I recently read an essay – In the bird cage: Finding out what funny is – by Steve Martin in The New Yorker describing his earliest years as a working comedian.
As he tells it, Martin started off performing family friendly theatre at a rural tourist park and worked his way into performing comedy routines.
Nowadays we all know Steve Martin as a hugely successful comedian (my favourite film of his is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). His comedy always looks effortless, even while his performances are marked by high energy. So, what struck me in his essay was how many years it took him to find his style as a comedian, how many different approaches he tried – from old fashioned ‘Dad jokes’ to Avant Garde shenanigans – and how much he described himself as searching and being unsure as to what kind of comedian he wanted to evolve into. The subtitle to his essay – “finding out what funny is” – is apt.
Not to put too fine a point on it, his early routines sound a bit lame. By his own admission, he ‘pilfered’ what were already standard jokes from the routines of other comedians. But he pays tribute to these efforts as well, noting that in his earlier humble bookings he was at least able to clock up precious stage-time:
“I strung together everything I knew: some comedy juggling, a few standard magic routines, a couple of banjo songs, and some very old jokes. My act was eclectic, and it would take ten more years for me to make sense of it. However, the opportunity to perform four or five times a day gave me confidence and poise. Even though my material had few distinguishing features, the repetition helped me lose my amateur rattle.”
And this is what I value about his essay: One of the world’s most famous comedians revealing that his apparently natural style was the result of years of slog; that the early path to being hailed a star was littered with average performances, mediocre material, and a few failures.
Behind every overnight success in the arts I have witnessed lies a similar story. You can only get to be good at your creative process if you’re prepared to experiment, sit in uncertainty, risk failure and perhaps embarrassment, and put in the hours.
And yet, we are sold the myth of creative epiphany. Countless movies show great artistes responding feverishly to a burst of inspiration to dash off masterpieces. The problem is when real people – not movie characters or celebrities propped up by an entourage – start trying to produce creative work, they get bogged down in the slog and challenged by uncertainty or a realisation that there are no guarantees for producing good work, that all creative work is risky. If they have internalised unrealistic expectations, they can feel dismayed and assume that they are the problem.
It is easily done, especially when mastering a new technique, say, or working on a complex project. When the excitement of the beginning phase of the project is far enough behind you, and the fulfillment of the finishing line lays still far ahead, you have had just enough time to get yourself into mischief by creating some work but not enough to figure out how to bring it all together. It can be so easy to feel marooned in amongst all of the rough, scrappy, unfinished, unpolished pieces that you have churned out. This is when it is vital to be reminded that, in real life, making creative work is slow and mastering creative skill is gradual.
Martin’s essay details various influences he had as a youngster, ranging from performers he shared the stage with to old girlfriends to subjects he studied at university. He doesn’t record any moments of epiphany. Rather he seems to describe a young life of quiet determination to accrue experience, notch up stage-time, and try out material. And it’s good to be reminded that this work – this layering down of experience including the mediocre with the good – is the foundation that resilient creative process is be all about.