Sensational Steve Martin

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And then along came Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus redefined and reduced the scope of the discipline. Says Martin: "As I studied the history of philosophy, the quest for ultimate truth became less important to me, and by the time I got to Wittgenstein it seemed pointless. Then I realized that in the arts you don't have to discover meaning, you create it. There are no rules, no true and false, no right and wrong. Anyway, these were the musings of a 21-year-old kid." A 21-year-old kid who was ready to put his theories into his act by breaking the comedian's first rule: tell funny jokes and make the audience laugh. "I thought that if I didn't tell jokes -- if the audience had no place to laugh -- they might find a place to laugh by creating their own tension. It was a rebel position in comedy."

In the Viet Nam years, there was not much to laugh at, and comedy was ripe for revolution. The first generation of kids raised on TV, which gobbled up comedy material and spat it out as pabulum, had reached their majority just as the evening news was topping their grisliest nightmare jokes. To be an angry young comic was, it seemed then, to engage psychotic adults on their own terms. The only answer was to drop out of the comic's traditional adversary relationship to power and, instead, parade an anarchic childishness. Their banner might have read HELL, NO, WE WON'T GROW UP. In Britain, Monty Python's Flying Circus tossed music-hall bawdry into a Dada format, and at home National Lampoon updated sick humor with a stinging Wasp edge. They were vicious; they were silly; they couldn't care less. And now someone had to shatter the lulling cadences of stand-up too. Who better than the child of Disneyland and Wittgenstein?

Martin's scheme was absurdistly simple. He would put ironic quotation marks around his nightclub act, as if cuing the audience to wonder, "Does this guy really think he's funny doing this tired stuff? Well, I don't think he's funny. In fact, he's so unfunny . . . he's funny!" But the act was largely the one he had honed for years in other venues. He developed Happy Feet in his living room. He learned juggling from the court jester at Disneyland; Steve practiced at home with croquet balls and badly bruised his fingers. Or take the hat-with-the-arrow routine (please). "It was a thing we used to sell at Disneyland," Martin says. "It goes back to the theory, 'God, these gags are so dumb!' By the end of the act I was wearing the hat with the arrow, the balloon animals, the nose glasses and the bunny ears. I wanted to look as ridiculous as possible. It was like anticomedy." And a lunatic ad for Merlin's Magic Shop.

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