Sunday, December 23, 2007

Funny Mind, Body, Banjo

Long before his elegantly odd hosting of the Oscars, long before his penning and portraying the remote and wealthy Ray Porter in Shopgirl, long before his New Yorker essays, there was "Grandpa bought a rubber." If you are of a certain age, the memory of Steve Martin's joyful warbling of this hootenanny non sequitur can't help but reduce you to adolescent giggles again.

Martin's new memoir, Born Standing Up, offers an intimate view of the early years of what must be one of the most unusual career trajectories in show biz - from child magician to philosophy student, from San Francisco hippie comic to stadium filling superstar. Martin generously offers insight into how each of these experiences was formative for his comedy - a unique blend of absurdity, brilliant and energetic full-body mimicry, and a send up of old time show biz conventions. His act, he reveals, was "a parody of comedy. I was an entertainer playing an entertainer, a not so good one." The skilled banjo playing only added to the head-scratching strangeness of it all.

What was interesting to me was the contrast of this memoir's fine writing with the more simple quotes of familiar old bits from his routines. Martin's prose is lovely, dark and deep, but on stage, his jokes themselves needed not much more than a simple framework upon which his malleable body worked. There was a world of hilarity in his wild but practiced gestures and perfect mugging. Remember his bit about taking a drug that made him small, while he mimed driving behind a giant steering wheel, then tried to convince a cop that he was "large, man, large!"?

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