I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Steve Martin: Visionary of Silliness


by Jake Goldman
March 5, 2014

Steve Martin is the ultimate architect of jokes. He squeezes set-ups into narrow spaces, and bends punchlines around unexpected corners. He’s an economist, too, never wasting a single word, which is why he’s amassed well over a million followers on twitter; there are few better with 140 characters than Mr. Martin. From the simple wordplay of “Facing a sell-out crowd in Providence, RI tonight. Oh, wait, it’s I who have sold out,” to the just plain silly (but incredibly clever) “ [found] Bin Laden porn videos included “I Can See Your Nose,” and “Is That a Toe I See,” Martin’s mind is constantly moving, analyzing and executing tight jokes jam-packed with silliness and subtext.

This has always been evident in Martin’s work, including one of his earliest television specials The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada. Not a minute is wasted; every joke is expertly placed and executed. The special begins with Martin arguing with a man in a moose costume about whether or not the man will, in fact, be playing a moose during Martin’s stage-show. That idea is never fully addressed again, only to the extent that we see the man in the moose costume angrily spying on Martin with a pair of binoculars throughout the trip. It’s bizarre, yet ridiculous enough to work.

The entire special is split into two halves: Toronto and Montreal. In each half, Martin spends time in the aforementioned cities (first Toronto) and speaks directly to the camera in a sort of faux-tourism-video style. He spouts off incorrect and absurd facts about each city (“Toronto has the finest collection of Eskimo art in the world!”), all delivered in a straightforward, calm demeanor that he maintains for the duration of the special, even during the live performance bits.

What’s amazing is the deftness of the entire piece. Martin never lingers on a joke for too long. Once he finds the best possible punchline, he’s out and onto to the next idea. He never seems tempted to beat the hell out of the joke or take the easy way out with a predictable end. It’s a pretty impressive feat.

The thing that moves me most, though, is his commitment to silliness. There is no real straight-man in The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada. In fact, you might say the audience plays the straight-man, constantly floored by the absurd world Martin has created. For example, early on in the program, Martin asks a man where the “Ice-Tennis Courts” are. Most comedies would handle this in a typical, predictable way: the man Martin is asking a question to would respond with incredulity, something like “What? You’re crazy! There’s no such thing!” This, of course, would ruin the scene, completely derailing what was funny about it in the first place. The moment you make someone crazy in a scene for no good reason is the moment a scene dies. Martin, instead, turns this moment into a piece of absurdity. The exchange is as follows:

Man: “Well, do you know where the swimming field is?”

Martin: “You mean the one by the golf-rink?”

Instead of giving into the “real world” as we know it, Martin says to himself “why not create a world of my own?” And we’re better off for him having done it. Why give in to network execs demanding boring, old verisimilitude? Why not take that risk and get all silly? He keeps this sort of feeling going for the entire show, like when he checks into his hotel room, which is actually the escalator. Instead of the rest of the hotel’s guests and employees standing around, gawking at the crazy man walking backwards on an escalator, Martin calls room service, which comes quickly with a meal. The commitment to this world, this hyper-reality, is really what sets it apart from so many other comedy specials.

Generally in comedy, wordplay and goofiness aren’t the most widely beloved traits. It’s the broader stuff, the slapstick and the poop jokes that get shoved into the mainstream. And, of course, those are the ideas that sell; the less risk involved, the higher the profit margins. Martin never seemed to be all that concerned with it. Years of getting by on busking for cash may have prepared him for this; if the television special flopped completely, he could just strap on his banjo and go back to live performance. Obviously, everything turned out okay for him and his success surely surpassed his initial expectations. This special, though, is a testament to his commitment, to his well-defined stance on what he finds funny. And really, that’s what comedy should be. Comedians should be looking to themselves, exploring deeply and putting what they find funny out there for everyone else to devour. The best comedy comes when a comedian is honest with himself (or herself). Martin, it seems, has never told himself a lie his entire career.   

 

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.