Watch Steve Martin Make His First TV Appearance: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1968)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steve Mar­tin Will Teach His First Online Course on Com­e­dy

Steve Mar­tin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Ein­stein & Picas­so in a Heady Com­e­dy Rou­tine (2002)

Steve Mar­tin on the Leg­endary Blue­grass Musi­cian Earl Scrug­gs

Steve Mar­tin Writes a Hymn for Hymn-Less Athe­ists

Steve Mar­tin, “Home Crafts Expert,” Explains the Art of Paper Wadding, Endors­es Bob Ker­rey

Steve Mar­tin Releas­es Blue­grass Album/Animated Video

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.

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