delanceyplace.com 1/04/08 - steve martin
In today's excerpt - comedian Steve Martin, who performed in near obscurity for fourteen years before achieving international fame:
"In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. ... What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgement that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song. ...
"These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comedic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose rather than being told when to laugh.
"To test my ideas, at my next appearance at the Ice House, I went onstage and began: 'I'd like to open up with sort of a 'funny comedy bit.' This has really been a big one for me ... it's the one that put me where I am today. I'm sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it's the Nose on Microphone routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it's always funny no matter how many times you see it.'
"I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, 'Thank you very much.' 'That's it?' they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.
"Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet. If I wasn't offering punch lines, I'd never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. ... Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all, and that this act was going on with or without them. ...
"My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh."