Read these jokes aloud:

  • "Don't have sex, men. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you have to start talking to them."
  • "I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy."
  • "I believe you should place a woman on a pedestal - high enough so you can look up her dress."

What do you think?  Funny? Not so funny? Corny? Sexist? Read them again in Steve Martin's voice.

They become funny again; at least I think so.  And it's not just these jokes.  Indeed, the bulk of Steve Martin's material is composed of unfunny jokes.  They are corny.  Like unfunny-uncle-corny.  You know which uncle I'm talking about.

I can actually hear your eyes rolling

These jokes aren't the exception.  They are the rule. Watch any of his stand-up specials and you'll find these terrible jokes all throughout.

When I was a kid, plenty of people talked about what a genius Steve Martin was.  Even at 11-years-old, I considered myself pretty savvy when it came to stand-up.  My brother introduced me to George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks (by way of Denis Leary), and many others.  Comedically speaking, I was quite adept.  Steve Martin, however, vexed me.  Why is he wearing an arrow through his head?  Why are his jokes bad?  And most importantly, why is everyone falling over laughing at this (my family included)?

When I watched The Jerk, a brilliant anti-comedy starring Steve Martin as Navin Johnson, a white man who was adopted by an African-American family, it all came together.  Martin's jokes aren't meant to be funny.  He's a jackass.  His character is a dumb person who believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room. So when he's on stage, he's actually playing the role of an entertainer who is mediocre but believes himself to be quite good.  If you think the jokes above are sexist and unfunny, it's Martin saying 'most stand-up comedians are sexist and unfunny.'

His stand-up isn't as simple as "get up on stage and tell unfunny jokes ironically," though.  His show is wonderfully deconstructionist.  The pacing is manic.  He works with props briefly.  His rhythm is completely different than anyone else who came before him, ditching the traditional formula of 'set-up/punchline' for sporadic, random bits that tricked the audience into laughing.  Or, to quote the man himself:

"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 anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?"

If anyone else did this, they would look really foolish.

This is from his autobiography, Born Standing Up.  If you want a thorough account of Martin's life, I would recommend reading it.  If you don't have time, however, here's a short, not-so-thorough version:

Steve Martin was born August 14, 1945, in Waco, Texas, and raised in Inglewood, California. He is the son of Mary Lee and Glenn Vernon Martin.  After attending Garden Grove High School, he went on to study drama and English poetry while attending Santa Ana College.  His comedy career began when he landed a writing job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where he and his fellow writers ended up winning an Emmy.  He went on to write for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.  On top of his many stand-up specials, Martin has acted in many movies, including The Jerk (which he also co-wrote); The Man With Two Brains; Three Amigos; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; and, most recently, It's Complicated. Martin is also an accomplished author, including his aforementioned autobiography, Born Standing Up and his novels Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company, and An Object Of Beauty (available at Kards Unlimited!).

The list of Steve Martin's accomplishments goes on and on.  I literally don't have the time to write about it all.  He plays the banjo, he performs magic, he wrote a play.  He's prolific, to say the least. And he is undoubtedly intelligent.

Genius at work

His apparent intelligence is what made me not give up on Steve Martin; what made me dig deeper and drove me to understand his comedy style.  On its surface, the material is really shallow and stupid.  If you read the jokes above in, say, Andrew Dice Clay's voice, they fall flat and come off as disgusting and misogynistic.  Through the filter of Steve Martin's thick sarcasm and satirical persona, however, it becomes a biting commentary on mediocrity in the entertainment business.  I had to put in the work and it paid off.

Happy birthday, Steve Martin, you wild and crazy guy!

So, what do you think?