Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting small in a big way

I just read Steve Martin's 2007 memoir BORN STANDING UP and encourage anybody creative to read it also, if you have not already.

If you're under, say 30, I don't know if it is possible to fully grasp the phenomenal sensation that his standup routines created in the mid 1970's. Like a lot of ephemeral pop entertainment, in hindsight the act itself doesn't pack the wallop it did at the time, though it is all still very funny. But for about five or six years, he was the life of the global party: the man of the moment; someone considered so uproariously funny that just to quote a fragment of one of his routines would invoke a kind of dizzy cheer. His act was so vivid, broad and delirious that somehow, he seemed oddly like a member of the family hiding behind the persona of a nearly innocent goof who might in fact be insanely smart.

If George Carlin hadn't used the title first, Steve Martin's  act could have been called OCCUPATION: FOOL,  (to me Carlin always seemed more of a pissed-off contrarian and nobody's fool); from the late 1960's on, Steve Martin's genial clowning had been a kind of staple of TV shows from supporting roles on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS and SONNY & CHER to regular appearances on THE TONIGHT SHOW, all of which he documents here. Somewhere around the advent of his first SNL hosting gigs, his humor caught the general imagination and funnybone of the country in a way most performers can only dream about. It was a kind of harmonic event in media culture: the medium had finally caught up with what he was doing just as he was perfecting it. His stand up was a kind of sly, meta-comedy: full of corny old props, dated banjo music and general foolishness, but with a cerebral edge that drew attention to the inherent absurdity of performing in general, while simultaneously genuinely loving the corniest things about it. He made fun of performing while being terribly funny at it, with ebullient and childlike energy that it was infectious.

Interestingly, he catalogs the nearly two decades of relentless effort he spent "rehearsing" for his seemingly "overnight success" with a kind of refreshing candor : there is discouragement, anxiety (in the extreme sometimes), flashes of insight followed by long dry spells,  his foibles and faults as a person and a performer are all touched upon. None of this seems indulgent, instead he is generous with his debt to various contemporaries on the way up.  Very interesting to me is the fact that although he admits being initially inspired as a child by famous comedians like Jack Benny, he spends far more ink paying tribute to the unsung, unknown, or largely obscure theme park entertainers he first worked with as a teen in Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, which suggests that he was innately as influenced by these talented unknowns as much if not more than any superstar.  At another point he documents a couple of salient bits of advice he picked up from a musty instructional pamphlet for budding magicians that are like lighting bolts even to read them today.

If any of this is applicable to cartooning and art in general, I suggest these two nuggets:

1.) that his own innate talent may have made his peak form seem effortless, but that was teased out one grain at a time over a long, long haul of trial and error that might seem familiar to anyone learning any creative trade. Even as he became something of a "name", prior to becoming a "somebody" he was basically a "nobody."  Giving up seemed like a viable option at several points, even immeidately before his stupendous headliner status. At that point, he then seemed to onlookers like me to be a thriving working minor comedy star; he was in fact, laboring diligently to stay barely afloat by working literally anywhere he could and continuing to both technically and creatively grope towards higher standards he set for himself. When his break finally came and his style gelled you get the feeling he certainly had earned his success. And it seems clear that he was aiming for creative success first and foremost, and not merely for fame.

2.): The amount of praise he has for his early mentors as a theme park "cast member" is genuine but it also indicates that he was building his core concepts, attitudes and values from talented folks he actually knew and liked and admired, even though they were far from famous. In doing so, he was either consciously or unconsciously forging a more original path than someone who might have been more inclined to primarily copy famous comedians everybody already knew and loved. To the extent he is aware of this, he says at one point that early on he realized that he would have to stop relying on old well-worn bits cribbed from over-exposed jokebooks and find his own comic voice. He admits this was not an easy revelation either, but it was necessary. In the same breath, he notes the importance of originality, which is also a hallmark of what made him inimitable as a comedian. I think in cartooning, there is a tendency to hew too closely to the established cannon (I like to call them "The Usual Suspects"), which tends to make the gene pool seem thinner than it needs to be.

This is a reminder to me, at least, and hopefully anyone else thinking about it, that while copying our heroes is natural and often a useful exercise, overdoing it can lead to mannerism as opposed to a genuine process. Inventing your own process is difficult and often discouraging because you are forced to discover by trial and error, but if you have the tenacity to endure it, (as opposed to simple stubbornness), it can be very rewarding.
(thanks Robin!)


Rooniman said...

I can see the similarites that stand-up has with cartooning. I'll have to order this book sometime.

Mike said...

You dunno how important originality in the face of adversity is to me right now. Thanks a bunch, Will.

Eric Scales said...

Sounds like a great read. My favorite Steve Martin quote is "Be so good they can't ignore you". That's about the most brilliant strategy for success I've ever heard anyone say. Not, "Go to college" "Learn this program" "Study Hard" etc... it's Martin's version of "Just Do It". Personally speaking, for so much of my life, I was subconciously planning to get lucky career-wise - I was gonna be the guy who while maybe not the most talented, knew somebody, or the guy who's modest talent and great timing got him a fabulous job. Don't get me wrong, I tried hard, but not as hard as I could have. I never tried to be the best, only to hope that what I did was enough. In recent years my philophy's changed, but I wish I had been able to take this quote to heart earlier in life. My earlier delusions of how it was all going to work out led to a lot of emotional ups and downs- waiting to hear about an opportunity and then when the news was negative, planning to wait out the dry period until the next chance. In retrospect, I just wasn't good enough. I generally know now, when I'm trying to land freelance work, or applying somewhere, what my chances really are. I know when I'm so good that they can't ignore me, and I know when I'm counting on good timing and knowing the right people. I won't shun the latter, but I'm less disappointed nowadays when I don't get something that was a long shot to begin with.

Stephen Worth said...

I remember making a point of going to the Main Street magic shop when I was a teen to see "the guy in the top hat". Even then, he put on a great act. (he was a bit cranky at times too as I remember.)

Rich T. said...

What a great post, Will! The book's on Kindle: I'm definitely going to give it a read.

Mick said...

quite right... we must continue