Being Funny

How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together

(Joe McNally)
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In the late 1960s, comedy was in transition. The older school told jokes and stories, punctuated with the drummer's rimshot. Of the new school, Bill Cosby—one of the first to tell stories you actually believed were true—and Bob Newhart—who startled everyone with innovative, low-key delivery and original material—had achieved icon status. Mort Sahl tweaked both sides of the political fence with his college-prof delivery. George Carlin and Richard Pryor, though very funny, were still a few years away from their final artistic breakthroughs. Lenny Bruce had died several years earlier, fighting both the system and drugs, and his work was already in revival because of his caustic brilliance that made authority nervous. Vietnam, the first televised war, split the country, and one's left or right bent could be recognized by haircuts and clothes. The country was angry, and so was comedy, which was addressed to insiders. Cheech and Chong spoke to the expanding underground by rolling the world's largest doobie on film. There were exceptions: Don Rickles seemed to glide over the generation gap with killer appearances on "The Tonight Show," and Johnny Carson remained a gentle satirist while maintaining a nice glossary of naughty-boy breast jokes. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, two great comic sketch actors working for the affable genius Carol Burnett, were deeply funny. The television free-for-all called "Laugh-In" kept its sense of joy, thanks in part to Goldie Hawn's unabashed goofiness and producer George Schlatter's perceptive use of her screw-ups, but even that show had high political content. In general, however, a comedian in shackles for indecent language, or a singer's arrest for obscene gestures, thrilled the growing underground audience. Silliness was just not appropriate for hip culture. It was this circumstance that set the stage for my success eight years later.

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. I didn't quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights. With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song.

A skillful comedian could coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope's "But I wanna tell ya") or even a slight body shift. Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand. One night, watching him on "The Tonight Show," I noticed that several of his punch lines had been unintelligible, and the audience had actually laughed at nothing but the cue of his hand slap.

These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

To test my idea, I went onstage and began: "I'd like to open up with sort of a 'funny comedy bit.' This has really been a big one for me...it's the one that put me where I am today. I'm sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it's the "Nose on Microphone" routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it's always funny, no matter how many times you see it."

I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, "Thank you very much." "That's it?" they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.

Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: this is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet. If I wasn't offering punch lines, I'd never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all and that this act was going on with or without them.

I was having trouble ending my show. I thought, "Why not make a virtue of it?" I started closing with extended bowing, as though I heard heavy applause. I kept insisting that I needed to "beg off." No, nothing, not even this ovation I am imagining, can make me stay. My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other's sense of humor, you had to be there.

At least that was the theory. And for the next eight years, I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus.

My first reviews came in. One said, "This so-called 'comedian' should be told that jokes are supposed to have punch lines." Another said I represented "the most serious booking error in the history of Los Angeles music."

"Wait," I thought, "let me explain my theory!"

In Los Angeles, there were an exploding number of afternoon television talk shows: "The Della Reese Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," "The Virginia Graham Show," "The Dinah Shore Show," "The Mike Douglas Show" and my favorite, "The Steve Allen Show." Steve Allen had a vibrant comedy spirit, and you might catch him playing Ping-Pong while suspended from a crane a hundred feet in the air, or becoming a human tea bag by dropping himself in a tank of water filled with lemons. In his standard studio audience warm-up, when he was asked, "Do they get this show in Omaha?" Steve would answer, "They see it, but they don't get it."

On May 6, 1969, I wangled an audition for Steve Allen's two producers, Elias Davis and David Pollock. They accepted me with more ease than I expected, and for my first appearance on "The Steve Allen Show"—which was also my first appearance on television as a stand-up—I wore black pants and a bright blue marching-band coat I had picked up in a San Francisco thrift shop. Steve's introduction of me was ad-libbed perfectly. "This next young man is a comedian, and..." he stammered, "...at first you might not get it"—he stammered again—"but then you think about it for a while, and you still don't get it"—stammer, stammer—"then, you might want to come up onstage and talk to him about it."

The "Steve Allen" appearance went well—he loved the offbeat, and his cackle was enough to make any comedian feel confident. Seated on the sofa, though, I was hammered by another guest, Morey Amsterdam of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," for being unconventional. But I bore no grudge; I was so naive I didn't even know I had been insulted. The "Steve Allen" credit opened a few doors, and I bounced around all of the afternoon shows, juggling material, trying not to repeat myself.

