THE STEVE MARTIN GENERATION
Steve Martin was born on this day in 1945. I was born in 1967, which means that I was about 10 when A Wild and Crazy Guy came out in 1977, placing me squarely in the middle of the Steve Martin Generation.
Yes, there is such a thing — you know who you are. Those of us who listened to Steve’s records (and those are 33 1/3 revolution per minute long-playing vinyl records I’m talking about) until we committed them to memory, we tend to recognize each other right away. And not just because we often have that portrait of Steve signed “Best Fishes” in our cubicles. No, it’s because we’ve had our minds permanently bent by being exposed to existentialist meta-comedy in our formative years.
So how does a kid from Waco grow up to warp a whole generation? Well, let’s begin at the beginning.
Steve has never talked much about his childhood. In a 1980 Playboy interview, he said:
Nobody gives a shit about where I grew up and all that. That’s boring. Even I don’t give a shit. When I read an interview and it gets to the part where the person grew up, I turn the page.
About all I’ve been able to glean from my research is that Steve was born in Waco, Texas in 1945; grew up in Garden Grove, California; and had a real-estate-agent father who really had wanted to be an actor.
Starting at the age of 10, he worked at Disneyland for eight years, and then studied philosophy at Long Beach State for three years. Those two facts alone pretty much explain everything, and I feel like I could stop here; on the other hand, I’ve done all this research, so let’s keep going a little bit.
At 21 he got a job writing for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” This is an interesting move for a guy who has always claimed to be apolitical:
Why am I not political? One reason is purely aesthetic. There were too many political thinkers in the Sixties. The world didn’t need another political comedian. The world still doesn’t need another serious person.
Certainly “The Smothers Brothers” served as an object lesson on the dangers of being overtly political: After a long battle with CBS about political content, the show was cancelled on a flimsy pretext, and Steve was out of a job. After that he wrote for other, less edgy TV shows. Shows starring people like John Denver, Glen Campbell, Sonny, and Cher. But in the meantime he was a developing a master plan that was subversive in its own way:
We were in the midst of the Sixties when I was starting to formulate this idea. I’d say, “Someday this consciousness will grow tiresome….” I knew that someday we’d have to change, just out of boredom, and that’s what I was formulating.
As if he had been waiting for the 70s, Steve quit TV writing in 1970 to focus on performing. Since at the age of 25 he’d already been in showbiz for 15 years (if you count Disneyland as showbiz, which I do), he had a pretty good idea of what his act would be.
There were several premises. First, that I played a character onstage who assumed that everything he said was brilliant. He had total confidence, with nothing to back it up. Comedy was jokes and I thought, What if there were no jokes?
There’s a very primitive but accurate theory about comedy as a building up of tension and then a release of it…. I thought, What if you cut out the punch lines completely, and had a comedian who just announced that he was a comedian? The tension would have to break of its own accord – the audience would eventually have to break it for themselves. And that was him, me, the guy in the white suit. A professional comedian with no act and supreme confidence.
Now, I think that Steve’s being a bit disingenuous here, much as Bob Dylan is when he says he was just trying to make it rhyme. Steve was a master manipulator of audiences, and he knew where the laughs were going to come; it’s just that they would come at unusual times. Often there were delayed reactions as the audience took a moment to process what Steve had just said. Like when he used to have crowds recite the “Non-Conformist’s Oath”:
Steve: I promise to be different!
Crowd: I promise to be different!
Steve: I promise to be unique!
Crowd: I promise to be unique!
Steve: I promise not to repeat things other people say!
Crowd: I pr… (trailing off into laughter)
And he did write punch lines, but they always had some kind of reverse twist on them:
But the point remains valid: What Steve was doing was not comedy but meta-comedy, and everything he did was a comment on the idea of being a comedian.
It’s not that the arrow through the head is funny, it’s that someone thinks the arrow through the head is funny. It so happens that the nose glasses are funny, but my point was, it’s gone beyond the glasses; it’s the putting on of the nose glasses that is funny.
I’m not sure that Steve invented meta-comedy — other comedians of the era, most notably Martin Mull, were working in similar areas — but he certainly crystallized it. He put it this way to Playboy:
I see myself as a success of timing, having the right act at the right time, when everybody was sort of starting to think that way. That’s why I was a phenomenon rather than just another comedian.
He was a phenomenon, alright — the first rock star comedian, complete with platinum albums, sold-out stadiums with million-dollar grosses, and a genuine hit single (see photo at top). This is what gave him the power and influence to twist young minds the way he did, and we are all the better for it.
Well, that about wraps things up for Steve Martin week. Before I go, though, I’d like to address a few words to Steve personally, just in case he ever Googles himself and stumbles across this page:
Well, first off, thanks for the laughs. And the rest of it, too. The whole thing. The last 30 years would have been a lot less interesting without you.
I know that you’ve said you’ll never do standup comedy again. But remember on A Wild and Crazy Guy, when you were doing the financial disclosure bit and, as a joke, calculated that if you filled a 3000-seat hall at $800 a ticket, you’d make $2,400,000? Well, you could actually do that now. I would find a way to get ahold of 800 dollars to see you, and I have no doubt there are at least 2,999 others out there like me. You wouldn’t even have to put on the bunny ears or do any of the old bits — well, maybe “Cat Handcuffs.” Anyway, think about it: One show, goodbye.
Finally, I’d like to remind you that you said this in your 1980 Playboy interview: “I’d like to take LSD when I’m 60.” So if you’re looking for someone to, like, get weird with, I can be there in a few hours.