On the latest Ricochet podcast, Minnesotan segue-master James Lileks impugned Steve Martin’s classic “Saturday Night Live” performance of “King Tut” thusly:
“It’s not a funny song, it just isn’t. It’s not a funny bit, there’s nothing really to it that requires anybody to look at it now. Only, sort of, their late Boomer betters saying, ‘oh, Steve Martin is the bomb, you must watch this, this is brilliant,’ but it’s not. You were stoned in college when you watched that and you thought it was funny but it isn’t.”
Lies. Damnable lies. Now, defending any joke is like dissecting a frog: you’ll figure out what makes it tick, but the patient dies in the process. With that said, here’s the bit:
To modern eyes, “King Tut” was cheesy and lame. But in 1978, that was the point.
That decade served up a slew of “important” stand-up comedians who were edgy, cynical, and highly political. George Carlin issued diatribes on capitalism and religion. The far-funnier Richard Pryor was laser-focused on racial injustice. Andy Kaufman intentionally alienated club crowds with his anti-comedy. Robert Klein and David Steinberg were high-brow intellectuals. And nearly every comic lectured America about Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and the hollow hypocrisy of bourgeois life.
Then along came Steve Martin. Sick of the conventional joke formula, he spent years crafting a stand-up act without punchlines. And the way to make audiences laugh sans jokes was by acting silly. He paraded around in bunny ears and a fake arrow through his head, embarrassingly contorting his body to sell the act. All the while, he pretended to be just as self-important and overly earnest as his fellow comics. The juxtaposition is what made it funny. (See his intro to the song above.)
The tastemakers took themselves far too seriously to risk looking silly; they had to be smarter than the audience. Although highly intelligent, Martin presented himself as the dumbest, least self-aware guy in the room. Instead of educating Americans on their evils, he brought back comedy to its actual function: making people laugh.
In a way, he was doing what the original Star Wars did in 1977. After a decade of bleak, dystopian sci-fi, George Lucas revamped the old Flash Gordon serials into a fun, popcorn-friendly escapism.
I was just 11 when “King Tut” came out and my friends and I loved it. The Egyptian exhibition had been talked about all year and kids always enjoy watching adults make fools of themselves. So add Gen Xers to the Boomers who look back on Martin with fondness.
James is correct that a millennial watching it today without context would be underwhelmed, to say the least. But as a product of its time, “King Tut” remains a comedy classic. QED.