In Malcolm Gladwell's last book, Outliers, he discusses the oft-discussed 10,000-hour rule: many successful people put in a lot of time into their passion. The Beatles playing eight-hour gigs several nights a week in Hamburg; young Bill Gates sneaking out of his house to use the timeshare terminal between midnight and dawn, before school. Michael Jordan has a similar story, as do many classical musicians, writers, and on and on.
So I was pleased to see a similar story in Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up. He was born in 1945, and as a child performed acts in his school classes. He got a job at Disneyland at 10, selling guidebooks at the gate, then graduated to rope trick demonstrations and later to the counter at the magic shop. At Disneyland, he was inspired by the talented but cheesy Vaudevillesque performers who mixed gags into their routines, whether behind the counter or on stage.
What I loved most was reading about his unusual act as a craft he consciously improved over 20 years and thousands of performances. Maybe more than other arts, comedy seems effortless. We think, "Now, that's a funny guy," and we don't appreciate the subtlety of comic timing, the nuance of gesture and body language, and all the other points of craftsmanship the good comedians work on. Maybe that's why comedies rarely win Oscars? Some comedians — Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin come to mind — are rightly praised for the more dramatic aspects of their work, which used acting chops to create poignant, uncomfortable comedy. But it seems easier to make people laugh, and we don't always realize that comedians don't just roll out of bed with five solid minutes of comedy ready to go.
But Martin's insight was to attempt anticomedy, in which the audience's need to laugh would not be relieved by punchlines and would thus erupt at unusual points in the show, or even after the show. He portrayed a marginally talented, awkward, and unfunny person who seemed to be completely unaware of his own ineptness. He did this with utter confidence, and had to endure many nights of bombing and years of audiences not getting it. As he says at one point, "Wait! Let me explain my theory!"
He played this unusual act for well more than 10,000 hours, evolving it slowly from folk clubs in 1965 L.A. and San Francisco to daytime TV appearances, and finally to unprecedented success starting in 1979 with two platinum albums, worldwide catchphrases, appearances on Saturday Night Live, and finally The Jerk, a movie germinated from one line in his act, which took the character as far as it could go. And, having reached this end, he quit. He fulfilled his last standup booking in 1981 and never looked back.
I've admired his work since then, from his calculatedly odd choice for a second movie, Pennies from Heaven, to his humor books and articles, his novels and plays, his other movies and screenplays, and even his banjo playing, but I've mostly admired that he walked away from that burdensome standup character, not at all like the Steve Martin who studied philosophy, who collects fine art, and who worked as hard and as seriously on his craft as one can.