I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on "The Virginia Graham Show," circa 1970. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After reviewing the show, I was depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance, I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"

From these television appearances, I got a welcome job in 1971 with Ann-Margret, five weeks opening the show for her at the International Hilton in Vegas, a huge, unfunny barn with sculptured pink cherubs hanging from the corners of the proscenium. Laughter in these poorly designed places rose a few feet into the air and dissipated like steam, always giving me the feeling I was bombing. One night, from my dressing room, I saw a vision in white gliding down the hall—a tall, striking woman, moving like an apparition along the backstage corridor. It turned out to be Priscilla Presley, coming to visit Ann-Margret backstage after having seen the show. When she turned the corner, she revealed an even more indelible presence walking behind her. Elvis. Dressed in white. Jet-black hair. A diamond-studded buckle.

When Priscilla revealed Elvis to me, I was also revealed to Elvis. I'm sure he noticed that this 25-year-old stick figure was frozen firmly to the ground. About to pass me by, Elvis stopped, looked at me and said in his beautiful Mississippi drawl: "Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor." Later, after his visit with Ann-Margret, he stopped by my dressing room and told me that he, too, had an oblique sense of humor—which he did—but that his audience didn't get it. Then he said, "Do you want to see my guns?" After emptying the bullets into his palm, he showed me two pistols and a derringer.

The plum television appearance during the '60s and '70s was "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Bob Shayne, who in the late '60s booked "The Steve Allen Show," had moved over to "The Tonight Show" and mentioned me to its producer, Freddy De Cordova. Bob showed Freddy a kinescope of my appearance on "The Steve Allen Show," and Fred replied, "I don't think he's for us." But Bob persisted, and Johnny saw the kinescope and said, "Let's give him a try." I was booked on the show in October 1972.

There was a belief that one appearance on "The Tonight Show" made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, "Hi, I think we met at Harry's Christmas party." The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The 12th time you do the show, you might hear, "Oh, I know you. You're that guy."

But I didn't know that. Before the show, as I stood in the backstage darkness behind the curtain of "The Tonight Show," hearing the muffled laughter while Johnny spoke and waiting for the tap on the shoulder that would tell me I was on, an italicized sentence ticker-taped through my head: "I am about to do 'The Tonight Show.'" Then I walked out onstage, started my act and thought, "I am doing 'The Tonight Show.'" I finished my act and thought, "I have just done 'The Tonight Show.'" What happened while I was out there was very similar to an alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I'm convinced it occurred.

I did the show successfully several times. I was doing material from my act, best stuff first, and after two or three appearances, I realized how little best stuff I had. After I'd gone through my stage material, I started doing some nice but oddball bits such as "Comedy Act for Dogs" (first done on "Steve Allen"), in which I said, "A lot of dogs watch TV, but there's really nothing on for them, so call your dog over and let him watch because I think you're going to see him crack up for the first time." Then I brought out four dogs "that I can perform to so I can get the timing down." While I did terrible canine-related jokes, the dogs would walk off one at a time, with the last dog lifting his leg on me. The studio audience saw several trainers out of camera range, making drastic hand signals, but the home TV audience saw only the dogs doing their canine best.

Another time I claimed that I could read from the phone book and make it funny. I opened the book and droned the names to the predictable silence, then I pretended to grow more and more desperate and began to do retro shtick such as cracking eggs on my head. I got word that Johnny was not thrilled, and I was demoted to appearing with guest hosts, which I tried not to admit to myself was a devastating blow.

For the next few years, I was on the road with an itinerary designed by the Marquis de Sade. But there was a sexy anonymity about the travel; I was living the folkie myth of having no ties to anyone, working small clubs and colleges in improvised folk rooms that were usually subterranean. In this netherworld, I was free to experiment. There were no mentors to tell me what to do; there were no guidebooks for doing stand-up. Everything was learned in practice, and the lonely road, with no critical eyes watching, was the place to dig up my boldest, or dumbest, ideas and put them onstage. After a show, preoccupied by its success or failure, I would return to my motel room and glumly watch the three TV channels sign off the air at 11:30, knowing I had at least two more hours to stare at the ceiling before the adrenaline eased off and I could fall asleep.

When necessary, I could still manage to have a personality, and sometimes I was rescued by a local girl who actually liked me. Occasionally the result was an erotic tryst enhanced by loneliness. Perhaps the women saw it as I did, an encounter free from obligation: the next day I would be gone. I had also refined my pickup technique. If I knew I would be returning to a club, I tweaked my hard-learned rule, "Never hit on a waitress the first night," to "Never hit on a waitress for six months." I came off as coolly reserved, as I would harmlessly flirt on my first visit; by my next visit, everything was in place. Soon the six months caught up with me, and I always had someone I could latch onto as I rolled from town to town.

