I recently read these two autobiographies by George Carlin and Steve Martin, who are parallel figures in some ways. Both were standup comedians who worked their way up the TV circuit in the ‘60s and became stars in the ‘70s, with bestselling albums and major tours. They both got a lot of mileage out of the tension between their material and their appearance, with Carlin changing his onstage presentation from a suit-and-tie square to a shaggy-haired hippie right before he made it big, and Martin doing the exact opposite. And each had an interest in the quirks of language, and an innovative style that was as cerebral as it was comic.
I realized in reading each book that I have a generally positive impression of both, but neither one has ever really made me laugh that hard. They were both very entertaining, but not in the side-splitting way of some other great comedians.
This is partly because their most famous material is just a little dated, and I’m too young to have seen it when it was really part of the zeitgeist. But partly it’s that neither was really going for standard punchlines. Carlin used long, verbose rants that drew slowly building laughter and applause as the audience joined in his outrage:
My responsibility was to engage the audience’s mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds.
As long as I kept them interested and engaged and entertained—not bringing them to laughter all the time, but sometimes to wonder: when I could see from their faces they were thinking, “Whoa—what a nice thing he did there!” So long as I did that, the contract between us was fulfilled.
And Martin …well, it’s hard to describe what he did, even for him:
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. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. 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.
My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other’s sense of humor, you had to be there.
That absurdist sensibility was definitely a big part of it, but Hal Erickson gets a little closer, I think, when he says that Martin’s “entire act [was] a devastating parody of second-rate comedians who rely on preconditioning to get laughs.” Or Jason Ankeny: “superficially silly and daft, Martin’s act contemptuously mocked the inherent stupidity of the standup form, mining catch phrases, props, and schtick to create a unique brand of scathing anti-comedy.” It’s interesting that Martin himself never talks about this parody angle; maybe he doesn’t want to sound gratuitously mean. But I’m sure a lot of the people laughing at Martin’s fake awkwardness understood him, not in the high-concept way he understood himself, but simply as mocking other comedians — maybe not his hip contemporaries like Carlin, but a more conventional talk-show style of standup that they would have been much more familiar with than we are today.
They both saw comedy as a stepping-stone to movie stardom, but only Martin was able to make that leap. Carlin kept doing standup in the ‘80s and ‘90s, arguably producing some of his best material long after the Seven Dirty Words and other ‘70s routines that he’s best known for.
For me, Carlin’s book highlighted the fine line between strong individualism and outright misanthropy. The strength of the personal attacks is startling. At first it’s amusing, as when he describes the young producer Roger Ailes (now the CEO of Fox News) as “a fat, loud, brash twentysomething who laughed at anything you said, funny or not.” Or his memories of Ed Sullivan:
On one show he called me over after my set to where he stood, stage right. This was supposed to be a big honor. We had some inane exchange and then he said out of the blue, “You’re a Catholic!” and then gestured to the audience with that weird insect thing he did with his arms: “Give him a big hand! He’s a Catholic!” Ed was partial to this form of intro. He once introduced my friend the Hispanic singer José Feliciano as follows: “Want you to give the next act, José Feliciano, a big hand! He’s blind—and he’s Puerto Rican!”
But then it gets more and more petty, like this anecdote about Billy Crystal:
So I said to Billy: “So long, man. The sketch went nice, didn’t it?” And since I knew he was going to leave Saturday Night Live and go to movies the next year and I was beginning to seriously explore them again myself, I added: “Maybe we’ll get to do a movie together someday.” And he gave me this look as if I was some kind of a bug. Like, “Oh yeah? That certainly doesn’t work into my plans.”
So it was satisfying that I got a pretty fat role in a movie before he did. And I think I got my star on Hollywood Boulevard before he did. Of course, he starred in When Harry Met Sally a couple of years later and took off. Still, for that one moment, fuck him.
And by the end, when he’s calling Lorne Michaels a “hands-and-knees cocksucker,” you almost feel sorry for Carlin. I mean, this is not some frustrated mid-list comedian who was never properly recognized for his talent. This is a guy who made 14 HBO specials and is #2 on this list of the greatest standups of all time. And he still had these cheap scores to settle. It must have really hurt to carry around that kind of anger.
It’s easy to locate Carlin in the development of standup, from his influences (Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor) to his followers — and it’s a testament to his range that he inspired whole different camps of followers, from ranting political outsiders like Bill Hicks to carping observational comics like Jerry Seinfeld. But sadly, he also seems to fit right into the stereotype that the best comedians are fundamentally unhappy people:
Once, if I identified with individuals I felt pain; if I identified with groups I saw people who repelled me. So now I identify with no one. I have no passion anymore for any of them, victims or perpetrators, Right or Left, women or men. I’m still human. I haven’t abandoned my humanity, but I have put it in a place that allows my art to function free of entanglements.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Martin (#6 on that list) is harder to locate in the pantheon, and why he quit standup: he was just too nice, and maybe a little too willing to be liked, to really enjoy mocking anyone for too long. His book gives the impression of a happy, optimistic guy describing a charmed life. No question he worked hard and paid his dues, but it hasn’t left him with the same resentments as his peers, and he never had the drug habits and other health problems and bad luck that plagued Carlin and so many others. And that affable, pleasant, lucky quality is still his biggest asset as an actor; even when he isn’t all that funny, you can tell he’s enjoying himself, which has its own appeal.
They didn’t know each other, but it seems appropriate that Martin is one of the few performers who Carlin has nothing but kind words for:
Steve Martin came by. I hadn’t seen him since 1967 on the Smothers Brothers show …I pulled him aside and said, “Steve, you know I haven’t seen you in a long time. And I want you to know how happy I am for your career and the things that you’ve done.” He was touched, I could see, a little taken aback, but kind of touched. I’d made human contact.
- Philosophy and Comedy — Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” (The Partially Examined Life)