The title of this post is from Steve Martin’s bit called “Grandmother’s Song” which — as the lyrics progress — go from a sweet, loving song about being kind and having a nice word to say to people, to being more absurd. To wit:
Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus
Be dull, and boring, and omnipresent
Criticize things you don’t know about
Be oblong and have your knees removed
Now, comedy is subjective, and in the words of Martin “not pretty.” Some comics bomb at their material, but others capture the zeitgeist and just kill with their material. Steve Martin was one of the latter comics — though he certainly sucked when he started. As he honed his craft on stage, he stumbled upon an idea for comedy that wasn’t being tried: the use of non-sequiturs in comedy. Or as he wrote about it in his memoir, Born Standing Up:
“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 punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”
Like many people my age, Steve Martin’s comedy — like Monty Python’s Flying Circus — was groundbreaking. I had only seen comics who did the set-up and punchline jokes until Steve came along. But this guy was truly unique and weird. And I like weird. His first two records were surprising hits. As he toured around the country, he started playing venues that huge rock acts usually played. People were showing up in droves to see a guy in a white suit, playing banjo with an arrow through his head doing non-sequitur comedy.
And then in 1978…
“King Tut” becomes a hit. It sells over a million copies, goes to #17 on the singles charts, and makes Martin a big, big star. Of course, he went on to record another comedy album “Comedy is not Pretty” (1979), had a hit movie with “The Jerk” (1979), wrote a group of “essays” under the title Cruel Shoes (1979), and then started to hit the skids with some flops: the films “Pennies from Heaven (1981), “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), and his record “The Steve Martin Brothers” (1981).
But after that, he showed himself to be more than just a Johnny-one-note. He wrote novels, acted in non-comedic roles, penned screenplays, plays, and has recorded five studio albums.
Now, he can add “racist” to his resume.
The Atlantic published a piece about students at Reed College protesting (in part) about the live performance by Steve Martin of “King Tut” on SNL back in 1978. Yeah. You got that right. “King Tut” is offensive. A comedy song making fun of the commercialization of the King Tut exhibit touring the U.S. at that time is racist. Why? Well if you ask one of the students at Reed who is also a member of the group Reedies Against Racism (RAR), “King Tut” is an example of cultural appropriation (from The Atlantic article):
The Egyptian garb of the backup dancers and singers—many of whom are African American—“is racist… The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface…[t]hat’s like somebody … making a song just littered with the n-word everywhere.”
A vocal minority usually grabs the media spotlight, and so it goes with RAR. Culture cops like RAR aren’t only about raking Steve Martin over the coals, their main point is more like what the anti-apartheid protests in the ’80s where about: divestment. For RAR, they want Reed College to divest from Wells Fargo Bank. Why? Because Wells Fargo invests in a couple of private prisons, gives money to police organizations, invested in the Dakota Pipeline, engages in discriminatory lending, and pressured Puerto Rico to take on massive amounts of debt.
Okay, these complaints are certainly legit. The “school to prison pipeline” is a real thing, so is police violence directed at communities of color (and black men in particular). The Dakota pipeline project is also one where you have commercial interests negating agreements with native people, and Puerto Rico is no doubt a mess with both their $70-billion-dollar debt and trying to recover from the devastating hurricane (and the federal government’s tepid response to it). But all that is being eclipsed by protests against things like “King Tut” or the required Humanities course where the complaint is that the texts are overwhelmingly authored by white men. Now, this complaint about “the canon” is not new. When I was in college it was hotly debated with the same moral righteousness that some Reed students are expressing. What has changed in the last 27 years since I got my B.A. is that professors aren’t elevating texts like Plato’s Republic as great works to be admired without commentary. Rather, like it was when I was a student, you’re asked to critically engage with the text, disagreeing with it, finding lines of argumentation to point out flaws, etc. But it all comes from critical thinking skills, not raw emotion.
But it seems like raw emotion is driving a knee-jerk objection to things like “King Tut.”
And just to end on a note of levity, I give you my favorite short story by Steve Martin from Cruel Shoes:
He lit the cigarette and smoked it down to the filter in one breath. He silently thanked the Winston Company for being thoughtful enough about his health to include a filter to protect him. So he lit up another. This time he didn’t exhale the squeaky-clean filtered smoke, but just let it nestle in his lungs, filling his body with that good menthol flavor. Some more smokers knocked on his door and they came in and all started smoking with him.
“How wonderful it is that we’re all smoking,” he thought.
Everyone smoked and smoked and after they smoked they all talked about smoking and how nice it was that they were all smokers and then they smoked some more.
Smoke, smoke, smoke. They all sang “Smoke That Cigarette” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Then the smokers smoked one more cigarette and left him alone in his easy chair, about to relax and enjoy a nice quiet smoke. And then his lips fell off.