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The Elements of Comedy

I have my older brother to thank for introducing me to several influential pop-culture events, in particular, taking me to see Jaws and Star Wars on their opening weekends. And while he didn't like me messing with his record collection (especially KISS' Love Gun), on those rare days when he deemed me cool enough to hang out with him and listen to music I would always reach for A Wild and Crazy Guy and Let's Get Small, two Steve Martin records that were in constant rotation in his bedroom. Granted, much of the material flew right over my young head, but I insisted on repeat plays of "King Tut."

In his new book, Born Standing Up, Steve Martin looks back on the "war years" of his life as a stand-up comedian, chronicling his early love of magic and the absurd through his rise to worldwide fame while breaking down the elements of his act to each philosophical beat.

Steve was kind enough to send us three exclusive "deleted bits" from the book to share with Amazon readers.

Steve Martin On the Kennedy Assassination
One Friday in 1963, I had finished a class and was about to drive to Knott's Berry Farm for the afternoon shows when I saw a clump of agitated students across the campus. I asked someone what was going on. "They're saying that the president's been shot."

I drove across town to Knott's and punched radio buttons. I could hear the scheduled programs clicking off and being replaced by live broadcasts. Assassination seemed so ancient and inconceivable, I was sure that someone would soon correct the erroneous report. President Kennedy died that day and I didn't know that news could be taken so personally by a nation. Sitting backstage, watching the Birdcage's black-and-white TV drone out the increasingly grave report, we were all mute. We assumed the performance that night would be canceled, but as show time neared, word came down that we were going on. We couldn't fathom why; we believed no one would show up, much less enjoy us. I still can't explain the psychology, why the very full house that night was able to roar with laughter. The obvious must be correct: our silly show was providing some kind of balm that soothed the ache.

In 2003 I hosted the Oscars on the particular weekend that the United States invaded Iraq. The news was grim and just hours before the show I flipped on the TV and saw a report, subsequently proven false, that our captive soldiers were being beheaded. I quickly turned the TV off, sick. I knew, from my experience forty years earlier with the Kennedy assassination, what my job was, and I harbored a secret knowledge that the audience would laugh. I also felt that soldiers who might be watching would be tuning in to see the Oscars and all its hoopla, not a cheerless comedian doing what he doesn’t do best. I decided to acknowledge the circumstances early in the show and then get on with the jokes. The academy had announced that the show would "cut back on the glitz." I walked out for the opening monologue, took a look around the stage at the dazzling, swirling staircases, mirrored curtains and polished floor, and simply said, "I'm glad they cut back on the glitz." It got a laugh of relief and the show could go on.

Read two more bonus passages on the detail page for Born Standing Up.

--BTP

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I was thinking the same thing, Jenn. A band can stink and be booed off the stage, but what's their likely reaction? That their music and/or musicianship bites, or that the audience just didn't "appreciate" them - and that that's a fault of the audience, not of theirs? Are they likely to go back to the drawing board and change their music to suit the audience better? Seems to me the band that takes that approach is called a "sellout" by its peers. A poet, the same, squared or cubed: if the audience was bored, unengaged, or hostile, its members were just too plebeian to understand his deep thoughts. Magicians - I'll grant that one, and I think it's no coincidence that Martin cited an early love of magic. There's no fourth wall in standup; even when you're expressing your finest art, the audience's reaction is intrinsic, not incidental, to it. So it seems to me, anyway, a non-performer.

Genius gets thrown around so much with stand-up comedians... But Martin has such a Zen-like quality. I'm no fan of his acting, but his stand-up and his writing is so spare, so clean, so funny. He's not known for his personal warmth, but the man seems to understand people at a core level. He was criticized back in the seventies for ignoring political humor, but that decision has kept his work fresh, many years later. And this entry on the Kennedy assassination explains why he chose that "apolitical" approach.

"Stand-up comedians...have to connect with their audience." In other words, people laugh or they don't laugh. If they don't laugh, you die on stand on that stage and die.

To understand this process of "comic relief" in moments of extreme tension consider the rabbit/vixen scene the night before the battle in Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. Those who have seen it will get the reference, and those who don't should have me spoil it. Eisenstein also has a helpful account of the story decision here, I think in Notes of a Director.

"Standup comedians are the only remaining performers who have to connect with their audience."

Huh? The best bands connect with their audiences. Magicians and mentalists have to connect with their audiences. Jugglers, Poets, singers....

Reconsider your point?

Standup comedians are the only remaining performers who have to connect with their audience. Hence the success of "Seinfeld", "Home Improvement", and "Roseanne." Even "Dave" to a certain extent.

Hollywood stars used to be proud of touring in USO shows. Bob Hope from WWII to Viet Nam. Ann Margaret visited an aircraft carrier during Viet Nam. Vera Lynn in WWII. Many Hollywood actors took time off from their careers to support the war and entertain the troops. There's a video floating around of Martin and Lewis doing "Little Lambsy Divie" for a crowd of servicemen. Entertainment is more important during times of stress, if you care about the audience. As Steve Martin clearly does.

"Sullivan's Travels" satirizes the artist who desires to improve the lot of his audience. In the course of his travels Sullivan learns, the hard way, that the best thing he can do for his audience is entertain them.

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