Yes, that Steve Martin. I just read Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, his engaging account of his early years as a stand-up comedian and gag writer for TV, and I’d like to share a few short passages that relate to language.
On one of his endless trips around America as an aspiring freelance comic, Martin began taping his shows with a cassette recorder ‘in case I ad-libbed something wonderful’. This led to his abandoning a routine in which he drank a couple of glasses of wine, because when listening to the tape later he could hear himself slurring. He never drank alcohol before or during a show again.
He also made another significant change based on reviewing the tapes:
Texas-born and California-raised, I realized I was dropping my “ings” – runnin’, walkin’, and talkin’ – and I worked like Eliza Doolittle to elevate my speech. It was a struggle; at first I thought I sounded pretentious and unnatural. But I did it, though now and then I slip back into my natural way of speakin’.
It’s an interesting insight into conscious accent change and the perceptions that surround different varieties of speech.
Earlier, when he was attending college (studying philosophy), Martin took a logic class and discovered Lewis Carroll’s academic side in the form of syllogisms such as:
1. No affected poetry is popular among people of taste.
2. Only a modern poem would be on the subject of soap bubbles.
3. No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
4. No modern poetry is free from affectation.
5. All your poems are on the subject of soap bubbles.
Therefore, all your poems are uninteresting.
These logical word games ‘bothered and intrigued’ the comedian, while also inspiring him creatively:
Appearing to be silly nonsense, on examination they were absolutely logical – yet they were still funny. The comedy doors opened wide, and Lewis Carroll’s clever fancies from the nineteenth century expanded my notion of what comedy could be. I began closing my show by announcing, “I’m not going home tonight; I’m going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two; no chairs are green.”
This was not at Carroll’s level, as Martin admits, but he says it worked for his contemporaries and he ‘loved implying that the one thing I believed in was a contradiction’.
He noticed that some comedians could generate laughter in audiences even when their punchlines were unintelligible, because they signalled the line with a vocal tic (Bob Hope’s ‘But I wanna tell ya’) or with a physical indicator (Jack E. Leonard would slap his stomach). Audiences were thereby cued to laugh along regardless.
Reflecting on this as a comedian and a fan of comedy, he found that the formula bothered him because of the kind of laugh it elicited: ‘a vocal acknowledgement that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song’.
These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? . . . What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.
On a semi-related note, see my earlier post on contagious laughter.