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Me & Steve Martin at The Troubadour

By Mary McCray, March 3, 2013

They all say Generation Xers love irony in our literature and popular entertainments; we love “wink-wink” kitche; we love high camp; we love meta-texts (texts that are self-aware and self-referential). Everyone points to our love of The Brady Bunch (and other now-campy shows of its era) as evidence of this phenomenon, a particular indicator which never felt especially accurate to me. After all, the first time we poured over Brady Bunch re-runs after school during our pre-teen years, we loved it. We loved it straight on without a smidgeon of irony. Bad 1960s TV for adults evolved into swell recycled kids television in the 1970s. We thought The Brady Bunch was a well-executed, highly engaging, plot-driven dramedy. And we didn’t appreciate the show on any other level until the various TV reunion specials appeared in the 1980s. Then we realized it was bad; but we still loved it because we didn’t want to let it go; and irony allowed you to keep loving things that were really bad. So...(and this is important), we loved it both ironically and with a chaser-kick of sincere nostalgic love. Let’s not kid ourselves, Xers. When we ironically like The Brady Bunch, we are also aiming that disparaging irony back on ourselves for loving it the first time.

Those among us who became writers and lit readers took this love of loving things ironically and made heroes out of writers like Douglas Copeland (especially for his recognition of us in his novel Generation X), David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. Dave Eggers seemed the boldest in his performance of meta-writing. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was packed to the rafters with self-awareness.

Before he died, David Foster Wallace gave a reading at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles where he made an unexpected plea for a return to sincerity. We had gone so far with irony, he said. Maybe he thought we had lost emotion, had lost heart. The story he read, "Incarnations of Burned Children" from the short story collection Oblivion: Stories (2004). epitomized tragic sincerity and his point made a deep impression on me. I wondered how my generation of writers set off on this track of "high-plains-irony" we sometimes call post modernism, following on the works of novelists like John Barth.

For Xers, was it really all because of The Brady Bunch?

Ape Culture’s co-editor, Julie Wiskirchen, came to visit me in Santa Fe a few weekends ago and she brought me the new Steve Martin box set of his early TV appearances and specials, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff. The bulk of the material ranges from 1976 to 1982. After watching it, I now propose that Steve Martin introduced Generation Xers to a new type of humor that included large doses of meta-performance and irony. At least I’d like to propose that’s where irony started for me.

I grew up in a house of boys. At least the boys in our house, my two older brothers and my father, were the ones defining exceptional culture for me. And growing up, there were a handful of things they dubbed supremely sublime: Monty Python, Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, Andy Kaufman in guest appearances (not in Taxi) and Steve Martin comedy albums.

Ever since my early dinner-side education in pop culture, I’ve both appreciated and been frustrated by Steve Martin. To this point, his grand entrance in a ketchup-bottle costume for his All Commercials special is significant to me in two ways: first of all, he performed in that ketchup costume with an irony that was hilarious (this was no common dancer running around as a ketchup bottle on stage…he sold it); and secondly, you would never see him do these kinds of antics post Roxanne.

This DVD retrospective of Martin’s earliest material not only reminded me how brilliant the early Steve Martin character was, but how influential I believe his comedy has been for ironic Generation X writers who love to work with high/lowbrow mash-ups and meta-texts.

Are we allowed to deconstruct comedy?