In Los Angeles one week, I opened the show for Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour club; she sang barefoot on a raised stage and wore a silver lamé dress that stopped a millimeter below her panties, causing the floor of the club to be slick with drool. Linda and I saw each other for a while, but I was so intimidated by her talent and street smarts that, after the ninth date, she said, "Steve, do you often date girls and not try to sleep with them?" We parted chaste.

At the end of my closing-night show at the Troubadour, I stood onstage and took out five bananas. I peeled them, put one on my head, one in each pocket and squeezed one in each hand. Then I read the last line of my latest bad review: "Sharing the bill with Poco this week is comedian Steve Martin...his 25-minute routine failed to establish any comic identity that would make the audience remember him or the material." Then I walked off the stage.

The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: it was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the circumstances. Performing in so many varied situations made every predicament manageable, from Toronto, where I performed next to an active salad bar, to the well-paying but soul-killing Playboy Clubs, where I was almost but not quite able to go over. But as I continued to work, my material grew; I came up with odd little gags such as "How many people have never raised their hands before?"

Because I was generally unknown, 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 100 students in a classroom with a stage at one end. The show 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, 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 my days working in a 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.

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. My 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 an E. E. 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.

The act was becoming simultaneously smart and stupid. My version of smart was to imbue a hint of conceptualism into the whole affair: my singalong had some funny lyrics, but it was also impossible to sing along with. My version of stupid: "Oh, gosh! My sh
oelace is untied!" I would bend down, see that my shoelace was not untied, stand up and say, "Oh, I love playing jokes on myself!"

I had the plumber joke, which was impossible to understand even for plumbers: "OK, I don't like to gear my material to the audience, but I'd like to make an exception, because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in town this week—I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight—so before I came out, I worked up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren't plumbers probably won't get this and won't think it's funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this. This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job, and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom seven-inch gangly wrench. Just then this little apprentice leaned over and said, 'You can't work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom seven-inch wrench.' Well, this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, 'The Langstrom seven-inch wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.' Just then the little apprentice leaned over and says, 'It says sprocket, not socket!' [Worried pause.] "Were these plumbers supposed to be here this show?"

Around this time I smelled a rat. The rat was the Age of Aquarius. Though the era's hairstyles, clothes and lingo still dominated youth culture, by 1972 the movement was tired and breaking down. Drugs had killed people, and so had Charles Manson. The war in Vietnam was near its official end, but its devastating losses had embittered and divided America. The political scene was exhausting, and many people, including me, were alienated from government. Murders and beatings at campus protests weren't going to be resolved by sticking a daisy into the pointy end of a rifle. Flower Power was waning, but no one wanted to believe it yet, because we had all invested so much of ourselves in its message. Change was imminent.

I cut my hair, shaved my beard and put on a suit. I stripped my act of all political references. To politics I was saying, "I'll get along without you very well. It's time to be funny." Overnight, I was no longer at the tail end of an old movement but at the front end of a new one. Instead of looking like another freak with a crazy act, I now looked like a visitor from the straight world who had gone seriously awry. The act's unbridled nonsense was taking the audience—and me—on a wild ride, and my growing professionalism, founded on thousands of shows, created a subliminal sense of authority that made members of the audience feel they weren't being had.

Between 1973 and 1975, my one-man vaudeville show turned fully toward the surreal. I was linking the unlinkable, blending economy and extravagance, non sequiturs with the conventional. I was all over the place, sluicing the gold from the dirt, honing the edge that confidence brings. I cannot say I was fearless, because I was acutely aware of any audience drift, and if I sensed trouble, I would swerve around it. I believed it was important to be funny now, while the audience was watching, but it was also important to be funny later, when the audience was home and thinking about it. I didn't worry if a bit got no response, as long as I believed it had enough strangeness to linger. My friend Rick Moranis (whose imitation of Woody Allen was so precise that it made Woody seem like a faker) called my act's final manifestation "anti-comedy."

