Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"The Beginning Of The End"

During the mid-seventies, the demise my show biz writing career was beginning at virtually the same moment it was just getting started.

And for that, I blame Steve Martin.


Look at that!  I just gave away my entire blog post in the third paragraph.  I mean, that’s exactly where I was headed.  Holy Jiminy!  What a monumental blunder! 

Or is it?   Might it not instead be an ingenious foreshadowing of “Coming Attractions?”

Nah.  It’s a blunder.

Oh, well.  Taking my cue from the Congress where they continue to straight-facedly debate the issues while overlooking the fact that the legislative system is awash in gargantuan amounts of persuasionary money, I shall cast a blind eye to my literary faux pas and proceed as if the game were not already over.

Yes, he said getting back to the point, my ultimate departure from show business was unequivocally precipitated by the efforts of Mr. Steve “Well excuuuuuse me” Martin.

Here’s the dealio, as Steve himself might have put it, and probably did.

Simply stated, Steve Martin turned sincerity into a joke.  And when he did that, for me, it was the beginning of the end.  Why was that?  Because temperamentally – and it reflects itself in my writing – I am a fundamentally sincere kind of a guy. 

For two reasons.

One, I’m a Canadian, and the innuendo-y “put-on” is an unnatural fit with the Canadian persona.  If you look up the word “irony” in a Canadian dictionary, it’ll say, “Something Americans do and Canadians don’t understand, until somebody explains it to them and then they get angry.”

The second reason sincerity is my preferential patois is that I am calendarially a product of the extremely earnest and straight-arrowish Fifties, and the ironic communicational style did not reach its heyday until the Sixties, by which time I was already indoctrinated.  Additionally, blaming my Home Country again, Canada never really got the Sixties.

We got the Fifties twice. 

Hit with this “double whammy” of biographical happenstance, I do not naturally “do” irony.  Chandler Bing from Friends does irony.  (Ironically, Chandler Bing was played by Canadian Matthew Perry.  The Americans who hired him must have laughed themselves silly about that one!) 

By the time Friends arrived in the mid-nineties, “irony” was at already at its height.  Not at all coincidentally, I myself was barely holding on, getting by on a series of succeedingly less lucrative development deals.  By that point, I had no chance whatsoever.  You know how criminals have posters with their pictures on them stamped with the word “Wanted”?  My poster came stamped with the word:


And it was Steve Martin who got that ball spiraling inexorably downward some thirty years earlier. 

Pioneering comedian Lenny Bruce rose to fame wielding the sharp-edged weapon of irony to expose the egregious hypocrisy in society.

Following in his footsteps, Steve Martin wielded the sharp-edged weapon of irony to expose the egregious hypocrisy in show business.

That’s fine.  Everyone has their pet peeves.

Entertainers standing on stage informing the crowd they had just performed in front of that “You’ve been a wonderful audience” even when it was entirely possible that in reality they hadn’t been? 

That kind of mendacity rubbed Steve Martin the wrong way.

I once reviewed Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up – A Comic’s Life (2007) for a now defunct magazine called Television Quarterly.  It was there that I found examples of Martin’s initial introduction of irony into his repertoire.

Steve would come out on stage, and, in a commentary on the entertainers of yesteryear, the first thing he would proclaim was,

“It’s a pleasure to be here.”

Steve would then take one step to the side and say,

“And it’s a pleasure to be here.”

Taking another step from his previous position –

“And it’s a pleasure to be here!

Und so weiter.  (Which is “And so forth” in German.)

At the close of his act, like every comedian before him, Steve Martin would thank the audience for coming, adding, “And I would like to thank each and every one of you.  In fact, I think I will.”

Steve Martin would then descend into the audience, and proceed to do just that, shaking hands and saying “Thank you” to every audience member, one at a time.  Until it stopped being funny.  Which, surprisingly, took quite a while.

At his zenith, Steve Martin was delivering such shenanigans in front of tens of thousands in sold-out football stadiums.  Now it is my view that the American zeitgeist exhibits what I call the “Gunfighter Mentality”, wherein if one thing is “it”, then everything else, by definition, is dead in the dust.  

And so, with Steve Martin’s massive success, irony instantly became the “Gold Standard” of comedy, emulated by lesser comedians, and ultimately filtering down to the population at large, who like imitating what successful people do, because, through an inexplicable process of self-hypnosis, it makes them feel successful.

How did that affect me?

Venn Diagram  (a tried and true method of irrefutable logic):

Irony = funny.

Early P. = no irony.

Early P. = not funny.

Ipso facto:


Will sincerity ever make a comeback?  I don’t think so.  The ironic approach is so much more “The Cool Kids”, who pride themselves on being too savvy for the empty pieties of an earlier generation. 

“It’s not over,” an optimist might say.  “The resolution is simple:  Adapt.”




You know me a little bit.

What do you think of my chances?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

What is really hilarious about this is that the British are absolutely certain that Americans are too earnest and cannot do irony *at all* except for FRASIER, which they seem to regard as a non-recurring phenomenon. (Which means that when Americans *do* do irony, it sails right over their little heads.)


Canda said...

But, Earl, you did "The Cosby Show", the anti-irony sitcom, and worked on shows from MTM to Major Dad, that were not ironical.

You should have written "The King's Speech", the lump-in-your throat feel good movie of the century.

People still love sentiment. You're capable of delivering it, if the cool cynics in Santa Monica haven't dampen yours.

Jade Beast said...

Today's entire post reeks of irony, doesn't it! Very quiet, subtle irony.

Mike said...

My experience of stadium shows is that performers make a lot of money while the audience should stay home and watch the show on TV. I prefer the clubs.
So, to me, the irony is Martin taking his act out of the clubs into stadiums while criticizing the facade of showbiz.
But his criticizing the facade is injecting sincerity into an insincere tradition. Isn't he using irony to bring sincerity?

It's true there's an English adage that Americans don't understand irony. And a belief that insincerity is fundamental to American life. And that I think Frasier is the closest Americans have got to an English sitcom.

Mike said...

Thinking of the adage "Americans don't understand irony", it may mean that Americans interpret too literally. Which is Martin's joke. To which the Canadian, with similar sensibilities to the English, has nuanced a subtext.
Don't analyse humour.