November 7, 2017

OUT ON A LIMB: Jon Gabriel is defending Steve Martin’s “King Tut” from an attack by James Lileks.

To modern eyes, “King Tut” was cheesy and lame. But in 1978, that was the point.

That decade served up a slew of “important” stand-up comedians who were edgy, cynical, and highly political. George Carlin issued diatribes on capitalism and religion. The far-funnier Richard Pryor was laser-focused on racial injustice. Andy Kaufman intentionally alienated club crowds with his anti-comedy. Robert Klein and David Steinberg were high-brow intellectuals. And nearly every comic lectured America about Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and the hollow hypocrisy of bourgeois life.

Then along came Steve Martin. Sick of the conventional joke formula, he spent years crafting a stand-up act without punchlines. And the way to make audiences laugh sans jokes was by acting silly. He paraded around in bunny ears and a fake arrow through his head, embarrassingly contorting his body to sell the act. All the while, he pretended to be just as self-important and overly earnest as his fellow comics. The juxtaposition is what made it funny. (See his intro to the song above.)

The tastemakers took themselves far too seriously to risk looking silly; they had to be smarter than the audience. Although highly intelligent, Martin presented himself as the dumbest, least self-aware guy in the room. Instead of educating Americans on their evils, he brought back comedy to its actual function: making people laugh.

In a way, he was doing what the original Star Wars did in 1977. After a decade of bleak, dystopian sci-fi, George Lucas revamped the old Flash Gordon serials into a fun, popcorn-friendly escapism.

If there’s one good thing that came of the Carter administration, it’s that having to lay off a Democratic president temporarily forced Saturday Night Live into a much more apolitical stance than its first season, and as a result, the show created some of its most accessible, timeless work. In the show’s early episodes, the cast openly campaigned on air for the ERA and went after Gerald Ford, history’s original greatest monster, which such intensity when his press secretary stupidly agreed to host an episode that one of its writers (and then-wife of producer/creator Lorne Michaels) later admitted, “The president’s watching. Let’s make him cringe and squirm.”

As Michael J. Lewis wrote at Commentary in 2010, you can see the temporary interregnum in the culture war via the show’s choice of hosts: the openly political George Carlin hosted SNL’s very first episode; by the third season, Martin’s repeated apolitical appearances on SNL made him a superstar.

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