Monday, February 04, 2008

Steve Martin's Boring Autobiography

I am in the middle of reading Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up, and I am having a hard time getting through the darn thing. I think I've figured out why. It is not very well written.

Yes, I know, I'm an English teacher, so I will be accused of being nitpicky about books. Yep. Sure am. I expect published writing to be good, and this wasn't.

Yes, it has its moments of humor: "I was in awe of the red-bearded Mike, who seemed so confident in the divided world of Aspen, where locals with a sense of entitlement were pitted against developers with a sense of condominiums."
"I was excited to learn that we were now living in the Age of Aquarius, an age when, at least astrologically, the world would be taken over by macrame."

Aside from the one-liners, it also has a wonderful description that captures what made his standup so great. The following comes about 3/4 of the way through the book, about the time it actually gets interesting for a while. He describes how he came up with his absurd comedic style:

"In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. ... What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, 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 comedic direction: 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. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told when to laugh.

"To test my ideas, at my next appearance at the Ice House, I went onstage and began: 'I'd like to open up with sort of a 'funny comedy bit.' This has really been a big one for me ... it's the one that put me where I am today. I'm sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it's the Nose on Microphone routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it's always funny, no matter how many times you see it.' "I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, 'Thank you very much.' 'That's it?' they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.

"Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet. If I wasn't offering punch lines, I'd never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. ... Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all, and that this act was going on with or without them. ... "My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh."

Most importantly, he mentions my hometown: "Bill had put me on the road, opening the show for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and I am grateful to them because they really didn't need me. We went everywhere. Atlanta, Spokane, Madison, Little Rock, Tallahassee, you name it, I was there."

However, the writing through the first 3/4 of the book is soporific at times. For instance, in some stretches, so many of his sentences are loose (that is, they basically begin subject-predicate then add stuff to the end) that it lulls the reader (me) into a daze. To wit, here are the beginnings of consecutive sentences on the last page I read, page 59:

"The show consisted of..."

"I appeared in..."

"Fortunately, I ended up with..."

"The opening night was attended by..."

"The play was followed by...

later, on page 94-95, he adds dead "to be" verbs to the loose sentences to create Valium in print:

"The Trumbo house was..."

"The walls in the living room were..."

"I had never seen..."

"In the entry was..."

"In the dining room was..."

"There was..."

"These artists are..."

"Gropper's art depicted..."

Along with the weak syntax, Martin's editor failed to excise too many cliches. People are "rail thin," albums "break ground," surprised people are "saucer-eyed," clotheshorses are"dressed to kill," neophytes get "taken under the wing" of others, and sketchy comedy acts are "hit and miss"

If cliches aren't the problem, then maybe it's the redundancies that often result from a pileup of adjectives and adverbs:
"His sheepdog, an ecstatic, ball-chasing mop named Winston, dove repeatedly into the deep snowy banks to retrieve our enthusiastically thrown snowballs. Winston didn't seem to mind that they would vanish white on white, and he earnestly pursued the impossible, digging, digging, digging."
"My mind was a blank. Blanker than blank. I was a tabula rasa. I put paper in the typewriter and impotently stared at it."
Is the word "impotently" necessary there?

When Martin finds that his diction and syntax aren't injecting enough life into his writing, he moves too quickly to the exaggerated simile, such as:
"I bounded down the massive steps, waving the onionskin envelope aloft for Phil to see, as though it were the lost map of the Incas."
"I lived in suburbia at a time when a one-hour drive to Los Angeles in my first great car...seemed like a trip across the continent in a Conestoga wagon."

I probably could have forgiven the lapses in writing if he was actually opening up and telling something deep, something real. But many times he simply elides the most important parts of the story. For instance, when describing a difficult breakup with a woman he truly loved, this is all we get: "painfully for me, we drifted apart." Is that it?

OK, so maybe he didn't want to get personal, but even when describing his career, when he gets a chance to tell us what really makes him tick, he gives us a rhetorical question instead of an answer: "Even though the idea of doing comedy had sounded risky when I compared it to the safety of doing trick after trick, I wanted, needed, to be called a comedian. I discovered it was not magic I was interested in but performing in general. Why?....My answer to the question is simple: Who wouldn't want to be in show business?" Is that it?

So, in the end, though it had some laughs, Born Standing Up was a pretty weak effort. Martin kept the story fairly surface level, so I think he ended up trying to punch it up with some middle school tricks. I would have liked to have seen what an attentive, demanding editor could have evoked from Martin.

1 comment:

dave starry said...

Why do I suddenly feel as though I've just been given a scolding "C-" grade and explanation from my English 101 professor, even though I didn't actually write anything myself?