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Friday, November 11th, 2011

On Location with One of Steve Martin's First TV Performances

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Last Wednesday, the Paley Center celebrated its 35th birthday. To help celebrate, we’re going to spotlight an item from their archives that aired on November 8th, 1976, the day before the museum opened it’s doors for the very first time.

In 1976, HBO was just beginning to gain it’s footing as a nationally broadcast channel and one of their first original shows was On Location. After its super seventies theme song, each episode would feature a single live stand-up performance. Looking at the list of episodes, it’s a who’s who of seventies stand-up with episodes featuring George Carlin, Redd Foxx, David Brenner, Robin Williams, and many others. But besides these more established names, on Halloween night in 1976, they taped an episode with an up-and-comer by the name of Steve Martin.

After years of working behind the scenes as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Sonny and Cher, and The Steve Allen Show, 1976 was a big year for Steve.  Between hosting Saturday Night Live earlier in October and then having the distinction of being one of the first comedians to be showcased by HBO, Martin was being exposed to a national audience, and it seemed to be working.

What makes this episode notable is what separates it from the televised stand-up performances of today. There’s absolutely no editing, as far as I could tell. There are obviously camera cuts, but it feels like the whole thing is happening in real time. Jokes that don’t hit all that well are left in alongside the ones that have the audience rolling. Perhaps the biggest difference is the lack of audience reaction shots. It feels like in the modern comedy special that every single joke is punctuated by a shot of someone in the crowd really enjoying it. In this special, it’s actually jarring when they cut to someone because of how infrequently it happens (I wasn’t actively counting, but I think we only see three people in the audience in the hour). Strangely, as a result the special feels more intimate, as you spend your time looking at the performer, as if you were actually in the audience, and you don’t feel like you’re being told to laugh.

Although, maybe that has more to do with Steve Martin’s actual style of stand-up than the editing. The first ten minutes go by astoundingly fast as he comes out and just riffs and riffs, throwing out all sorts of jokes to the audience. He gets his first laugh without even saying a word: he mimes being touched by the response he gets, on the verge of tears, takes a few steps, mimes crying, takes a few more steps, gives the audience a middle finger, then starts crying again. He plays a few notes on the banjo, makes fun of the audience for paying to see this, brags about getting his drinks for half price (“That means for every one drink you buy… I get two…”), playing with the mic, making fun of the set; it’s a frenetic barrage of ad-libs and jokes.

In his recent memoir, Born Standing Up, Steve reflects on this style that he would have adopted very recently at this point in his life. “With conventional joke telling, there’s a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it’s the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song…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. “ One can really see this process come through in this special as Steve really rides on a near-constant stream of laughter spanning the entire hour.

While much of the material in On Location: Steve Martin can be heard on his first album Let’s Get Small or in his early Saturday Night Live monologues, what really makes this special worth seeing is the visual nature of a Steve Martin performance. Towards the very beginning of the show he demonstrates a very difficult banjo chord that requires him to hold the bass string with his nose. Several times through the show, Steve is struck by “happy feet” and he begins spastically dancing (if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to trust me that I’m not doing it justice). And the last third of his special features him juggling, doing magic tricks and tying balloon animals. And while those last three things might sound out of place in what we think of with stand-up today, Steve actually brings them to unique and unexpected places that are still pretty entertaining. (Okay, maybe there’s not really anything that funny about the juggling. But he’s surprisingly talented at it, and it doesn’t go on for all that long.)

But is it still funny? Yes. Definitely. If you’re a fan of Steve’s you’ve probably heard a lot of this stuff before, but it’s really exciting to see one full performance on it’s own, as a whole, not chopped up into album tracks or split into chunks used to introduce tonight’s musical guest. What struck me the most, though, were the inevitable comparisons I kept making to modern comedy. For example, there’s a moment in the special where Steve puts the banjo back on, and does a medley of songs. Recently I’ve heard people complain about Steve’s banjo-only albums or the Conan O’Brien live show in which he played guitar in several numbers as being self-indulgent and irritating. But I couldn’t figure out why that didn’t seem to be the case with the 1976 iteration of Steve. Is it because he was still such a newcomer and there was still a novelty to a performer bringing a banjo on stage? Because he’s actually good?

I actually think it has more to do with his joke-telling style discussed earlier. After being bombarded by jokes for thirty-five minutes, a quick three minutes of well-executed banjo songs might be a welcome breather for some. It’s a chance to relax for a moment and prepare oneself for the next oncoming round of mock-sincerity, smooth-talking and just really funny material.

Steve ends the show by stepping out into the crowd and riffing on the audience, then walking out of the building where a huge crowd of people has amassed to catch a glimpse. Instead of just waving and greeting people, here Steve continues to perform, not just making jokes about the folks in the crowd, but actually walking down the street, chasing cars and putting on an entirely different show for an entirely different crowd. Most impressively, even as he’s clearly riffing off the top of his head, it all lands, and it’s all still hilarious. Perhaps Steve describes his set best when he faux-pompously declares that he wants the audience to leave saying, “Yeah, he was funny. But, he was also very, very intelligent.”

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • Tommy Rowson@facebook

    Where can you watch it?

    • http://www.ramseyess.com Ramsey Ess

      @Tommy Rowson@facebook HBO has released a few of the "On Location" specials on DVD, but unfortunately not this one. Like most of the items discussed in my "From the Archives" pieces, the only place I know to see them are at the Paley Centers in NY or LA.