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by William H. Benson

July 7, 2011

     The funniest comic performance I can remember seeing when a child was what happened one night on The Dean Martin Show, perhaps in the year 1964. Dom Delouise, a young comedian then, came out onto the stage dressed in a full-length silk robe and a turban. In an East European accent, he announced that he was Dominick the Great, the world’s greatest magician, but he told the audience, “No applause. Save it for the end.”

     He then introduced his assistant, a homely gypsy-looking girl with a grin, whom he said was named “Shegoondala.” I learned later that his assistant was actually Ruth Buzzi, who two years later earned a spot of fame on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. But that night every magic trick that Dominick the Great performed Shegoondala tried to help but would unintentionally reveal how the trick was done, and so he would quickly pull the curtain shut.

     Delouise’s act was a parody of a legitimate magician’s performance, a feeble and ridiculous imitation, and in that lay the comedy. To me at the time it was truly funny.

     A dozen years later another young and rising comedian achieved enormous success with exactly that, a parody of a comedian’s and magician’s act, and his name was Steve Martin.

     Recently I read Steve Martin’s short autobiography Born Standing Up, and in it wrote, “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”

     Martin’s act was so different than that of the typical comedian—men such as Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart, or Bill Cosby, who told stories or monologues with a series of well-delivered punchlines. Instead, for an hour and a half Martin was wild and crazy, and said so repeatedly, “I am a wild and craaaaaazy guy!” Even his feet would go crazy.

      He did magic tricks that everyone could see how they were done. He twisted balloons into rabbit ears. He wore on his head an arrow that looked as if it had passed through his head. He wore goofy glasses, he played his banjo, and he sang zany lyrics. There were no funny stories with a punchline. His antics were more suited for the middle school-aged, but all of America, of all ages ate it up. “Well excuuuuuuse me,” he would shout at the guy adjusting the spot light, and the crowds would roar.

     Steve Martin grew up in Anaheim, California, and when just thirteen years old he landed a job at Disneyland, selling magic tricks in a store. At eighteen he moved out of his house, fed up with his father’s consistent sarcasm directed at him, and so he started clowning around at the Bird Cage Theater at Knottsberry Farm. Eventually, he took his solo act on the road and discovered enormous success.

     He admits now that there was a dark side to stand-up comedy. The travel was relentless. The act itself was exhausting. Then, after the show he had to stare at the four walls of a hotel room. He says, “It was the loneliest period of my life. . . . Nowhere to look but inward.” Also, he wrote, “In a public situation, I was expected to be the figure I was onstage, which I stubbornly resisted.”

     He quit cold turkey. After a series of sold-out shows in Atlantic City, he packed his balloons and his head-arrow for a final time and never unpacked them. He was exhausted, and he knew he needed a new outlet for his creative talents. He turned to the movies, a media more to his liking, for he said, “Instead of my going to every town to perform my act, a movie would go while I stayed home. . . . Movies were social; stand-up was anti-social.”

     This year marks his thirty-year anniversary of that decision to quit stand-up comedy.

     I did not care for Steve Martin’s brand of humor nor for his movies, for they truly are zany, but the funniest and the most original act I saw him perform was on The Tonight Show as the Great Flydini. Steve Martin stepped onto the stage that night and never said a word, but his hands, his gestures, his face, the lift of his chin, his fingers, his eyebrows, and the utter outrageous nuttiness of what he was doing made me laugh and made Johnny Carson laugh too.

     Again, it was a parody of an authentic magician.     

     Steve and his parents were estranged from the day he moved out of the house at eighteen. His father snubbed him, refused to support or encourage him, and had even written a series of sarcastic remarks about his son’s comic act in his own real estate business’s newsletter, a thing that pained Steve immensely, bringing him to the point of tears when he tells about it, even now. His father said of his son’s acting, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” Oh, yes, the tears of a clown are real.

     Late in life he and his father and mother and sister reconnected: they began eating lunch together once a week and the ruptured relationship began to heal.

     Dominick the Great and the Great Flydini. You can see them both on Youtube, and they are still, I think, over-the-top funny.