Saturday, November 24, 2007

Enough comedy jokes!

It is a truism – or it should be one – that you can tell the worth of a comedian by how funny he is when he's not being funny, when he's not in the middle of a bit. Most stand-up comedy is the entertainment equivalent of an ass-grab – obnoxious, unwelcome, and a more about trying to overpower than to connect.

In a sense, Steve Martin's stand-up was one long bit – a goof on the whole notion of entertainment – but at the same time, he rarely sounded like he was a doing a bit. (And it was when he was indisputably doing a bit or being self-consciously "zany" that he was at his weakest – the whole "wild and crazy guy" Czech brothers act, for example.) Building an onstage persona based on parodying onstage personae is a tricky thing to pull off, and can have a very short shelf-life. (One of the reasons Stephen Colbert is overrated – absolute heresy, I know.)

Martin pulled it off by weaving in and out of this persona, coming at it from all angles. In one short routine from the early 80's – shortly before he gave up stand-up altogether, he parodies the classic "pissed-off, no bullshit" comedian simply by saying "fuck" a lot and acting like a cynical prick, giving the audience the "real deal." He's not doing a character, just subtly altering his delivery, making the knife slip in more cleanly. Since his usual parodic targets were Vegas-type performers, it's great to hear him take a subtle swipe at the new, "angry" comics who were, for the most part, doing the same thing as the old, phony Vegas comedians – dressing up mediocre material with a lot of hip bluster. (Speaking of which, a terrible thing happened to George Carlin when he decided to play the pissed-off anti-establishment man – religious figures are often hypocrites? as are politicians? we care too much about money? shocking. – rather than do what he was better at: being a kind of hippie Jerry Seinfeld, or Lenny Bruce without the balls.)

Why Martin had to leave stand-up is demonstrated by the second side of his "Wild and Crazy Guy" album. The first side has some of my favourite material of his – lines that only he could deliver, like "Let's face it: some people have a way with words, while others... oh, not have way, I guess" – and there's a sense of real interaction with the audience, which sounds roughly nightclub-sized. Most of the second side was recorded in what sounds like an arena full of fans ready to scream at the slightest sign of Steve Martin-style wackiness. He both gives in to it and struggles against it; there's some funny stuff there, but the loss is palpable. He was funnier when he was able to wrong-foot an audience, keeping them in a constant state of uncertainty as to whether or not what he was saying was intentionally funny.

Anyway, here's A.L. Kennedy on Martin's new memoir of his stand-up years.

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