Mimicking the popular refrain among comedians, even the booklet in The Television Stuff DVD begs off the idea that we could ever deconstruct comedy or even explain it. It’s so ephemeral and mysterious. The old mantra is dragged out: “If you have to explain it, it ‘aint funny.” I’ve always felt this was highly disingenuous to claim one could not deconstruct comedy, unless it is to say we can only deconstruct anything just so far. At some point you hit that specialness factor, the personality of a thing, charisma, the elusive “IT.” Many artists love to deny the possibility of deconstruction. The most annoying example I’ve come across was from the poet Albert Goldbarth who sat on a poetry panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Now, Goldbarth is one of my favorite poets and he was attending the festival as a nominee for a book prize—which he did not win. Maybe due to an obligation he was placed on this poetry panel where he grouchily combated all questions put to him on the basis that he absolutely never deconstructed his own work, that it was impossible, pointless, a crime against nature. I can’t remember all he said. It was a small room and I was tempted to stand up and walk right out. But because I’m a wuss and one of my other favorite poets, Mark Doty, was still there to offer his heartfelt and astute deconstructions, I figured why make a scene? In any case, I did wonder what the hell Goldbarth was doing in a panel on poetry wasting our time. We attend these panels to hear deconstructing commentary on books. Who needs a party pooper?

And you can deconstruct anything. Let’s start with painting. At the moment, I work at an art school. Teachers here are very plainly deconstructing basic composition in their beginning classes. Locally in Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe museum they are using digital imaging to X-ray her paintings in order to see her underlying sketches beneath the layers of paint. Why would we do this if not to deconstruct her process?

Likewise, poems and fiction are a joy to dissemble for a lit geek like me. It must feel like taking apart a sewing machine or a clock for a mechanic-minded sort of thinker. Steve Martin deconstructs his own comedy and magic, not only as he performed it but while he was devising it. In The Television Stuff DVD commentary, Martin says he realized early on audiences liked a magic act better when the magic tricks failed. And here is where a deconstructing-geek like me meets a Generation X sensibility: Steve Martin’s early comedy not only deconstructs as it plays, but he chides deconstructing itself in meta-performance. In "The Comedians Segment" with Paul Simon, David Letterman, aul Simon, David Letterman, Alan King and Henny Youngman, he illustrates this as the others try to ply Steve Martin for the basic rules of comedy.

This is what meta-performance means to me (as taught to me by the old master, early Steve Martin): you can deconstruct while you create, taking the piss out of your honest love of intellectualizing shit. And deconstructing can be fun. It’s not just for dry, highbrow college professors anymore. We are now free to deconstruct pop culture.

Meta-performance and Irony

Everyone remembers the Wild and Crazy Guy album (1978, with the white suit and rabbit ears) and the Steve Martin Universal Amphitheater concert special appearing around the same time. It was the apex of Steve Martin’s success as a stadium-filling mega-comedian. But his 1976 On Location performance at the Troubadour is actually more illustrative of a heady meta-performance at a small venue. The way Steve Martin interacts and buffoons the mechanics of stage performing (chronic troubles with his microphones, the spotlight direction gag), the way he satirizes the out-of-town performer schmoozing locals (all the more ironic since he was raised in Southern California), the way he spoofs the lifestyle of a performer…all this is fresh-faced irony for the young impressionable Gen-X minds who were watching. In his commentary, Martin admits he originally found the usage of his various props to be ironically funny (the rabbit ears, the arrow through the head, taking pictures of the audience with a cheap camera). Martin interestingly does a spoof of a typical Las Vegas act including a mocking of the fake celebrity friend introduction: “I would like to introduce a very good friend of mine…” a bit that predates the same gag used with recurring gravitas in the Bob Fosse movie All That Jazz three years later.

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

Generation Xers love nothing if not pulling some lowbrow into our highbrow. Was it too heartbreaking to leave our lowbrow interests behind when we entered college and were asked to grow up and explicate high literature and art? Maybe to cope, we started explicating pop culture: MTV and TV shows. Steve Martin’s early comedic use of props and his critiques of “celebrity lifestyle” easily conflated high and low sensibilities. He took lowbrow material and made sophisticated philosophical meta-commentary of it. Our subsequent reading of his comedy as art at all conflated the high/low dichotomy.

Let’s just take the balloon animal bit, Steve Martin’s creations of nonsensical forms and naming them “puppy dog” and “venereal disease.” This was not only a lowbrow spoofing of a circus antic but a highbrow appreciation of abstractions.

In his special All Commercials (1980), Martin spoofs commercials in the vein of old Carol Burnett shows. He even does a pastiche of Burnett’s segment where a generic character’s life becomes overrun by ad-men popping out of bathtubs and kitchen cabinets, driving him to madness. Martin fills in the show with a few funny international commercials as well. In his commentary, the one thing Martin highlights is how ironic the skits were trying to be but how the show instead influenced a proliferation of non-ironic“Best of Commercials” specials.

But beyond this, All Commercials is truly before its time, commenting on the obscurity of meaning in feminine product ads (and revealing the sexist undertone present), ridiculing the over-the-top theatrics of local ads, and commenting on the idea of “conspicuous consumption” before the term became an academic household word. One segment shows the disturbing trend of self-help culture, predicting it would evolve into one of violent narcissism (chillingly mirroring the rationales we now hear from narcissistic murderers). He also predicts the absurd proliferation of celebrity endorsed products with Truman Capote Jeans.

Even the singular moment of “real” entertainment, the performance by The Dirt Band, (who I have always confused with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), gets treated ironically when Steve Martin vamps the girl’s part of the song. All Commercials even takes a bite out of one-man shows.

One of my favorite segments is the “meat or potatoes” spoof (in our libertine house, we never had to choose) where the silly remark “I never knew that about you” is led to devastating conclusions for the husband and wife pair being interrogated. What else don’t you know? Toward the end of the show, a segment about advertising agencies working negatives into positives with cynical and artful manipulations foreshadows how we now live with public relations repositioning all our products and all our politicians.

Steve Martin even makes use of meta- performance during the final credits. It’s what would become a veritable Dave-Eggers mantra of meta-irony, (as seen on every aspect of his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, down to the ironic copyright page), everything is fodder and nothing is wasted.

The Saturday Night Live Problem

There’s a SNL cadence to the All Commercials special. Saturday Night Live, in my mind, is both a blessing and curse in the career of Steve Martin. In the DVD commentary, Martin explains that it was his appearances on SNL that really exploded ticket sales for his stand-up shows, turning them into outright comedy concerts. But I also feel it was his partnership with SNL that slowly snuffed-out his lovable, ironic idiot character in favor of a more cool-faced, knowing, social-elitist that in some ways mirrors the sensibilities of the virgin SNL cast.

In the DVD commentary, Steve Martin explains how he believed he was the caretaker of the new (read ironic) comedy of the mid-1970s and how dismayed he felt when he saw SNL doing the same schtick. As for myself, I only watched SNL sporadically in the 1970s. I was too young. I don’t know, possibly my brothers watched early SNL with their friends. But I never heard either of them extol its virtues. Not once. My generation of SNL was the mid-1980s cast with members like Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller and later, the uber-brilliant ironist Phil Hartman. Phil Hartman was the epitome of intellectual meta-comedy for me and my friends. But Phil Hartman’s characters (similar to Steve Martin’s original fool) had what Martin’s later all-knowing, bitter aloof character did not have: Hartman characters let us in on the joke; his characters were inclusive. At the end of the day (and this matters), we felt those characters liked us.

Steve Martin’s TV special Best Show Ever (1981) is interesting in two ways: for one, it shows his ever-slight move towards the cool-kids, SNL sensibility; and two, it’s not his best show ever. The show’s vibe is entirely borrowed-SNL. It’s got most of the SNL cast. It’s directed by Lorne Michaels. It includes SNL’s signature fake commercials, the Wild & Crazy Guys sketch, SNL’s own announcer guy and the SNL go-to-commercial headshot cards. And just like SNL, the sketches go on way too long. The thing doesn’t even have Steve Martin's expert pacing. I would argue it’s not the best Steve Martin special because it’s not a Steve Martin special. It’s a prime time SNL special with Steve Martin as the guest host. It’s a typical SNL show a half hour short.

