Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon takes on Steve Martin’s exploration of the rise of stand-up comedy.
As a succinct illustration of the sophisticated yet wacky humor of comedian Steve Martin, Cruel Shoes successfully functioned as a social commentary on the rise of stand-up comedy during the 1970s. Consisting of over fifty comedic poems and short stories, Cruel Shoes creatively encompassed Martin’s distinct comedic style, which differed so drastically from the counterculture icons of the1970s. While this first published compilation received countless accolades by comedic and literary critics alike, his popularity only skyrocketed from his already rock-star status as a stand-up comedian. Having benefited from the myriad of television and stage venues that appeared during the decade, Martin and countless other comics were catapulted to stardom by performing their stand-up acts on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. In retrospect, Martin’s Cruel Shoes literally demonstrated his career aspirations, as stand-up comedy had always been a mere stepping stone towards his main goal of writing and acting in film. Now an accomplished writer, producer, actor, and art collector, Martin has come a long way from his days of stand-up and his publication of Cruel Shoes.
Written by Steve Martin in 1979, Cruel Shoes marked the comedian’s first attempt at comedy in book form. Consisting of very brief and very funny, one-to-two-page stories and monologues, the book allowed the audience a glimpse into the self-representative and self-effacing comedy made famous by Martin’s stand-up act. As if entering the twisted mind of Gene Wilder’s rambling Willy Wonka, Martin’s bizarre stories described scenarios such as dogs living double lives and an island of women without bones. In stories such as “Serious Dogs” and “The Day the Dopes Came Over,” he succeeded in creating the simply silly and downright hysterical through his classic intelligence and sophisticated words and prose. While some of the stories left me puzzled and in utter confusion, I found that most were clearer and even funnier when imagining Martin reading them aloud. Overall, Cruel Shoes seemed to combine its theme and purpose in being written: to encompass the unique comedy style and outstanding writing ability that he developed from his years performing stand-up, while acting as an additional outlet for his material outside of the medium of stand up comedy. Steve’s gentle but puerile comedy enabled him to be amidst the multitude of stars that gained fame through stand-up in the 1970s, although, his dreams of working in film constantly pushed him to find alternate mediums to display his craft. For Martin, stand-up did not completely satisfy his creative energy:
Only in the last couple of years did I discover that I had anything to say. Before that, I was running on a sort of comedy energy — and the love of comedy. Comedy alone was enough. Bad painting is still called art, but only great comedy is called art. Bad comedy is just terrible. (Martin)
Written at the height of stand-up’s popularity, Cruel Shoes has undoubtedly served as proof of the 1970s cultural phenomenon.
Prior to its popularity in the 1970s, stand-up comedy had evolved from several comedic traditions originating in the late 19th century, including clown routines, vaudeville, and Yiddish theatre. “Most early comedians were merely viewed as ‘joke tellers,’ who warmed up the audience as an opening act, or kept the crowds entertained during intermissions” (Wikipedia – Stand-up Comedy). As time passed, comedy clubs presented both seasoned and amateur comedians the chance to perform in front of a live audience. The occasional “open mic night” offered unknown comedians the possibility of being discovered, which made stand-up comedy into the easiest gateway to the entertainment industry. However, the most dramatic changes to the field would occur throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. With the appearance of such personalities as Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Red Foxx, and Phillis Diller, stand-up comedy began to explore more cutting-edge and controversial topics in the 50s and 60s such as race, politics, and sex. In fact, Lenny Bruce was best known for his incessant attempts to push the accepted limitations of entertainment through vulgar language and material. While the 50s and 60s opened the doors for revolutionary comedic style and controversial material, the 1970s created the stage for its presentation to the world.
In a decade when the seriousness of world issues and widespread disillusionment were at an all-time high, stand-up comedy became an outlet for social and cultural release. Stand-up exploded during the 1970s, with several comedians becoming major stars after being discovered from their stand-up performances. In a seemingly simultaneous effect, bright, young comedians were constantly being uncovered, while stand-up venues kept popping up by way of nightclubs, theatres, arenas, and television appearances. Television programs such as The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live featured these young comedians, enabling them to gain further popularity on a national scale. Comedians such as Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Steve Martin burst onto the comedy scene, cultivating American culture through their stylized routines.
With the large number of new venues and the heightened interest of Americans in stand-up comedy, these comedians were cast into immediate fame, landing major television, movie, and touring contracts. As proved by Cruel Shoes, these comedians were given the chance to depart from their stand-up origins into more in-depth and challenging aspects of the entertainment industry.
As a result of the stand up comedy boom, Steve Martin has enjoyed a highly successful career in multiple facets of the entertainment industry. Having started his entertainment career as a comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, Martin began to perform his own material in 1970 as an opening act for groups such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Carpenters. Much like his fellow comedians, stand-up was the easiest medium with which to be noticed. Several appearances as a host on Saturday Night Live not only heightened his fame, but also enabled him to affect American culture through the adaptation of catch phrases like “Excuuuuuuse Me!” and “Wild & Crazy Guys” (Wikipedia – Steve Martin).
With a slew of television performances under his belt throughout the early 70s, Martin began to achieve the kind of fame that allowed him to pursue other entertainment avenues. He received the opportunity to write books such as Cruel Shoes, to write and star in his own movies, and to record four comedy albums – two of which won Grammy Awards for the Best Comedy Recording. Although film was his true passion, Cruel Shoes can be viewed as an encompassment of his career goals and purpose; the actual writing of the book was a step away from stand-up comedy and towards his goal of film. While his purpose in writing the book may have simply been to communicate his art to the audience, his underlying motivation was to move into alternative mediums of entertainment.
In a time when Disco, Funk, Glam Rock, and Punk Rock made their way into American culture, Cruel Shoes exemplified the rising stardom of not only its author, but of the countless comedians who achieved fame during the stand-up comedy boom of the 1970s. Written by the most “un-comedian like comedian,” who wore a white suit, played the banjo, wore an arrow-through-the-head headband, and created sheer immaturity through utter sophistication, it will forever depict the undeniable talents of its author and the phenomenon that swept the country.
“Stand-Up Comedy.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. December 2004. 8 December
“Steve Martin.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. December 2004. 7 December
Martin, Steve. The Compleat Steve: Everything About Steve Martin*. 2003. 8
December 2004. <http://www.compleatsteve.com/actor/standup.htm>.
Barbra Dillon is the Managing Editor of Fanboy Comics, an independent comic book publishing company based in Los Angeles, Calif. She has produced numerous short films including Something Animal and Batman of Suburbia, and served as Legal Advisor for the film Walken on Sunshine. For more interviews, blogs, and reviews by Barbra and the FBC staff, check out the Fanboy Comics website at FanboyComics.net or sign up for the e-newsletter, The Fanboy Scoop, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.