A philosopher in bunny ears

Steve Martin’s new memoir unlocks the freaky logic of his comedy
By JAMES PARKER  |  December 31, 2007


Once upon a time, way, way back in the sleazy and odoriferous 1970s, when even the most ardent amateur bombmakers of the previous decade had hung up their fuse-wire and started taking Quaaludes, there was a man in a cocaine-white three-piece suit who stood onstage with a fake arrow through his head and played the banjo. He played, to be precise, Earl Scruggs’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” — a tune from 1949 acknowledged by connoisseurs of the five-string banjo to be one of the more demanding workouts in the bluegrass canon. And he played it beautifully, with a silvery, ecstatic proficiency. And the tens of thousands of people who had come to see him do his stand-up comedy, to see him get his “happy feet” and shout “Well, EXCUUUUSE ME!” and tell silly stories about his cat, would be visited — for these few moments — by an unwonted solemnity. A stillness would descend upon them, a stillness that recalled the dictum of a character in GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill: “Only coarse humour is received with pot-house applause. The great anecdote is received in silence, like a benediction.”

In a way — in a very abstract, theoretical, what-the-fuck-are-you-talking-about sort of a way — the eruptive and audience-silencing virtuosity of Steve Martin’s banjo-playing was the punchline to his entire act. There certainly weren’t any other punchlines. Ridiculous dancing, yes, and magic tricks that went wrong, and a delicious, steadily deepening sense of derangement, but no pay-offs or zingers or ba-BOOMs. Martin’s onstage persona was that of a profoundly deluded man who thought he was funny, who thought he was a sophisticated professional entertainer, and whose confidence in this regard was so punctually out-of-sync with reality as to suggest an entire new dimension of comic potential. He wasn’t assaulting the conventions of stand-up with quite the violence of his colleague Andy Kaufman (of whom the possibility remains that, while being a great and savage humorist, he was actually a terrible comedian), but his act was inside-out: anti-comedy, his friend Rick Moranis called it. “I just got back from my trip to Europe. I guess you could say that I saw London . . . and I saw France, and then . . . I saw someone’s underpants!” (Yelps of buffoon laughter.) So when it was time for a bit of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and the gaping face of the clown grew suddenly focused and intent, and the arrow through the head trembled or the fake bunny ears nodded gravely as he ripped through his ultra-technical banjo-runs, the moment was properly greeted with a thrilled sobriety. That guy people had started to get used to — but who was this guy?

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