Being Funny

How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together

(Joe McNally)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

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!


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus