Being Funny- page 3 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(Joe McNally)

Being Funny

How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together

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(Continued from page 2)

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.

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