Rationalist of the Absurd

Photo: ABC/Retna LTD.

You might expect a memoir of Steve Martin’s wild-and-crazy stand-up years to be a vomit-soaked monument to seventies excess, a tale of vision quests, diarrhea bongs, bad perms, handlebar mustaches, luge races down the hills of San Francisco in garbage cans full of bodily fluids, and marathon orgies with generations of Belushis. Instead, the great revelation of Born Standing Up—a chronicle that stretches from Martin’s childhood magic tricks to his post–Saturday Night Live super-fame—is that, unlike Robin Williams (whose mania seems organic and genuinely debilitating) or Richard Pryor (who famously lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine), Martin did not live the shamanistic high life of seventies comedy. In fact, he was relentlessly square. He honed his comic chops working at Disneyland. At college, he got A’s in philosophy and puritanically renounced the wearing of jeans. He gave up his only real countercultural indulgence, marijuana, after a panic attack in a movie theater. Excluding a brief flirtation with hippie-ism, Martin settled early on his iconic look: clean-shaven, with a neat suit to match his neatly parted hair. “My look was strictly wholesome Baptist,” he writes. (It’s unclear why this is in the past tense.) Every aspect of his famous wackiness, it turns out, was precisely calculated—he was a rationalist of the absurd. When he leaped and waggled his arms, it was less a Belushi-style spontaneous barbaric soul-explosion than a precisely calibrated sequence built up, gesture by gesture, with the patience of a mathematical proof. (“It was like playing an instrument,” he once told an interviewer from Rolling Stone. “The audience was an instrument. I can do this and they’ll do this.”) As a teenager, he kept detailed, trick-by-trick notes on every magic show he ever did for the Cub Scouts and Kiwanis; as a professional, he studied tapes of his performances and meticulously eliminated errors. When he heard himself dropping g’s, he stayed in and worked on his diction. When he heard himself slurring his words, he stopped drinking onstage. His reputation is a paradox: In the wildest and craziest decade of American pop culture, the only figure to emerge with the official tag of “wild and crazy” was someone with the disposition of an accountant.

Modern audiences who know Martin mainly as the star of family films to be avoided at all possible costs (Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen, Cheaper by the Dozen 2) will be pleasantly surprised by the version of him in Born Standing Up: an ambitious intellectual loner who harbored radical theories of comedy. In 1965, Martin was a 20-year-old banjo enthusiast with an awkward ten-minute act (he’d pad the show, when necessary, by reciting T.S. Eliot poems). At the cost of much pride and probably many gigs, he engineered “an act without jokes”—an ever-shifting, punch-line-less mélange of banjo songs, spasms, and purposefully botched gags. “And for the next eight years,” he writes, “I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus.” Influenced equally by the slapstick of Jerry Lewis and the abstract nonsense of Lewis Carroll, he yearned to be not just physical but metaphysical. He cited Wittgenstein on the moral seriousness of the irrational.

By 1975, he’d painstakingly assembled four solid hours of material and won the papal endorsement of Johnny Carson. Martin describes his persona as “an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one.” Much of this routine is timeless. He loved to parody audience interaction (“How many people are here tonight? Raise ’em up”) and to deliver absurdities in the cheerful, stentorian voice of a news anchor: “Hello. I’m Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute.” He’d play an aimless, un-sing-alongable banjo tune called “Ramblin’ Guy,” and try to make the audience sing along in impossible configurations: “Okay, now this two fifths of the room, now this three fifths! Two sevenths! Five sevenths! Okay, in Chinese now!” To end the show, he’d lead the crowd on field trips out of the theater—once he took them to watch someone else’s act across the street. By the late seventies, fueled by a couple of legendary Saturday Night Live performances, he’d become the most successful comedian in the history of jokes—his albums sold millions, and his live audiences topped out around 45,000.