I will say the segment “Suckers Showcase” does foreshadow cruel reality show contests. And the segment with the concerto is a good satirizing of the tensions between high and lowbrow art. I’m sure the Elephant Man sketch was funny at the time. Maybe the “meta” working is in the marketing. This is Steve Martin’s best show ever simply because he says it is.

Steve Martin’s meta/irony comedy was definitely seen as lowbrow in the 1970s and early 1980s, continuing through to his early film work with the short film The Absent Minded Waiter with Teri Garr and Buck Henry, Carl Reiner’s The Jerk (1979), The Man With Two Brains (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984).

Steve Martin made attempts to go “straighter” with films like Pennies from Heaven (1981) but it wasn’t until his self-penned movie Roxanne (1987) that a more sincere tone emerged. And this is where I disconnected from the Steve Martin oeuvre. I found Roxanne slightly dull and I didn’t love All of Me (1984) but I was almost back in with Plains, Trains and Automobies (1987), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and Parenthood (1989).

It wasn’t that Steve Martin was betraying us with his straight, mainstream comedy (by day) and writing highbrow plays and short stories (by night). It was that something had changed on that other meta level. Although meta-irony was not gone for good (as his later SNL appearances would show), but the tone had changed, or the delivery system for the meta/irony (the created character) had morphed. Gone was the idiot we loved. We now received irony from the bitter, knowing, insider-elitist guy. It was all in jest, of course. And he was always funny, to be sure. But something was missing.

Things looked hopeful with Bowfinger 1999) and later with bits of L.A. Story (1991). But by the Father of the Bride series (1991, 1995) and Bringing Down the House (2003) and The Pink Panther remakes (2006, 2009), things got horrifying (and not in the good ironic way). Bringing Down the House was the worst, most pandering, borderline racist (why didn’t Martin end up with Queen Latifa, by the way?) dreck imaginable.

Where was our beloved idiot? And would a wise man have made Bringing Down the House? Maybe Steve Martin was answering this question for us. Maybe there’s a meta-layer we had not yet recognized. Maybe he has been underscoring the originality of his meta-idiot all this time simply by abandoning him. How post-modern would that be?

Some would argue that early fans of a comedian are always unhappy when that artist grows into more sophisticated stylings. "Let him grow, man!" This is the Woody Allen argument. And I completely disagree with it in this case.

It’s true, some Woody Allen fans like my Dad only appreciate the early slapstick comedy movies like Bananas (1971). But I’m not one of those people. I found Annie Hall (1977) truly Oscar worthy. I loved Manhattan (1979). I am one of the few defenders I know of Deconstructing Harry (1997). True, Woody Allen abandoned slapstick but his essential character seemed to stay intact, the knowing, intellectual complainer in a sea of absurd characters and situations. That didn’t change from Bananas to Radio Days. It was only when Allen grew too too old to play his leading men beside increasingly younger and younger ingénues and he tried to hire Will Ferrell for the movie Melinda and Melinda (2004) where the whole thing went off the rails for me. All of Will Ferrell's lines sounded oddly similar to Woody Allenisms and it occurred to me Woody Allen had been playing the same damn character for 33 years only with different sets. And I had to stop watching after that.

Other Meta-Competitors

Maybe SNL has been a larger influence in developing meta-irony for the young minds of Generation X than I realize. All I know is that SNL wasn’t a big influence on me. Andy Kaufman, however, was held up as a comedic genius in my house and even the booklet in The Television Stuff DVD compares Martin to Kaufman with their “divine fool” senses of innocence and “the clichés of performing,” although the booklet writer, Adam Gopnik, admits Kaufman’s act had a more sinister edge.

Actually, I would argue Steve Martin’s act was actually more influential in the long run. As I mentioned earlier, Generation Xers love irony, yes. But we also love loving our irony. Outside of Latka on Taxi, Kaufman’s act was never meant to be lovable. It was meant to be uncomfortable and therefore distancing. Steve Martin’s fool was always accessible. His brand of satire always kept the audience included in on the joke. Kaufman did not. Maybe you could like Kaufman’s bits; but could you truly love them?

