Notes on language from Steve Martin

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’.

Steve Martin - Born Standing Up - A Comic's Life - book coverOne last item concerns punchlines. In a psychology class Martin had read how laughs were generated when a storyteller created tension and then released it with a punchline.

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.

15 Responses to Notes on language from Steve Martin

  1. Fascinating. You convinced me to go out and buy the book. I have been a fan of Steve Martin since his early days on Saturday Night Live. Not everyone understood him. Great post.
    thelonelyauthorblog

  2. mazblast says:

    Tell a good joke, and the audience will know when to laugh, without an indicator. Tell a bad joke, and perhaps they’ll have to find their own place to laugh. Be a lazy (but heavily hyped and/or oft-televised) comedian, and you can get away with the latter. In his stand-up days, Martin was sometimes good but often a little lazy, unlike most of his peers, who were generally lazy.

    The trend continues today, with many “comedians” often doing little more than pause, expecting reflexive laughter from an audience trained on canned laughter and unfunny writing.

    I often get this when I go to “comedy” shows with friends (I love nothing more than GOOD comedy)–

    “Why weren’t you laughing?”
    “I didn’t hear anything funny.”
    “So?”
    “I don’t feel obligated to laugh. It’s the performer’s job to get me to laugh, not my job to make the performer feel good by offering up laughter when there’s nothing funny.”

  3. Steve Martin’s first three comedy albums, “Let’s Get Small”, “A Wild and Crazy Guy”, and “Comedy is Not Pretty”, are wonderful to listen to, just to hear the subtleties of language that he employs.

    Let’s Get Small

    A Wild and Crazy Guy

    Comedy is Not Pretty

    The language is just beautiful throughout.

    Steve eventually quit standup because he got too popular. That’s right — he quit because he got too popular. He was selling out basketball arenas; and you can’t engage in subtleties for crowds of 20,000 people. But in these albums, we hear him in clubs, where his humour works best.

    I have a favourite bit of Steve’s; but I don’t remember on which of these albums it is. He says:

    “I just bought my own form of private transportation. Landed it out here at the airport. And it’s not easy *landing* a station wagon *out* here at the airport.”

    The emphasis on those words “landing” and “out” — especially “out” — is beautiful. It’s music.

  4. Kat says:

    I read this book for a psychology class … fascinating stuff! :)

  5. Debunker says:

    I have to admit, I never really liked him much. Apart from the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. That was wonderful!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I was always more familiar with him from films than stand-up: The Jerk, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Roxanne, Parenthood, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles were family favourites at one time or another, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a technical marvel as well as good comedic entertainment. But some other of his films did nothing for me, and comedy is such an unpredictable thing between people.

  6. elizdanjou says:

    Steve Martin is full of surprises. Add interesting language commentator to comedian, banjo player, and — really — Canadian art expert.
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/lawren-harris-steve-martin-1.3265270

  7. Greg says:

    “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.”

    This is really disappointing prescriptivism. A pity that people think there is something obligatory or attractive about talking ‘proper’, and that they force themselves to conform to such baseless notions.

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