Happy Birthday Steve.
Steve Martin wrote a superb autobiographical piece in the Smithsonian magazine titled “Being Funny” (thanks Katie). As much a great historical summary on the evolution of modern day comedy as an insight to this comic genius. And also a strong endorsement for the power of embracing failure…
- “These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? 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 anti-climax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, 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. To test my idea, I went onstage and began: ‘I’d like to open up with sort of a ‘funny comedy bit.’ This has really been a big one for me…it’s the one that put me where I am today. I’m sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it’s the “Nose on Microphone” routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it’s always funny, no matter how many times you see it.’ I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, ‘Thank you very much.’ ‘That’s it?’ they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit. Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: this is funny, you just haven’t gotten it yet. 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.”
- “I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on ‘The Virginia Graham Show,’ circa 1970. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After reviewing the show, I was depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance, I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: ‘Was that terrible? Or was it good?’”
He talks openly about his failures like the time he tried to making reading from the phone book funny (“Johnny was not thrilled, and I was demoted to appearing with guest hosts, which I tried not to admit to myself was a devastating blow.”), crushing reviews of his ‘five banana routine’ (“I peeled them, put one on my head, one in each pocket and squeezed one in each hand…”)
He even concludes the article with an anecdote about a failure on the Tonight Show driving him to refine his professionalism and in so doing brings out a fine reflection relevant to Leadership and Management…
- “Are you that boy who was on ‘The Tonight Show’ last night?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yuck!’ she blurted out. For the next few years, I was on the road with an itinerary designed by the Marquis de Sade. But there was a sexy anonymity about the travel; I was living the folkie myth of having no ties to anyone, working small clubs and colleges in improvised folk rooms that were usually subterranean. In this netherworld, I was free to experiment. There were no mentors to tell me what to do; there were no guidebooks for doing stand-up. Everything was learned in practice, and the lonely road, with no critical eyes watching, was the place to dig up my boldest, or dumbest, ideas and put them onstage. The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: it was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the circumstances.”
Leaders dig up the boldest and dumbest ideas; Managers ensure the ‘good, consistently good, night after night.’