And here is a point I want to make, one I don’t feel anybody has yet raised regarding Generation X and our use of irony. I’m talking about a level of emotional attachment to pop culture that my generation has accepted as par for the course. In his early act, Steve Martin could show us the absurdity of it all, sure. But he showed it to us in a way that we could still love the absurdity. And here is the irony for the benefit of David Foster Wallace (RIP): there is real sincerity in that, in our love for the ironic absurdity. Generation Xers sincerely love the kitsch, the camp, the ironic big collars of Marcia Brady. Christine Taylor may now wear those collars with a fake smile in all those Brady Bunch movie spoofs; but for us, this started out as a true love affair. If you create distance in this relationship (and comedy is ultimately a relationship on one level or another), the affair is over.

Interestingly, the very thing some people have never liked about Lorne Michaels is that he seems emotionally disconnected from the world and his comedy. I would agree. Lorne (and the show he has created) no matter how funny, often reads cold.

Hug Avoidance

When George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion premiered in 1913, he was immediately dismayed to find his work of art had “gotten away from him.” From the very first performance, the Pygmalion phenomenon veered out of control, the story eventually morphing into movies and musicals, altered in significant ways from the play. Shaw couldn’t control the actor playing his Professor Higgins character. The actor thwarted the author’s attempts to portray Higgins as clueless to the end, thereby freeing Eliza Doolittle to exit the story free of romantic attachment, as an independent woman. Worse still, both audience and critics fixated on one line in the play, Eliza Doolittle’s exclamation of “Not bloody likely.” That line halted performances with uproarious laughter and the gag became the focus of the show, rather than Shaw’s larger themes of class and language and independence for women.

Similarly, in the late 1970s, Steve Martin had more than his share of phenomenal taglines tossed ubiquitously over every 1970s office water cooler:

  • “Excuuuse ME!”
  • “We are two wild and crazy guys!”
  • The disco dancing King Tut
  • The couture of balloons wrapped around the head, the arrow through the head, rabbit ears.

The decision for Steve Martin to leave the divine fool behind could seem to have many reasons: the Pygmalion-effect of losing control of your own bits, the crisis of coming up with new material that Steve Martin often states as a big reason for quitting stand-up and moving into movies.

But here is the rub as far as I see it, the problem between Steve Martin and me: Steve Martin is not a Generation Xer. He has an intellectual relationship to his irony but probably not an emotional one, as I have. Also, he’s part of an earlier generation and another generation’s way of being, which may be far less comfortable with this intensely emotional connection to pop culture. His early fool appeared to be a character not-so-subtly asking for an audience’s affection (as any young performer tends to do). By those SNL years, maybe he had had enough of that affection, thank you very much. A stadium full of it. Maybe, as he described about his 1974 Tonight Show appearance where he was accosted by a Sammy Davis Jr. hug, Steve Martin was ultimately uncomfortable with that grand response. As he admitted, coming from his family, they didn’t hug and didn't know how to hug. (Full disclosure: in my house we didn't hug either which is maybe why I developed all my attachments to television stars.) And that says something. Maybe that intense level of affection is ultimately frightening and so the character that attracts it must be abandoned.

I just want to say that character expressed something emotionally lovely, something his more recent ironic characters cannot express: pathos (the dirty drunk bum in the bathtub) and joy (happy feet). You can’t help it. You just want to hug him.

This year, Steve Martin just had a baby, gender as yet unknown to the public. In any case, it is very probably Martin won’t be able to avoid hugs any longer. I can’t be the only Generation Xer who would love to be a stuffed animal in that toy box in order to witness how Steve Martin performs for his new front-row ticket. Will he pull out remnants from the script of Shop Girl (2005) or will he do the venereal disease balloon gag? Please be the later. Can we do cowboy trick roping? Can we? Can we?

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