Stand-up comedy is an extremely difficult entertainment form. It requires multiple talents, all rolled into a performance that is half vaudeville, half evangelism.
Steve Martin is the reigning clown prince of stand-up comedy in America. Schooled in the squeaky-clean. Disneyland style of comic vaudeville, he's one of the few comedians who's a hit in both prime time and "Saturday Night Live" time. His record albums sell millions, and his performances are mobbed by zealots of all ages who can't seem to get enough of Martin's peculiar brand of what Newsweek called "humor without hostility."
Few stand-up comics, though, are successfully able to translate their humor into other media. Much of the theatrical flavor is lost in the process. Woody Allen is one of the few whose humor retains a very present human quality whether on stage, film, records or the printed page. Without Feathers, the best of Allen's books, has all the engagingly neurasthenic sensibility of his finest films, because Allen's humor reflects the entire spectrum of human emotion.
This is where Martin's humor runs thin. As "Cruel Shoes," a collection of short comedy sketches, demonstrates, humor without hositility is also humor without depth or reasonance. Cruel Shoes is little more than a Steve Martin performance, without the rabbit ears, bent arrows or balloon animals.
Martin's humor, at its best, turns on an acute sense of the absurd. There is, for example, the whimsical story of Mr. Rivers of New York City, a misguided crane operator who, because of a "poorly drawn map, at 6:30 one morning in February began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres," after which he returned to New York and "thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen the cathedral before it was destroyed."
The title sketch, concerns Anna, a fussy customer, and Carlo, a patient shoe salesman. After trying on every pair of shoes in the store, Anna insists (over Carlo's protests) on trying "the cruel shoes," "a hideous pair of black and white pumps" equipped with all manner of twists and turns, not to mention "a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place." And though "the screams were incredible," Anna was pleased, as was Carlo, who offered all subsequent customers a chance "to try the cruel shoes."
One suspects that Martin approached the writing of "Cruel Shoes" the way he would approach a live performance. Only a couple of the sketches are more than a page and a half long, and several of the best ones are no more than a page, suggesting that Martin, had he been on stage, would have turned them into pithy one-liners. There are quite a few strangely blurred photographs from live performances, arranged with the jerky rhythm of a manic comedian at work. The book itself is even dedicated "to the audience, without whom I would only be myselft."
If Martin wasn't so careful to ridicule himself in concert at every opportunity, Cruel Shoes would seem to be more of a narcissistic literary endeavor than it really is. Martin has Johnny Carson's uncanny ability to poke fun at himself, to drop a joke when it fizzles, and to light a fire under a stubbornly lukewarm audience. This is the mark of a real comedy trooper, a true vaudevillean.
A a comedy act, "Cruel Shoes" needs only a white suit, a banjo and a pair of "happy feet" to fill a concert hall. As a literary endeavor, however, its an uncomfortable fit indeed.