In Florida one night, I was ready to put my experience at Vanderbilt into effect. The night was balmy and I was able to take the audience outside into the street and roam around in front of the club, making wisecracks. I didn't quite know how to end the show. First I started hitchhiking; a few cars passed me by. Then a taxi came by. I hailed it and got in. I went around the block, returned and waved at the audience—still standing there—then drove off and never came back. The next morning I received one of the most crucial reviews of my life. John Huddy, the respected entertainment critic for the Miami Herald, devoted his entire column to my act. Without qualification, he raved in paragraph after paragraph, starting with HE PARADES HIS HILARITY RIGHT OUT INTO THE STREET, and concluded with: "Steve Martin is the brightest, cleverest, wackiest new comedian around." Oh, and the next night the club owner made sure all tabs had been paid before I took the audience outside.

Roger Smith had told me that when he came to Hollywood from El Paso to be an actor, he had given himself six months to get work. The time elapsed, and he packed up his car, which was parked on Sunset Boulevard, where his final audition would be. Informed that he was not right for the job, he went out and started up his car. He was about to pull away, away to El Paso, when there was a knock on his windshield. "We saw you in the hall. Would you like to read for us?" the voice said. He was then cast as the star of the hit television show "77 Sunset Strip." My review from John Huddy was the knock on the window just as I was about to get in my car and drive to a metaphorical El Paso, and it gave me a psychological boost that allowed me to nix my arbitrarily chosen 30-year-old deadline to reenter the conventional world. The next night and the rest of the week the club was full, all 90 seats.

I continued to appear on "The Tonight Show," always with a guest host, doing material I was developing on the road. Then I got a surprise note from Bob Shayne: "We had a meeting with Johnny yesterday, told him you'd been a smash twice with guest hosts, and he agrees you should be back on with him. So I think that hurdle is over." In September 1974, I was booked on the show with Johnny.

This was welcome news. Johnny had comic savvy. The daytime television hosts, with the exception of Steve Allen, did not come from comedy. I had a small routine that went like this: "I just bought a new car. It's a prestige car. A '65 Greyhound bus. You know you can get up to 30 tons of luggage in one of those babies? I put a lot of money into it....I put a new dog on the side. And if I said to a girl, 'Do you want to get in the back seat?' I had, like, 40 chances." Etc. Not great, but at the time it was working. It did, however, require all the pauses and nuance that I could muster. On "The Merv Griffin Show," I decided to use it for panel, meaning I would sit with Merv and pretend it was just chat. I began: "I just bought a new car. A '65 Greyhound bus." Merv, friendly as ever, interrupted and said, "Now, why on earth would you buy a Greyhound bus?" I had no prepared answer; I just stared at him. I thought, "Oh my God, because it's a comedy routine." And the bit was dead. Johnny, on the other hand, was the comedian's friend. He waited; he gave you your timing. He lay back and stepped in like Ali, not to knock you out but to set you up. He struggled with you too and sometimes saved you.

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next 30 years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, "You'll use everything you ever knew." He was right; 20 years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie ¡Three Amigos!

Johnny once joked in his monologue: "I announced that I was going to write my autobiography, and 19 publishers went out and copyrighted the title Cold and Aloof." This was the common perception of him. But Johnny was not aloof; he was polite. He did not presume intimate relationships where there were none; he took time, and with time grew trust. He preserved his dignity by maintaining the personality that was appropriate for him.

Johnny enjoyed the delights of split-second timing, of watching a comedian squirm and then rescue himself, of the surprises that can arise in the seconds of desperation when the comedian senses that his joke might fall to silence. For my first show back, I chose to do a bit I had developed years earlier. I speed-talked a Vegas nightclub act in two minutes. Appearing on the show was Sammy Davis Jr., who, while still performing energetically, had also become a historic showbiz figure. I was whizzing along, singing a four-second version of "Ebb Tide," then saying at lightning speed, "Frank Sinatra personal friend of mine Sammy Davis Jr. personal friend of mine Steve Martin I'm a personal friend of mine too and now a little dancin'!" I started a wild flail, which I must say was pretty funny, when a showbiz miracle occurred. The camera cut away to a dimly lit Johnny, just as he whirled up from his chair, doubling over with laughter. Suddenly, subliminally, I was endorsed. At the end of the act, Sammy came over and hugged me. I felt like I hadn't been hugged since I was born.

This was my 16th appearance on the show, and the first one I could really call a smash. The next day, elated by my success, I walked into an antiques store on La Brea. The woman behind the counter looked at me.

"Are you that boy who was on "The Tonight Show" last night?"

"Yes," I said.

"Yuck!" she blurted out.

Watch Steve Martin's groundbreaking 1974 appearance on "The Tonight Show" with host Johnny Carson and guest Sammy Davis Jr.
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