic. It’s a kind of quiet note, a reminder to the audience that the guy onstage knows exactly what he’s doing at every moment. At those moments, when Steve’s face drains of cartoon expression and he becomes completely absorbed in his banjo, one sees, in the great comedian he was, the more wide-ranging artist he will become.

At this far end of his career, some of the best moments of Steve Martin’s more recent work, also collected here on a bonus disc, consist of the tribute speeches that he’s made in recent years at awards ceremonies for various friends (and for himself). The subject is, once again, show biz clichés — but where he was once mocking false intimacy, now he mocks unreal sobriety. There is much to be said for Paul Simon, he remarks darkly, but an awards ceremony especially made for him “seems to be neither the time nor place to say it.” Though he’s a different kind of performer now, Steve’s still at work, sublimely puncturing the uninspected pieties of American life.

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