By Charley Faulkenburg, Staff Writer
Princeton University received a little comic relief in the form of actor, author and comedian Steve Martin, who Gave a talk, “Stand Up: My Rise and Collapse,” to a packed audience Dec. 8 at McCosh Hall.
Mr. Martin’s lecture described his long and difficult rise to fame as a standup comedian. From the creative process of evolving into a successful comedian to his decision to retire from the stage, Mr. Martin led the audience through his 18 years of stand up, producing a few laughs along the way.
”At 15 I knew I wanted to be in show business,” Mr. Martin said. “I’d fallen in love with comedy.”
An amateur magician at the time at a magic shop in Disneyland, he found that his audiences loved it when his tricks backfired, making him discover his appeal for comedy. Inspired by big names like Jerry Lewis, Laurel and Hardy and Jack Benny, Mr. Martin came across his first of many problems.
”I had no gifts. I couldn’t sing or dance or act in spite of what I thought,” he said. “But I had the one essential element for success: naivete.”
Aside from naivete, Mr. Martin did his homework both at California State University where he majored in philosophy and in his comedic training. He bought comics’ albums and fixated on the comedians’ nuances and studied their techniques.
”I fell asleep listening to these records,” Mr. Martin said.
But Mr. Martin was stuck in conventional show business with customary acts and used jokes, until he a thought popped into his head that he once read back in his magician days: originality, a “thought that changed my life,” he added. He resolved to write everything in his acts himself and to no longer rely on the jokes of other established comedians.
”The realization mortified me. I didn’t know how to write comedy,” said Mr. Martin. “I had to take at least 10 minutes out of a 20 minute act.” But he described a feeling of liberation and freedom that would soon fuel his creativity.
Mr. Martin cited Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” as a starting point in the kind of humor he would include in his acts. Besides being an author, Mr. Carroll wrote syllogisms, which Mr. Martin found funny enough to implement in his routines.
”All babies are illogical. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile. Illogical persons are despised, therefore anyone who can manage a crocodile is not a baby,” he said in a way that elicited laughter from the audience.
Mr. Martin’s second epiphany occurred in his college psychology class.
”A laugh is formed when a storyteller builds tension, which is released by the punch line,” he stated. “But what if there were no punch lines, no indicators when a joke was told?”
He decided to eliminate the punch line and let the audience choose when to laugh. He reasoned this would give his jokes a “you had to be there” quality that is often found in inside jokes between friends.
”The goal was to make the audience laugh, but not know what it was that made them laugh,” said Mr. Martin.
But as he began to perform at various clubs, he sometimes experienced a comic’s worst fear: silence. When this occurred, he said he would remember an encouraging anecdote from Bill Cosby concerning a silent crowd: “He said he could hear the waitresses laughing in the kitchen,” recalled Mr. Martin. “And they heard the same routine night after night.”
He was gaining momentum and at 21, he landed a gig writing for and appearing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show as well as writing for other variety shows like Sonny and Cher. Jokes seemed to come easier to Mr. Martin.
”All you had to do was mention Nixon’s name and you would get laughs from college students,” he said.
However, Mr. Martin decided to take the plunge and trade the safety of his Hollywood jobs for colleges and “cheesy nightclubs” on the road, where he was able to hone his comedy writing skills.
”I was out there winging it a lot,” he said. “But I was free there, no one was watching.”
After a performance at Vanderbilt University, things began to fall into place.
”My act started to tighten. All I had to do was free my mind and start,” said Mr. Martin. “I still couldn’t sing or act, but I could sing and act funny.”
Precision became essential in Mr. Martin’s routine. He emphasized that each idea had to be physically expressed and that sometimes complete silence could bring an audience to tears.
”Precision was filling every moment with content, every second mattered,” he added.
But in 1972, a period Mr. Martin described as the “age of Aquarius,” he anticipated the changes that were brewing in the industry. He prepared by cutting his hair, shaving his beard and taking all politics out of his act. He soon became a headliner, bolstering both his confidence as well as the confidence of his audience, unlocking the door to fame.
”Three things happened,” Mr. Martin stated. “I earned a lot of money, became very famous and became the funniest I ever was.”
He created catch phrases, performed in sold out coliseums, became a legendary favorite on “Saturday Night Live” and worked with comedy heavy weights Chevy Chase, Dan Akyroyd and John Belushi, who he described as “the nicest rowdiest person” he ever met.
But the stress of fame combined with long periods of time on the road began to burn Mr. Martin out, causing him to become depressed and lonely. He described himself as the biggest cliché in show business lonely at the top. He began to suffer from an “artistic crisis,” feeling like his stream of creativity had run dry.
”By 1981 my body was on the road, but my heart was elsewhere. I lost contact with what I was doing. And I never did stand up again,” said Mr. Martin abruptly ending his lecture, stunning the audience.
Mr. Martin quickly exited the stage, a place he swore off in the early 1980s and the crowd buzzed with admiration and appreciation.
”It was a wonderful show, I wish he went on and on,” said Rona Altman, a West Windsor resident. “He’s a brilliant man and has quite a mind.”
Ernie Cerino, a resident of Mercerville also shared Ms. Altman’s view of Mr. Martin being brilliant. Mr. Cerino, a fan of Mr. Martin’s literature, commended Mr. Martin’s novella, “Shop Girl.”
”I would teach that in a literature class,” Mr. Cerino said. “I’d include it right up there with John Irving’s “World According to Garp.”
Princetonian Linda Mimdlin, who switched shifts at her job to see Mr. Martin, is also a fan of his writing and has read all of his books.
”It’s not all funny and not all serious,” she said. “But it’s colorful and well rounded.”
Mr. Martin dedicated nearly 20 years to stand up and has become one of comedy’s household names. He expressed the caliber of making people laugh long after he exited the building.
”It’s important to be funny on stage,” Mr. Martin stated. “But also later, when the audience is home thinking about it.”
And as Mr. Martin’s audience flowed out of the building, laughter could be heard as the crowd dispersed into the night.
By Charley Faulkenburg, Staff Writer