Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor"

I'm coming off a couple of virtually book-free months--very disconcerting for me, since I am usually reading books in vast quantities (I am slightly having withdrawal, I am thinking I am going to read a lot of novels in January!).

I've got a heap of stuff sitting around half-finished, books I hope to attend to once I'm a bit less busy and blog about here. And a lot more books unopened. But the book that crossed the threshold and that simply couldn't wait was Steve Martin's Born Standing Up. As soon as I read the New Yorker piece a month ago (I blogged a bit of it here), I knew I had to read the whole thing...

(I'm relatively ignorant of comedy, by the way, but I'd put this with Stephen King's On Writing as just one of those books that you should read if you want to learn how to write or indeed to make anything good in the artistic line--both are very enjoyable reads for their own sake but also quite illuminating when they come to discuss the process of making things. The chapter in this one that's titled "The Road" should be required reading for anyone trying to figure out how to make something really good, especially if you are not quite sure yet what sort of thing it is you are going to make...)

Three paragraphs I particularly like (bonus swimming-related reference!):
Because I was generally unknown, in the smaller venues I was free to gamble with material, and there were a few evenings when crucial mutations affected my developing act. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I played for approximately a hundred students in a classroom with a stage at one end. I did the show, and it went fine. However, when it was over, something odd happened. The audience didn't leave. The stage had no wings, no place for me to go, but I still had to pack up my props. I indicated that the show had ended, but they just sat there, even after I said flatly, "It's over." They thought this was all part of the act, and I couldn't convince them otherwise. Then I realized there were no exits from the stage and that the only way out was to go through the audience. So I kept talking. I passed among them, ad-libbing comments along the way. I walked out into the hallway, trying to finish the show, but they followed me there, too. A reluctant pied piper, I went outside onto the campus, and they stayed right behind me. I came across a drained swimming pool. I asked the audience to get into it--"Everybody into the pool!"--and they did. Then I said I was going to swim across the top of them, and the crowd knew exactly what to do: I was passed hand over hand as I did the crawl. That night I went to bed feeling I had entered new comic territory. My show was becoming something else, something free and unpredictable, and the doing of it thrilled me, because each new performance brought my view of comedy into sharper focus.

The act tightened. It became more physical. It was true I couldn't sing or dance, but singing funny and dancing funny were another matter. All I had to do was free my mind and start. I would abruptly stop the show and sing loudly, in my best lounge-singer voice, "Grampa bought a rubber." Walking up to the mike, I would say, "Here's something you don't often see," and I'd spread my mouth wide with my fingers and leap into the air while screaming. Or, invoking a remembered phrase from the magic shop, I would shout, "Uh-oh, I'm getting happy feet!" and then dance uncontrollably across the stage, my feet moving like Balla's painting of a futurist dog, while my face told the audience that I wanted to stop but couldn't. Closing the show, I'd say, "I'd like to thank each and every one of you for coming here tonight." Then I would walk into the audience and, in fast motion, thank everyone individually. My set lists, written on notepad paper and kept in my coat pocket, were becoming drenched with sweat.

The new physicality brought an unexpected element into the act: precision. My routines wove the verbal with the physical and I found pleasure trying to bring them in line. Each spoken idea had to be physically expressed as well. Mt teenage attempt at a magician's grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace. I felt as though every part of me was working. Some nights it seemed that it wasn't the line that got the laugh, but the tip of my finger. I tried to make voice and posture as crucial as jokes and gags. Silence, too, brought forth laughs. Sometimes I would stop and, saying nothing, stare at the audience with a look of mock disdain, and on a good night, it struck us all as funny, as if we were in on the joke even though there was no actual joke we could point to. Finally, I understood the cummings quote I had puzzled over in college: "Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged.
(Thanks to Gautam for making the book magically appear in my mailbox!)


  1. What's so great about this is how completely it fits with my memories of Steve Martin back in the day. My god, he was funny, and exactly as he describes it.

  2. I am so pleased that the read is up to Mr. Martin's high quality standards. (_Picasso at the Lapin Agile_ is a particular favorite of mine.)

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