Even among those of us who love comedy, and respect it as a fine art, there’s a tendency to think, “How hard could it be?”
Stand on a stage with a fake arrow through your head? I could do that. Slap someone in the face with a giant fish? I could do that. Stuff live cats down your pants on live television? I wouldn’t want to do that, but I could.
The reality, of course, is that for a comedy artist, there is no such thing as a cheap laugh. Those glorious moments on stage might have been preceded by years of grinding work in dead-end clubs. They may be the product of squabbling with co-workers, struggles with censors, or even some deep psychological need that goes back to childhood.
At least that’s what emerges in reflective new works by funnymen Michael Palin and Steve Martin. Their self-portraits differ—Palin is the pointillist, offering tiny bits of information that eventually fill a massive canvas, while Martin paints himself and the landscape around him with surprising directness and clarity. Both men make it clear that becoming a comedy legend takes more than being a clown.
Palin’s revelations come in the form of a decade of journal entries. Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years is more than 600 pages documenting, well, everything. As he describes it, “In the course of these diaries I grow up, my family grows up and Monty Python grows up. It was a great time to be alive.”
You get the feeling that Palin was indeed happy to be alive. Whether because of careful editing or his genuine good nature, he comes across as a genial, but not gossipy, guide to the Monty Python troupe, whose absurdist TV shows, stage acts and movies have won laughs from millions of fans, many of them sober.
He makes it clear that the Pythons’ success was a result of enough creative tension to explode a flock of giant penguins. He records the personality quirks that almost sank the troupe just as Americans were catching on. He also records how determined the players were to get their comedy right. Who knew that scenes as simple and hilarious as the ex-leper in Life of Brian or the Three-Headed Knight in Holy Grail could have come so close to the cutting-room floor?
Diaries is full of such details. Dallas fans in particular will delight in the details of their 1975 visit: Palin officially credits former KERA program director Ron Devillier as “the man who finally got Monty Python onto American TV.”
The diaries’ totality is both a weakness and a strength. On the one hand, those who want only Python tidbits will have to pick through details about Palin’s home life, his children, his efforts to care for his aging father and many, many descriptions of breakfasts, dinners and cocktails. On the other, he is an excellent diarist, offering insights not just on the Pythons but on the whole decade.
Over that decade, Palin goes from being a twentysomething writer/reformer willing to support his family by doing “Hunky Chunks” dog food commercials to hanging with George Harrison at the ex-Beatle’s mansion, accepting congratulations for having the top-grossing movie in America. Even Palin seems to shake his head in wonder at how it happened. Fans will be delighted at his description of the journey.
By comparison, Martin’s tome, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, is both less daunting and more self-conscious. And even more enjoyable.
The Waco, Texas, native treats readers to all kinds of revelatory tidbits—how he spent his teen years performing tricks at the Disneyland magic shop, which did sell fake-arrow headwear; how an emotionally distant father (something he and Palin could discuss in group therapy) drove him to leave home at 18; how he landed his first regular acting job doing melodrama at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Martin is a spare, careful writer who never gets bogged down. His text is full of droll asides, and if his overall tone is melancholy, this is Steve Martin after all. The laughs are never too far away.
But what it took to develop those laughs.
Martin seems to have played every lousy venue in America, including a drive-in theater in Northern California, where he performed midday “while a dozen cars hooked up to the sound system listened through window speakers. If the drive-in patrons thought a joke was funny, they honked.”
He eventually started writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and making the TV talk show rounds. After years of struggle, he was still playing clubs in remote strip malls.
But he was always analyzing his work and developing his own vision of comedy with no punch lines. His book shows how his style evolved, step by step: “I came up with odd little gags such as `How many people have never raised their hands before?’” and stepping off the stage saying, “I just want to come down into the audience with my people ... DON’T TOUCH ME!”
His career would soon explode, with appearances on the new Saturday Night Live and multimillion-selling albums. But while success made him famous and wealthy, it also made him a prisoner of the stage. And so the book wraps up as he brings his stand-up career to a halt.
Martin is clearly proud of what he has accomplished, but he makes the emotional toll clear: “When I think of the moments of elation I have had over some of my successes, I am astounded at the number of times they have been accompanied by elation’s hellish opposite.”
In other words, comedy is not pretty. Or easy. But it’s at least worthy of respect.
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life