“Well, excuuuuuuuuuse me!” my mother says from the kitchen when we complain about baked chicken again. “Well excuuuuuuuuuuuse me!” grumbles my father when we change the channel from the Auburn game to Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Los Angeles in the ’80s was a Well-excuuuuuuuse-me world where shoulder-padded executives collided with the take-it-easy beach culture of the ’70s.
It was impossible not to notice this clash, even for a kid like me. I saw the scary Robbie Conal caricatures of Ronald Reagan plastered on the streets, an increasing homeless population, shiny malls rising from the ashes of demoded department stores like the May Company and Bullocks. Despite the cool and mysterious noisy change all around, my world, back then, was my home. This is when houses were still married to instinct and earthiness, when all of them seemed to have dens–rooms lined in wood paneling and covered in carpet so thick and mangy you couldn’t distinguish it from dog hair.
Dens were places where you relaxed, gave in to your senses. There might be a bar, a pool table, an Atari 800, and there certainly would be a stereo system lining a wall somewhere, a tower of thick equipment, an amp, a tuner, a turntable, and two speakers softer and taller than you. Stacked nearby would be a collection of records (not to be confused with a record collection—that was for fancy people. This was just a pile of records accrued over the years, chosen from that primordial, messy, intellectually barren landscape called taste).
I’d flip pass Cream’s Disreali Gears, Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, gaze for a few moments at the album cover featuring a girl with whipped cream for clothes, and pull out the one with a close-up of a man wearing the worst looking balloon-animal hat I’d ever seen and Groucho-Marx-minus-the-mustache glasses: Let’s Get Small by Steve Martin. An adult might think this image appealing to a 7-year-old, but it wasn’t; it was too confusing. The man wasn’t smiling, wasn’t sexy, wasn’t a bad-ass. It was confusing the way a clown might confuse himself into thinking being a clown is funny. Whatever was etched into that vinyl was for adults and nearly 100% over my head, that much was clear. And for me, being an adult was something that mattered, something that mattered a lot.
Although Let’s Get Small came out in 1977, and my parents would play it on repeat well before I knew how to tie my shoes, I don’t remember listening to it until 1983. By the time I was seven, I was well-acquainted with Steve Martin. I watched him perform King Tut on Saturday Night Live, admired his banjo skills on The Muppet Show, sat bewildered through the first drive-in experience I can remember (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), and was intrigued by the title of his book of essays, Cruel Shoes. He seemed to be everywhere: The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, The Tonight Show. I followed his career as closely as anyone 4 foot 3, broke and unable to take care of themselves, could. I was lucky that my parents loved him because that meant I got to love him too.
The first bit on the record is “Ramblin’ Man.” It’s a song that seems to be one long uncatchy chorus, a song that involves wordplay, defies expectations, and makes audience participation enjoyably impossible, since Martin invites it but refuses to allow it. He sings in fake Chinese. He makes weird noises. It’s a calculated performance beneath the silliest of gags; from a child’s perspective, this is adulthood par excellence. Children know what adults are up to, get the gist, quietly and systematically separate the bells and whistles of the social contract from what’s intended.
From there, Martin goes on with absurdist bits about inhaling a piano into his lungs (my favorite moment), performing in Vegas, accepting, unwittingly, an invitation to a bisexual romp: Are you bi, they asked? I don’t know Spanish, so I said yes. Well, it so happened that thanks to my Columbian babysitter I did know Spanish. But what bi meant in either language was beyond me and so were the rest of the sexual references. In fact, these jokes washed over me to such an extent that when I listen to the record now, they seem unfamiliar.
There is something ironically asexual to the way Steven Martin tells a sex joke. There’s a Grand Canyon between his sex jokes and, for instance, those of Eddie Murphy. I saw Eddie Murphy Raw when I was 11 and felt delightfully ashamed for all 93 minutes of it, but with Martin, rarely a blush. This is because he leaves out those risqué cues that might clue me into his real subject—the swearing, the sound effects; instead, he tells a linguistic joke, one which happens to involve sex. Framing sex like this, to 35-year-old me, is wonderfully hilarious. It frees sex from its social clichés and stereotypes, neutralizes it by passing it through the cognitive machine. There really isn’t another human activity with more baggage. For the sexual act to be nothing more than the sexual act (as eating is often done merely to ease hunger), a lot of concentration and/or alcohol is necessary. Sex is civilization’s martyr, and Martin’s way of treating it somehow sunk in (although so did Murphy’s).
The title track “Let’s Get Small,” the longest on the album, takes up drugs as its subject and remains one of Martin’s most famous bits. It’s also the one that I remember most. It’s incredibly simple. All Martin does is substitute “small” for “high.” That’s it. He turned the seriousness and danger of drugs on its head, and into something absurd: a cop pulls you over, suspecting you’re small, and administers a roadside test, which consists of seeing if you can walk into a balloon. If you can, you’re small; meaning you’re guilty— you’re high.
Part of growing up as a Browning meant listening to my mother’s tales of dropping acid, expanding into the corners of the universe, and filling the sky above Joshua Tree with awareness and light. This, despite years of Lutheran schooling, was my entrée into the spiritual. But Martin, who I later found out disliked drugs, made me think this kind of mystical realm had another dimension. There was more to the metaphysical world than the seriousness of Being. Lurking there was the pure joy one experiences when standing naked before the absurd—the only way one can stand before the absurd. Being one with the universe had just been equated to walking into a balloon. It was delightful to me that humor could approach the spiritual, that it could be religious, a philosophy, a worldview. I recognize this outlook in a lot of the art I love, in how I live my life, in the friends I choose, the way I write. Through humor, I’m saved.
I can’t write about this album without mentioning “Grandmother’s Song.” When I host a reading and check a mic for sound or need to get the attention of the crowd after a break, I’m compelled to sing a few bars, but never do. It’s the perfect, sneaky song to test if anyone’s listening, a sweet, simple melody hiding outrageous lyrics. Sure, it’s an easy gag, one that relates to a kid’s penchant for word substitutions –Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg—but the way it relinquishes its original intention is hilarious, traveling into absurdity while obeying form:
“Be courteous, kind, and forgiving
Be gentle and peaceful each day
Be warm and human and grateful
And have a good thing to say
Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike
Be witty and happy and wise
Be honest and love all your neighbors
Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant
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
Be tasteless, rude, and offensive
Live in a swamp and be 3-dimenional
Put a live chicken in your underwear
Get all excited and go to a yawning festival”
If I take a look at my comics, and even my one-liners and poems, I can’t help but see Martin’s influence. When reading a traditional comic strip, one is also reading a very condensed history of narrative, each panel systematically complicating and eventually resolving the situation. I have a comic strip in which a set of boobs descends upon a telephone. That’s it. It isn’t sexy, but it involves a sexual organ. It requires the mechanism of expectation, but works by rejecting it. (At least, I hope it works.) Through Martin I learned that the architecture of the joke is just as fertile as the content. It’s an approach I grew up with, lying on my stomach in the den with a fruit roll-up wrapped around my finger listening to his albums over and over again.