Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin

This is a book by a young man. We sometimes forget things like that: we think that Albert Einstein was born the old guy with the bushy hair, or that Lawrence Welk's '60s style was what big-band music sounded like when the WW II generation was young and on the make. Everyone was young once; everyone thought the world was ahead of them and they could do anything they wanted. Some of them were right.

Forty-five years ago, Steve Martin was an up-and-coming young comedian: weird and distinctive and quirky, beloved by youngish Boomers and mostly confusing to their parents. He'd hosted Saturday Night Live a few times - and was probably known by that point as much as "the wild and crazy guy" as for the blindingly-white-suit standup routine - toured the country to sold-out shows in ever-larger venues, but hadn't been in any full-length movies yet.

His standup was random and anarchic, with obvious sight gags (the arrow through the head, juggling "kittens") interspersed with non sequitur outbursts, frantic banjo playing, some actual songs (those of my age will remember "King Tut"), and absolutely nothing with a standard joke structure. It was funny and bizarre and different, and it had been building for most of the '70s; Martin was 32 in 1977.

And then he put out a short book of essays and poems, Cruel Shoes. It's copyright 1977, but everything I can find says 1979 is when it was really widely available: the year The Jerk hit theatres, the year Martin got even bigger and, I suspect, started to think about movie work as the off-ramp for the crazy standup act that may already have been palling for him.

This is not that standup act: go to his first couple of albums if you want that. But it's like the standup act: off-kilter, refusing to abide by standard joke structures or ideas of what's "funny," full of weird transitions and juxtapositions. It also points towards Martin's later, more literary ambitions - the novels he wrote early this century, the screenplays based on famous older works, and so on. His ideas were wild and crazy, but his prose, even this far back, was tight and precise - as we should expect, since a standup comedian is the next thing to a poet as someone who needs to make very specific words say precisely what he wants.

Cruel Shoes has fifty-one pieces in its 128 pages; they're mostly the length of comedy routines, just a page or two, and a few of them did make it into his act or onto his albums later. (Or simultaneously; I don't know the sequence, this many years later.) They are very nearly indescribable, but the book can be read in little more than an hour, so why bother to describe it when someone can just read it?

This seems to be solidly out of print, but Martin was a superstar in the making when it came out, in a world where books had massive print-runs, so copies are available in probably every last used-book store and church sale and flea market in the entire nation. If you want Cruel Shoes, I doubt it would be hard to find.

Oh, and something I didn't know when I started. There is a title story. It is about cruel shoes. They are shoes, and they are very cruel. Really. I always thought it was some kind of metaphor; I didn't realize how deeply Martin had committed to the bit back then. If there's one thing I'd want to tell you, you being a person who might read this, it's that: Martin was committed to the bit.

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