Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty

Steve Martin - Comedy is Not PrettySynopsis: Steve Martin’s second NBC special was made up entirely of sketches. Highlights include: Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” with monkeys; “The Death Of Socrates”; and “Bizarre Oddities Of The World.” With Special Appearances by Marty Allen, Richard Deacon, Joyce DeWitt, Phil Foster, Peter Graves, Werner Klemperer, Meredith MacRae, Gary Mule Deer, Louis Nye, Regis Philbin, Carl Reiner and Dick Schaap.

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Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty 5.0

eyelights: Joyce Dewitt.
eyesores: the so-called humour. the underdeveloped sketches.

“It was always: “Socrates, what is truth? Socrates, what is the nature of the good? Socrates, what should I order? Socrates, what are you having?” And not once did anyone ever say: “Socrates, hemlock is poison!””

‘Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Easy’ is an NBC television special that was broadcast on February 14, 1980. Like its predecessor, ‘A Wild and Crazy Guy‘, it was named after Martin’s most recent comedy album. Unlike its predecessor, however, his latest album was not a huge success, notching a mere Gold certification instead of going double-Platinum.

The special is no better. I’m not sure if ‘A Wild and Crazy Guy’ got better reviews for the skits than the live concert footage but, for this one, Martin decided to eschew the live material altogether. Instead, he served up a full 49 minutes of new bits pastiched together in a ramshackle fashion and featuring a bevy of celebrity guests and up-and-comers.

Unfortunately for me, the brand of humour that Martin indulged in at this period is of the Mel Brooks variety: corny, not especially subtle, and hammered home by heavy-handed performances. To paraphrase a friend, talking about Brooks’ films, while I watched this Martin special I could see what the jokes were supposed to be. I just didn’t find them funny.

Part of the problem may be the delivery. Granted, the skits themselves aren’t especially funny, but great performances and clever direction can sometimes make up for it. Alas, Martin’s funnyman persona is full of ham and he doesn’t do it especially well. Plus which the direction is limited both by a lack of imagination and a television production budget.

A perfect example of this is the “Holy Drycleaner” sketch, which finds Martin as a dry-cleaner clerk speaking like a televangelist.

The first problem is that Martin’s accent is completely confused, ranging widely from one moment to the next. This might have been deliberate but it ends up sounding utterly inept instead. Meanwhile, the camera is static, remaining fixed in a two-shot long take of the clerk and his customer. What little humour there is consequently died a quick death.

This is a recurring problem throughout the special. Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because they lacked good taste, or both, the producers chose to layer a laugh track over the programme. I’m no great fan of laugh tracks because the humour should be funny on its own, without these cues. Furthermore, this track sounds particularly artificial.

In any case, it’s a minor complaint given that the show produced a bewilderingly low number of real laughs from this viewer. I’ve read some fabulous reviews of it online, but most of its greatest fans appear to be people who grew up on it. Since nostalgia naturally skews the data in a tremendous way, I’ll assume that it’s not just me.

But, honestly, over the course of nearly 50 minutes, only one sketch amused me mildly: featuring Joyce Dewitt as his date, Martin explains to men how to be a “love god”. It wasn’t hilarious, but a few gags landed correctly and it was supported rather well by Dewitt. Beyond that, the fun was seeing familiar faces embarrass themselves.

Most of the sketches were pretty dull and unfunny, based on interesting premises that are poorly developed but the worst of them all was the opening number which found Martin in a clichéd Western story with apes instead of human beings and an elephant instead of a horse – all to the tune of a country song. Man, was that boring as !@#$.

I could go on and on complaining about how crappy the sketches are, but what’s the point: humour is subjective. Some people will obviously lap this stuff up, and others will bloody hate it. I can’t imagine a middle ground here. Personally, I’m pretty sure I won’t watch this again for a loooong time, and likely only to give it a second chance.

Or to help me nap.

Martin was right when he said that “comedy is not pretty”. In this case, it’s downright ugly.

Date of viewing: June 10, 2015

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