(In which we meet two men from different continents and generations, and speak of how both now say more by speaking less)
There was a time – probably about the time that he wrote and starred in LA Story – when I believed that Steve Martin might, conceivably, be the funniest man alive. He’d made some terrific comedy films (The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and of course The Man With Two Brains), rewritten my favourite play Cyrano de Bergerac for a modern audience and into a modern setting to considerable success (Roxanne), and had a history as a stand-up comedian which sounds unlikely to us now. Playing Madison Square Garden, and releasing an album half-comprised of banjo playing? Crikey. Colour me impressed. And I liked LA Story quite a bit too, so well done Steve.
A few years before this, various people I knew had been singing the praises of Ben Elton, though I didn’t really know him; he was on Saturday Live, a TV show I didn’t watch, though I saw it round at a friend’s house and thought ‘meh’. I did, however, hear him do ‘The Train Set’ routine as part of Comic Relief (the one that features the refrain ‘double-seat, double-seat, gotta get a double-seat”), and thought it was very funny indeed, so I was more favourably inclined, and as the years went on and I enjoyed The Man From Auntie and Blackadder on TV, and even saw him live (with stomach-paining results), I came to feel that, much as one might find some of his verbal tics faintly irritating, Ben Elton might well be one of the finest comedians working in the UK.
If memory serves, Elton got into performing stand-up because he wanted the material he was writing to actually see some kind of outlet, and when he reached a certain point of exposure, he kind of turned back to that by moving into writing novels. His first, published in the late 1980s, was Stark, a pretty good ecologically-themed tale, even if some sections felt a bit like stand-up material shoehorned into prose form. Since then, he’s followed that with a novel every year or so, the most recent of which is (as far as I know), Chart Throb, about TV singing talent contests. And on the basis of his most recent TV series, ‘Get A Grip’, though it was obviously a very poor format and the need for his co-presenter to be there was less than nil, I’m rather inclined to think that the novel is where Ben’s skills probably lie nowadays (I’m deliberately ignoring his forays into the world of musicals, because I haven’t seen any of them, and because I like to think they’re just a stupid aberration in terms of his output; kind, perhaps, but they’re so strangely off the map for his work that I can’t even begin to understand what made him say yes, unless it was bucket loads of money).
Steve Martin, too, has published a number of books; his first, Cruel Shoes, was a very slight item published in the late 1970s when his stand-up was making him famous; it’s funny, but reads very quickly. Strictly speaking, his next couple of books weren’t novels as such, being collections of his plays (‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile and other plays’) and short comic writings (‘Pure Drivel’), but his first proper novel, Shopgirl, struck me as very strong; short and to the point, it was quite sparse as well, and generally lacking in the fluffiness that Martin’s recent films have all involved. His second novel ‘The Pleasure of My Company’, is just as good, and again very different in tone from his recent silver screen outings.
And this is the thing, really – since LA Story, I’ve found Steve Martin’s films to be more mainstream (‘Housesitter’, for example) to the point of losing any interest for me, and the remakes of existing characters (Bilko and Clouseau) are as inexplicable to me as Ben Elton’s decision to do musicals. Unless Steve Martin’s writing it as well (‘Bowfinger’ being the most recent example I can think of), the idea of him being in a film now holds little draw for me. Whereas the news that he’s got a new book out actively interests me. And the same is true for Ben Elton, whose books are generally very good indeed (the last line of ‘Popcorn’ is, I think, one of the best comments on the whole ‘violence in films’ debate I’ve ever heard).
So these two chaps are, to my mind, bedfellows in that their recent work is arguably a return to their starting positions (Martin started out writing material for The Smothers Brothers; not people I’ve actually seen, as – like Gilligan’s Island – they don’t seem to have made it across the pond) – that is, as writers. Specifically in the novel form, which is one of the more pure artforms there is, as (unlike with, say, films) the number of people involved in the process is minimal, and may indeed be one person operating alone in the case of total creative freedom.
Ironically – and interestingly – both Martin and Elton deal with some pretty weighty and uncomedic subjects in their novels (people with social deficiencies, reality TV, drugs, and the like), but manage to make them both gripping and amusing, and often provide insights into things which contemporary ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ novelists seem less willing to tackle – or at least to tackle as accessibly.
I’ve often maintained that the ability to make a joke at speed about something shows you’ve assimilated the incoming information and processed it and found the wrinkles and quirks in the situation and framed a response, which suggests a greater speed of mental processing. Which might be why those whose stock in trade is seen as the funny and amusing could be a useful source of solid and genuine insight. I could be wrong, but I think there’s something to this, and I think it’s why both Elton and Martin are better off – and so is the audience – utilising their obvious talents in this way. It’s not an expected turn of events, or career path for either of them, to be sure, but I think it’s ultimately for the best.
After all, as Neil Gaiman wrote in ‘Sandman: A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, “It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no-one else will speak”.