I just finished reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up – a comic’s life, an honest and direct memoir about his youth and early life experiences which shaped the development of his unique comedic style. The book covers the time from his childhood through to his 30’s when he walked away from stage performing to do movies and other media. I am old enough to remember the phenomenon that was Steve Martin at his stand-up peak, having reached teenage awareness with liberal and progressive enough parents who allowed me to watch Saturday Night Live and got cable with HBO. No one who (over)used the catch phrases ‘Well excuuuuuse me!” or “I’m a wild and crazy guy!” or dropped a “Grandpa bought a rubber…..duck” in conversation can forget Martin’s truly novel and paradigm shattering form of expression – it hardly does it justice now to call it simply comedy or entertainment.
It is not my intention to give a full fledged review of this book. I’d like, rather, to partially examine something in the book that surprised me and is relevant to our PEL universe – Steve Martin studied philosophy in college during his ‘formative’ years and attributes a certain amount of influence to the discipline on his development. Although this is not a typical ‘reading’ and the topic might be somewhat unorthodox, I consider discussing Philosophy & Comedy perfectly legitimate and this a suitable text for the endeavor.
It starts, of course, with a woman. A young love named Stormie suggests that Steve read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Martin sees the book as a quest for “[u]niversal, final, unquestionable knowledge.” That combined with the book’s glorification of learning inspires Martin to enroll in Long Beach State College (aka California State University at Long Beach) and major in Philosophy. While studying metaphysics, ethics and logic, Martin was building the core of his act at the Bird Cage in Knott’s Berry Farm and branches out to the aptly named venue, The Prison of Socrates, where he needs to expand his act. He gets exposed to Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May and Tom Lehrer through a friend.
The combination of these elements convinces Martin that he needs to be ‘original’ and all his existing material needs to be expunged. One approach to achieve this is observational humor with a twist – relate things that he’s seen that make him laugh as though they happened to him. Another is absurdist – do a dramatic reading of the periodic table of the elements. A third, and for this discussion the most important, is word play inspired by his study of logic.
Martin discovers during a logic class that Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was a logician. Playing with the syllogistic form, he creates nonsensical demonstrations of the form which strike Martin as funny. The example he provides:
1) Babies are illogical
2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile
3) Illogical persons are despised.
Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
Finding the humor in word play and logic – precisely the opposition of logic and humor – opens up Martin’s conception of what comedy can be. He introduces logic and language inspired bits into his act (he even makes a reference to Wittgenstein later in the book – the ultimate gamer of logic and language) and launches what he sees as a new avant garde form of comedy.
Maintaining the elements of word play and logical form are what kept Martin’s style from being strictly observational or, at the other extreme, absurdist. Consider his bit about getting “small”. Martin would use the (at the time) counter-culture language of getting ‘high’, but substitute the word and concept of “small” for “high”. Martin would immediately create a sense of displacement for the audience by inviting them into the bit with a familiar grammar and dialogue, but then removing and replacing the central conceptual element. E.g. ‘the other day I got soooo small, I wasn’t sure I could drive.’ The audience couldn’t be sure if he was trying to introduce a new euphemism for being stoned, or if he really meant ‘small’. He might then talk about having trouble reaching the steering wheel and pantomime standing on the seat reaching way above his head with both arms to drive.
The audience would realize he was ‘literally’ talking about being small and not stoned, but by maintaining the grammar of the stoner language and being faithful to the logic of the discussion and the conceptual substitution, he never fell into simple absurdism. The audience either didn’t get what he was doing (there’s no ‘joke’) or they were forced to make the conceptual leap with him. At that point it was either a funny ride, or perhaps an amusing curiosity. He even admits that he didn’t exactly know what he was developing or whether people would get on board – they did, although it took him years to establish himself and his comedic identity in mainstream media and venues.
There are other examples of how Martin used language and logical form to disrupt audience expectations such as his ‘Grandmother’s Song’, which starts out like a ditty about good behavior, etc. and moves to bizarre and nonsensical advice (‘be tasteless, rude and offensive…Put a live chicken in your underwear’) or when entering a stage say ‘It’s great to be here!’ and then run to another spot on the stage, ‘No, here!’ or ‘It’s great to be here!’ Martin understood – at least in part by virtue of his philosophical studies – how to disrupt conceptual norms using language and grammar to comedic effect.
The key for Martin was to be clever while maintaining intellectual and performance discipline, which he did, helping to usher in a new wave of comedic entertainment (think Saturday Night Live) and the era of comedy as a legitimate, stand-alone art form. Born Standing Up is enjoyable and an easy read, with perhaps less detail about his later material and emotional entanglements than I would have liked to have seen but as a case study in Philosophy & Comedy it delivers enough for our purposes here. There is much more obviously about his musical influences and background in magic that I do not mention, but I strongly encourage you to check it out for yourself.
I would welcome other suggestions for readings/people to discuss along this line of thought.