“What if there were no punch lines?” asks Steve Martin in his autobiography Born Standing Up. “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?” These questions motivated him to develop the distinctive style of stand-up comedy — in a sense, an anti-stand-up comedy — that rocketed him to superstardom in the 1970s. But before the world knew him as a banjo-playing funnyman, Martin worked for a couple of his especially notable comedian-musician elders: Tom and Dick Smothers, better known as the Smothers Brothers.
“We happened to be walking through the writer area of the show, and there he was, sitting at one of our writers’ desks,” Tom says of Martin on the 1968 broadcast of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour above. “Later we found out that he actually was one of our writers. Since he hasn’t been paid for his work, we thought we’d let him come out tonight and make a few dollars.”
So introduced, the 22-year-old Martin begins his television debut by re-introducing himself: “As Tom just said, I’m Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute. While I’m waiting for me, I’d like to jump into kind of a socko-boffo comedy routine.” With his prop table ready, he then launches into “the fabulous glove-into-dove trick.”
Though the studio audience may look pretty square by today’s standards (or even those of the late 1960s), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had already built a reputation for pushing the envelope of mainstream television comedy. Still, it’s safe to say that its audience had never seen any performer – and certainly not any prop comic — quite like Martin before. In this short set, he performs a number of deliberately botched or otherwise askew magic tricks, using his tone to generate the humor. “If I kept denying them the formality of a punch line,” as he writes more than 40 years later in Born Standing Up, “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 exactly when to laugh.”
Watching today, Martin’s fans will recognize his trademark sensibility more quickly than his appearance, since the clip predates both the white suit and the white hair. Even then, he wanted to perform in a way that, in the words of The Guardian‘s Rafael Behr, “would unnerve and alienate the audience, but also, through self-deprecation, engage them in conspiracy against himself.” Martin seems to take a dim view of his own early television work, having described himself in a 1971 Virginia Graham Show appearance as “mannered, slow and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority,” a quality that he has since developed in abundance, and of which “the art of having an act so bad it was good,” as Behr puts it, demands a surprising amount.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.