Steve Martin: "I never let them know I was bombing"

A computer scientist talks about lessons learned from Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up."

Paying your dues is overrated. Simply putting in the time is not enough. Martin’s story is one of a constant urge to innovate. He was trying to figure out the essence of “funny.” He then yielded these insights to move beyond the static structure of the punchline that dominated performance comedy at the time. This restless urge to understand then innovate led him to be outstanding. Without it, he would have just become another good comedian. Like hundreds of others.


Being Funny is an article where Martin summarizes his comedy philosophy.

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 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...

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. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all and that this act was going on with or without them.


Related: Excerpts from "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life."

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