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I don’t think most Steve Martin fans understand what he has done, but I do. I want to share with you what I regard as the highest-risk career strategy that I have ever seen. It worked. I find it hard to believe, but it worked.
I am not a big fan of Steve Martin’s brand of comedy. I just don’t get it. It is not that I have not given him a chance to win me over. I have. But, after 45 years, I still don’t get it.
I first saw him perform at the Golden Bear, what in those days was called a folk music club. It was in Huntington Beach in Orange County, California. That was back in 1967.
I remember him very well – amazingly well. His performance was that memorable. I had gone to see a friend perform, Steve Gillette. His album had just been released by Vanguard. His song, Back on the Street Again, had been a big hit for the Sunshine Company that year. He was building a following in the region. He was the headliner. Martin was the filler.
Martin stood in front of the crowd with a banjo strapped around his neck. I kept waiting for him to play the banjo. He kept talking. I initially thought he was a banjo player who was filling time by trying to be funny. After about ten minutes, I finally figured out that he was a comedian in training who was using a banjo as a prop. The banjo was his ticket to get on stage in a folk music club.
He picked the banjo a little. Not many people can do a solo banjo act. Peter Seeger could. I can’t think of anyone else.
Martin also pulled out some balloons. He blew them up and made some balloon figures. It was like attending a third-grade birthday party with a clown who was not wearing make-up or funny shoes.
I watched him march up the fame ladder, beginning in the mid-1970s.
What I did not perceive in 1967 was that he was self-consciously trying to create a new kind of comedy: comedy with no punch lines. He developed this into a fine art. Wikipedia describes his transformation, when he was in college.
Martin recalls wondering in a psychology class "What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? 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."
I never did get desperate, so it didn’t work for me. My problem is that I prefer comedy with punch lines, or at least wry humor. I even appreciate satire. But I remain a sucker for a punch line.
I liked his sight gags. I at least understood the balloons. I thought All of Me was funny, because he used his ability to do rubber-body sight gags. Also, it helped that he was teamed up with Lilly Tomlin, who is very funny. His appearance on Johnny Carson’s final show as "The Great Flydini" was creative. But it was basically a series of sight gags with a peculiar twist. His cameo in Little Shop of Horrors was clever, because he played a sadistic singing dentist. I got it. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was amusing because Michael Caine is a great straight man (and great anything else). But I had trouble getting the jokes in Bowfinger. I had the same problem with The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
I became a believer only about two years ago. I finally got it. Steve Martin’s entire career was a build-up for the most memorable punch line in the history of stand-up comedy.
For over 40 years, he practiced playing his banjo in private. Then, without warning, he came clean. He has finally started touring with his music. He no longer tries to make us laugh. And let me tell you, he is really good on the banjo. I would pay to hear him play. I just hope he doesn’t add much patter in between songs. A little is OK – about as much as his banjo playing in 1967.
No one would pay to hear him play the banjo if he had not become famous with his comedy. He used comedy as a career marketing tool. It took 45 years, but it worked.
He was never a comedian using a banjo as a prop. He was a banjo player using comedy as a prop. He just needed time to perfect his banjo skills.
We have all heard about actors who wait on tables for years while they work in actors’ studio in the hope of getting a big break in the movies. Martin worked in the movies for years in order to get a big break playing banjo. "Gotcha!"
I get it! The joke’s on me!
I regard this as a long-term career marketing strategy like no other. It deserves to be a case study at the Harvard Business School.
ON BEING REALLY GOOD
Cal Newport recently earned a Ph.D. in computer science from M.I.T. He is famous these days because of his website, which explores the crucial issue of finding your life’s work. His new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is based on an interview of Martin by Charlie Rose. This is from Newport’s site.
"Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear," Martin said. "What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ "
In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: "If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you."
This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored. "Comedy at the time was all setup and punch line . . . the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat," Martin explained to Rose. He thought it could be something more sophisticated. It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. It’s clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his eventual fame, and the compelling life it generated. "[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there’s a confidence that comes out," Martin explained. "I think it’s something the audience smells."
I had two problems with Martin’s humor back in 1967. First, I was seeing him perform in the early stage of his career. Second, I just did not get it. Within a decade, a generation of comedy lovers got it, once he had perfected his act. For example, they found the arrow through the head routine incredibly funny. Rose introduced his interview with a clip. Then he added the Czech guys skit, and the King Tut song and dance routine.