Ideas about Humor in Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up

Those who follow Steve Martin’s career at least to some extent are definitely aware that before trying his hand at acting he was a famous comedian, on the peak of his glory able to sell out concert halls in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Martin reflects on his formative years and the steps he had taken to find himself immensely popular, yet as much lonely and frustrated, in his memoire Born Standing Up, which he calls a biography rather than an autobiography “because I am writing about someone I used to know”. First of all, the book is interesting by the deep, introspective look Martin takes at himself and the reasons that prompted him to start his career in standup comedy. When in college Martin took philosophy and ethic classes, he had several breakthrough realizations which eventually allowed him to become so different from the other comedians at the time. The connection between philosophy and humor, no matter how strange it may seems from the first glance, is of little wonder as the human ability to laugh and generate laugh, which is not present in animals, captured the attention of many thinkers, including major Ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle had a treatise on comedy, so it is absolutely natural for intelligent and college-graduating comedians to turn their attention to the theoretical underpinning of their occupation. The humor theories, some of which will be focused on further, give a better understanding of how Martin, through a series of epiphanies which guided him to modernize and evolve standup comedy of the 1970s, developed a punchline-free absurdist type of humor and occupied a central place in the late 1970s-early 1980s public performance stage. The paper aims to discuss to which extent it is possible to trace the relation of Steve Martin’s literary piece to “A Brief History of Humor Theories” written by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams, as well as how their work can facilitate the better understanding of his unconventional approach to humoristic art.

Humor theories study the way the art of humor is generated and what actually makes people laugh. In “A Brief History of Humor Theories,” Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams explain that one of the humor theories is the play theory, which argues that laughter is closely connected with play and in terms of brain activity is close to tickling. The authors also say that for early hominids “laughter promoted social play” and signaled that there was no danger around and some rest and peace could be allowed. Applied broadly, the play theories of humor can indicate that humans generally need and are able to generate laughter when they are relaxed and feel safe. It can also explain why and how some comedians can provoke laughter in the audience when they indeed do nothing particularly laughable. Martin describes how a comedian he had observed during his college days could invoke laughter from the audience by tapping his fingers on his coat at the moment of punch lines, even though his punch lines were inaudible. 


As a budding comic artist, Martin made up his routine mostly from very rudimentary forms of humor, largely appealing to children in terms of developmental maturity. Martin recalls it was physical humor, funny magician tricks, such as a dove trick, banjo playing, and the old jokes lifted up from various comedians and known sources. Humor theory helps understanding this type of humor better. The authors of “A Brief History of Humor Theories” state that one of the chief premises of humor is incongruity. When the listener is expecting a conventional ending to a story, the teller suddenly surprises one with something unexpected and it creates a comic effect. It can eventually result in some basic and crude type of humor such as knock-knock jokes or, in case of Steve Martin, in an arrow-through-head type of act when the comedian’s outfit suggests something clownish and funny whereas he says something deadpan serious. 

However, intellectually it was not very stimulating, not really what the author wanted and overall Martin struggled a lot to gather material enough at least for a 25-minute gig of good quality. His creative pangs were further intensified by the fear that he would eventually run out of material for his short performances until somehow, Martin came upon an idea that “Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening”. He was therefore able to fumble his way through the jungle of comic acts by reading philosophy and participating in college psychology classes. With crisp irony he writes how the choice of show business career would stand out for him unexpectedly and without much anticipation on his part. When Martin found himself enrolled in “beginning logic and advanced logic at the same time”, he understood that he “had reached [his] philosophy limit” and switched to the theater major and that was when he “realized that [he] was now investing in no other future but show business”. Thus, Martin’s knowledge in these college subjects allowed him to work out his own brand of comedy – absurdist humor. 

When Martin had just stepped upon his new way of doing comedy, his critics’ response was withering: “This so-called ‘comedian’ should be told that jokes are supposed to have punch lines”. It vividly shows that it is always a good idea to know some theoretical background in the chosen field and Martin really had it. He derived his inspiration from logic classes and Lewis Carroll’s nonsense syllogism and consequently one of his closing acts sounded the following way one day: “Bananaland, a place where only two things are true… One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green”. Obviously, not each incongruity case can be funny, because an expected death of a dear friend is also incongruous to the highest degree, but not funny at all. Yet, it does not imply that all incongruity is alien to humor. Rather, according to Hurley et al., it means that for the true comic effect one needs to create “some kind of context in which an incongruity feat turns into a humorous circumstance”. 

Martin’s idea of creating the context that would be absurd in a funny way can be glimpsed from his detailing in coming up with a punch-less routine. The comedian decided not to give the audience a release from the building-up tension by saying a punch line and allow them to show when to laugh themselves. It resulted in a stops-free canvas of comic act without pauses for punch lines and without quivering or hesitating on the comedian’s part, which had to signal that he was extremely confident in his material and the audience had to believe him. According to Martin, this decision resulted in a “stronger type of laughter” because the audience “would be laughing at something they chose”. At the same time, Martin offered a lot of nonsense humor which can be incredibly funny because, as it is said in “A Brief History of Humor Theories”, human brain is wired to act logically and is, as a consequence, constantly looking for logic in the words and events around. Thus, in the beginning of his comic career Martin would perform wearing funny costumes and saying ordinary sounding things, while in his most successful years he would switch to a three-piece white suit and say funny nonsense. It created the absurd contradiction necessary for having a comic effect and generating laughs. 

 To crown it all, the fact that Martin could connect the material he had studied at college with what he was doing onstage is telling. Comedy often seems something light-hearted and breezy, and by means of extrapolation comedians can and go off as crude and superficial. Nevertheless, Steve Martin reveals himself as a thoughtful and intelligent deep thinker who acquired a substantial theoretical baggage for his extraordinary comic endeavors in an attempt to get on a brand-new level of telling a joke. His searches were successful, yet not expedite. It took him a decade to get his audience ready to laugh without a punchline lead and follow his anti-humor comic routine, which was later picked up by a new generation of standup comedians such as Zack Galifianakis and others. Martin’s fame was so huge and his presence on stand up comedy stage was so encompassing in the 1970s-1980s that many Americans can attest to him forming their sense of humor and numerous comedians call him the inspirer of their creative path as they had been watching his Saturday Night Live, visited his standup shows, listened to his recorded pieces and watched his comic parts in his early comedies. The authors of the book “A Brief History of Humor Theories” will not call themselves an exception. 

Jun 26, 2020 in Research
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