Saturday, January 16, 2016

Born Standing Up

Dying is easy, said a famous actor. Comedy is hard. 

Actors and writers know all too well the truth of these lines. This is therefore a tribute to Steve Martin who wrote Born Standing Up, about a person he used to be.

"At age eighteen, I had no gifts," he disclosed in this engaging book. "Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent." 

His high school jobs at Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland had introduced him to the world of magic and comedy. Under the influence of a girl friend he gravitated towards studying - taking courses in - philosophy which gave him material for his early comedy routines. He is also a member of mensa but so far does not appear to have worked that into any comic work that I am aware of.


"I've decided my act is going ... avant-garde," he announced early in his career and elaborates in the book, "I am not sure what I meant, but I wanted to use the lingo, and it was seductive to make these pronouncements. Through the years, I have learned there is no harm charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration."

He found in San Francisco "the cultural melange and the growing culture of drugs," that made the crowded streets of North Beach "simmer with toxic vitality." His years as stand-up comic made him aware of the loneliness of that calling. Unlike the teams that worked on shows like the Smothers Brothers, for which SM wrote until the show was cancelled due to political pressure, there was no team or band that congregated around a funny man. No "others" with whom to commiserate on a disastrous outing or to review a problematic performance or to plan a road trip.

SM likened the first time he did the Tonight Show to an "alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I am convinced it occurred." 

As this and all the above shows, the man is witty. But even he does not succeed in writing any scene of gut-heaving hilarity. Two scenes of what happened at the end of his stand-up routines when his audience declined to leave despite his best efforts and when he left by "swimming" over their heads, passed from out-stretched arms to others, come close in concept. I have to confess that visualizing them did not stimulate more than a chuckle, no more than the one-liners that fill this book.

He explored the psychology of comedy early on and concluded that the build-up of tension by a comic was often followed by an "artificial" release (punch-line). What, he wondered, if there is not any release /punchline? "What if I headed for a climax but all I delivered was anti-climax?" In many ways that was the essence of the SM brand. But it is not any easier to visualize or (I imagine) to perform. Certainly, to describe it would invite disaster.

His choice of the many comedians to which to pay tribute is interesting: Laurel and Hardy, the Smothers Brothers, the cast of Laugh-In, the team at Saturday Night Live, Don Rickles, etc. One wonders about the absence of Bob Hope, perhaps less so at the non-mention of Jerry Lewis. Pride of place was given to Johnny Carson who "enjoyed the delights of split-second timing, of watching a comedian squirm and rescue himself... He knew the difference between the pompous ass and the nervous actress and who should receive appropriate consideration... he served his audience with his curiosity and tolerance. He gave his guest--like the ideal America would--the benefit of the doubt: you're nuts, but you are welcome here." 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Voice and Point of View

The concepts of voice and point of view in writing challenges me continually. The first person narrative and the third person omniscient should be clear. But there were passages in Mo Yan's Red Sorghum that impressed me greatly because he wrote as if slipping in and out of the point of view of a pack of feral dogs. Further, an Indie writer, Lee Fullbright, wrote The Angry
Woman Suite, adopting the perspective of three characters in turn--Elysse, the step-daughter; Francis, the step-father, and Aidan, Francis' school teacher and mentor who is friend to both--but the novel impressed me with a single overwhelming, angry voice. 

I understand that the third person omniscient is a dangerously alluring voice or POV for an author and one best left to the masters, but one of my favorite authors frequently employs--I am flabbergasted just to think about it--the FIRST person omniscient. How else would you account for a statement such as "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that"? (Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children). I actually think that Shame was a greater work (though slighter in physical volume), but that too uses the same technique.


Christa Wolf's Medea consisted of eleven monologues, ranging from taut, focused lamentation to unbounded rage all part of a "riff" on the ancient Greek legend of Medea. I do believe that we are better off with that book than without, as far as understanding the Medea legend goes. If that has become a

category in psychotherapy, I am happy to say I am not aware of any such thing. Muriel Barberry's Elegance of the Hedgehog (some love this work, others don't) alternates between the first person voice of a concierge-savant and that of a child-savant. I suspect that the "savant thing" puts many readers off. Humility is not a common virtue among writers and it is probably more valued as a result. 

Writers are cautioned about the use of the first person; it is by far the most intimate voice, but can you, the author, handle it? And can you handle it in a manner that connects with your readers? After one writes something like "Call me Ishmael," how does one sustain the story, the narrative? Notice that there are more first person narratives that are not in the voice of a Captain Ahab or a Sherlock Holmes. Somehow, one suspects that a reader is more likely not to feel connected to a monomaniacal whaler or a highly functioning sociopath of a detective, hence the function of the faithful "side-kick." Speaking of which, the TV series that cast an Asian woman as Doctor Watson has managed to inject a brilliant case of cognitive dissonance--what remains is to see how well the script-writing sustains this.

For a writer, especially one relatively new to the craft, the safest voice and point of view is that of the third person objective. One does not try to get into any of one's characters' heads. One observes and practices the craft of describing/showing as opposed to narrating/ telling. Just the facts ma'am. But. 

Fiction should engage the reader just a little (or a lot) more. Hence, the POV often employed is the third person limited, which means the reader is allowed into the head of one character, usually the main character or the side-kick. That person is allowed to conduct "internal dialogue." Some style sheets have evolved to codify this by requiring italics without quotation marks. This gets us into some advanced areas that I would just as soon avoid for now. One can only read so many "how to" books on the art of writing.

Further, what happens when there are many characters and one does not wish to have the main character in every scene. Is the third person limited supple enough to to slip into the mind of the main character for the scene in one chapter and into that of another character in a different chapter? This is where writing dissolves into empiricism--what works? A writer should listen to reviewers. They are not all right nor always right; but they provide feedback to a writer as echo location functions for a bat.