Steve Martin's Revolutionary Career Strategy
by Gary North: Why
Dumb Bankers Love Keynesianism
I don't think
most Steve Martin fans understand what he has done, but I do. I
want to share with you what I regard as the highest-risk career
strategy that I have ever seen. It worked. I find it hard to believe,
but it worked.
I am not a
big fan of Steve Martin's brand of comedy. I just don't get it.
It is not that I have not given him a chance to win me over. I have.
But, after 45 years, I still don't get it.
I first saw
him perform at the Golden Bear, what in those days was called a
folk music club. It was in Huntington Beach in Orange County, California.
That was back in 1967.
him very well amazingly well. His performance was that memorable.
I had gone to see a friend perform, Steve Gillette. His album had
just been released by Vanguard. His song, Back on the Street Again,
had been a big hit for the Sunshine Company that year. He was building
a following in the region. He was the headliner. Martin was the
in front of the crowd with a banjo strapped around his neck. I
kept waiting for him to play the banjo. He kept talking. I initially
thought he was a banjo player who was filling time by trying to
be funny. After about ten minutes, I finally figured out that
he was a comedian in training who was using a banjo as a prop.
The banjo was his ticket to get on stage in a folk music club.
He picked the
banjo a little. Not many people can do a solo banjo act. Peter Seeger
could. I can't think of anyone else.
pulled out some balloons. He blew them up and made some balloon
figures. It was like attending a third-grade birthday party with
a clown who was not wearing make-up or funny shoes.
I watched him
march up the fame ladder, beginning in the mid-1970s.
What I did
not perceive in 1967 was that he was self-consciously trying to
create a new kind of comedy: comedy with no punch lines. He developed
this into a fine art. Wikipedia describes his transformation, when
he was in college.
wondering in a psychology class "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? 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
I never did
get desperate, so it didn't work for me. My problem is that I prefer
comedy with punch lines, or at least wry humor. I even appreciate
satire. But I remain a sucker for a punch line.
I liked his
sight gags. I at least understood the balloons. I thought All
of Me was funny, because he used his ability to do rubber-body
sight gags. Also, it helped that he was teamed up with Lilly Tomlin,
who is very funny. His appearance on Johnny Carson's final show
Great Flydini" was creative. But it was basically a series
of sight gags with a peculiar twist. His cameo in Little
Shop of Horrors was clever, because he played a sadistic
singing dentist. I got it. Dirty
Rotten Scoundrels was amusing because Michael Caine is a
great straight man (and great anything else). But I had trouble
getting the jokes in Bowfinger.
I had the same problem with The
Jerk and Dead
Men Don't Wear Plaid.
I became a
believer only about two years ago. I finally got it. Steve Martin's
entire career was a build-up for the most memorable punch line in
the history of stand-up comedy.
For over 40
years, he practiced playing his banjo in private. Then, without
warning, he came clean. He has finally started touring with his
music. He no longer tries to make us laugh. And let me tell you,
he is really
good on the banjo. I would pay to hear him play. I just hope
he doesn't add much patter in between songs. A little is OK
about as much as his banjo playing in 1967.
No one would
pay to hear him play the banjo if he had not become famous with
his comedy. He used comedy as a career marketing tool. It took 45
years, but it worked.
He was never
a comedian using a banjo as a prop. He was a banjo player using
comedy as a prop. He just needed time to perfect his banjo skills.
We have all
heard about actors who wait on tables for years while they work
in actors' studio in the hope of getting a big break in the movies.
Martin worked in the movies for years in order to get a big break
playing banjo. "Gotcha!"
I get it! The
joke's on me!
I regard this
as a long-term career marketing strategy like no other. It deserves
to be a case study at the Harvard Business School.
recently earned a Ph.D. in computer science from M.I.T. He is famous
these days because of his website, which explores the crucial issue
of finding your life's work. His new book, So
Good They Can't Ignore You, is based on an
interview of Martin by Charlie Rose. This is from Newport's
ever takes note of [my advice], because it's not the answer they
wanted to hear," Martin said. "What they want to hear
is 'Here's how you get an agent, here's how you write a script,'
. . . but I always say, 'Be so good they can't ignore you.' "
to Rose's trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice:
"If somebody's thinking, 'How can I be really good?' people
are going to come to you."
This is exactly
the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only
twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something
too good to be ignored. "Comedy at the time was all setup
and punch line . . . the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat,"
Martin explained to Rose. He thought it could be something more
sophisticated. It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years
for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster
success. It's clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut
to his eventual fame, and the compelling life it generated. "[Eventually]
you are so experienced [that] there's a confidence that comes
out," Martin explained. "I think it's something the
I had two problems
with Martin's humor back in 1967. First, I was seeing him perform
in the early stage of his career. Second, I just did not get it.
Within a decade, a generation of comedy lovers got it, once he had
perfected his act. For example, they found the arrow through the
head routine incredibly funny. Rose introduced his interview with
a clip. Then he added the Czech guys skit, and the King Tut song
and dance routine.
the rest of the article
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
Best of Gary North