Martin conducts his chaos from a cool remove; what you admire is the ordering intelligence behind the mess. There’s always this distance—an odd performative gap between himself and whatever he happens to be doing, a doubleness that is the keynote of his entire career. Steve Martin does things. Instead of actually being wild and crazy, like his SNL co-stars, he does “wild and crazy.” Even in his latest incarnation as a half-funny highbrow author of novellas and plays and polite humor essays, that sense of distance survives: They’re like cautious, deliberate exercises in alien styles. Just as he once performed the unrestrained wacky, he’s now performing the restrained urbane—he’s put it on like an arrow through the head. The product of his thinking rarely comes to us in pure form. There’s always a distracting overlay of Steve Martin thinking. His critically lauded play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is a transparent channeling of his theatrical forebears: Stoppard, Beckett, Wilde, Groucho Marx. His Inspector Clouseau is a long virtuoso impression of Peter Sellers. Martin floats above his projects. It seems appropriate that, although he belongs in the Saturday Night Live pantheon along with Aykroyd and Murray and Radner, he was never actually a cast member. His best film roles are self-portraits in which the distance is exaggerated: e.g., Roxanne, in which Martin, cursed with an absurdly distancing prosthetic, finds love anonymously, through an intermediary, or L.A. Story, in which his most intimate friend is a digital sign.

Steve Martin ironing a kitten, May 1969. Photo: Henry Diltz/Corbis

Born Standing Up is yet further evidence of Martin’s talent for creating intimate distance. The autobiography begins by denying even its genre: “In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know.” The performative gap yawns, apparently, even between Martin and himself. He also frames his onstage experience in terms of distance: “My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.” The book gives us plenty of opportunity to psychoanalyze this mysterious distance, and its most likely source is, predictably, Martin’s father. (Paint-by-numbers psychologizing—what he calls “ten-cent diagnosis”—turns out to be one of the tics of Martin the autobiographer: His harmless childhood heart murmur “planted in me a seed of hypochondria that poisonously bloomed years later”; his panic attacks expressed his unconscious fear of losing his job writing for The Smothers Brothers; his distance from his family resulted, later in life, in “romantic misconnections and a wrong-headed quest for solitude.”) It is an irony hardly worth stating that Martin, the great prophet of schlocky family comedies, came from a deeply unhappy family. His father was a cold and repressive man who terrified the house with “enraged silences”; once, when 9-year-old Steve misheard his dad and asked “What?” he found himself suffering “a beating that seemed never to end.” After this, Martin cut himself off from his father, and the antipathy between the two survived almost until the latter’s death. (When Martin first hosted SNL, at age 31, his father published a negative review of the show in the Newport Beach Association of Realtors newsletter.) Their emotional reconciliation provides the book’s most moving passages. Not to get too Freudian here, but it’s interesting that someone whose independence began with a traumatic beating would decide to pioneer a style of comedy that withheld the coercive violence of punch lines.

I’m not sure I buy Born Standing Up’s portrait of the young Martin as an avant-garde martyr-hero. He claims that mass success ruined the purity and subtlety of his art, and that, once he felt himself starting to decline, he walked away: “I was becoming, like the Weinermobile, a commercial artifact.” But he walked directly into a film career that has often courted unsubtle mass success above all else—the artistic equivalent of a fleet of Weinermobiles. The cynic in me wonders if this memoir, published in the awkward gap between The Pink Panther and The Pink Panther 2, is a calculated piece of restorative self-mythology: Martin’s attempt to remind people that, although he’s become a tame, family-friendly schlockmeister, he was once a hard-core revolutionary artist. “I was seeking comic originality,” he writes early in the book, “and fame fell on me as a by-product.” It’s a noble thought, but perhaps overstated. In fact, the seeds of his family-friendliness were there in his stand-up from the beginning. His most interesting counterpoint is Andy Kaufman, another conceptual comic who hit his prime at precisely the same moment as Martin, but whose loyalties were very different. Whereas Martin’s innovations were gentle, cartoonish, and nonthreatening—a Disney version of the avant-garde—Kaufman had a severe allergy to catchphrases, audience comfort, and clear comedic signals. He rarely defused his anger and awkwardness into obvious gags. Once his bits became popular, he refused to do them anymore. Martin’s “King Tut” and “Excuuuuse me!” remained ticket-selling staples until the very end.

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Rationalist of the Absurd