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Rationalist of the Absurd

Steve Martin’s extraordinarily calculated comedy.


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.

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