Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gern Blanston: Comic Genius

I didn't just read Steve Martin's new book, Born Standing Up; I devoured it. Martin is always a bit restrained these days—as if overcompensating for the "wild and crazy guy" of the '70s—but he offers just enough about his life and comic thinking to make the book an irresistible read.

The insights into Martin's craft are subtle but fascinating: At one point early in his standup career, he read a book about comedy that blandly described a joke as "a setup that builds tension, followed by a punch line that offers release." At that point, Martin thought: What if you provided a series of obvious setups with no obvious punchlines? The tension would have to release itself somehow, sometime…

At another point early in his career, Martin realized that he wasn't so much "doing comedy" as playing a character doing comedy. That ironic distance, combined with his intellectual love of philosophy and logic, which translated into his brilliant use of absurdity, are what allowed him to refine his act and make it work. (Like any groundbreaking craftsman or artist, it took many frustrating years for the audience to catch up with the performer.)

A golden family tidbit: Martin's father was a wannabe performer—a singer who never made it and was bitter for years. A key moment in Martin's childhood was the day his father, at the height of that bitterness, went too far in giving him the belt. Their relationship was never the same. Martin claims not to have known about his father's desire to be a performer until long after he had become famous, but I don't believe him. What better way to get revenge on his father than to become the famous performer he had failed to become? (It reminds me of Joe Eszterhaus, who claims not to have known that his father, Istvan, was a Nazi sympathizer until after he wrote the movie "Music Box," about a lawyer who defends her father against accusations of war crimes.)

P.S. For those of you who don't get the reference in my title, Steve Martin used to "admit" in his old standup act that his real name was Gern Blanston. His real name was actually... Steve Martin.

And now, The Great Flydini.

6 comments:

The Wordman said...

"At that point, Martin thought: What if you provided a series of obvious setups with no obvious punchlines? The tension would have to release itself somehow, sometime…"

this is the same thing Richard Wagner was doing with his musical composition: chords in his mature operas never cadence but always miss the expected "release"... until the very end of the piece, after all the principle characters are dead.

fortunately for most people, Steve Martin is a lot funnier than Wagner.

Marc Conklin said...

Are you kidding? Wagner was f***ing hilarious! (Especially in National Lampoon's Vacation.)

The Wordman said...

Herr W is a real laff-a-minute --

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob-maaQlmxQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV43HVl59c0

(YouTube doesn't seem to offer the "funniest" scene in the Ring operas, which is in Act 3 Sc 2 of Siegfried -- it's where Siegfried takes off the breastplate of the sleeping Brunnhilde and shouts "This isn't a man!")

do you think Steve Martin knew about Wagner's theory of unending tonality? I bet if you hummed a few bars he could dance to it...

mike said...

Conk, that Martin clip had me doubling over with laughter in the office...thanks for posting it.

Vegas Gopher said...

Trying to outdo the old man has led to some real tragic consequences over the years. Fortunately, it's turned out better for Steve Martin than it did for Barry Bonds or George W. Bush.

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