L.A. Story

Steve Martin in the New Yorker?

While I realize it's become unfashionable and tedious to lament Tina Brown's celebritization of the magazine, my first thought was: Not more Hollywood kow-towing...

But then it occurred to me that Martin was supposedly a pretty good playwright, and a good screenwriter too. In addition, I remembered that Martin had also written a book many years ago, Cruel Shoes. While I couldn't recall its specifics too well, I did remember that it had once been a favorite of mine. The stories were economically written and absurd - something about dogs which stole bones in order to study dinosaurs, I think, something about an unfortunate person whom children called Big Nose (a precursor to Martin's movie Roxanne perhaps). A lot of it was actually a bit like S.J. Perelman, say, so maybe it wasn't such a stretch that Martin should now be appearing in the pages of the New Yorker.

His piece, a one-pager called "Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods," is built on a mildly funny desktop publishing-era joke. And Martin, of course, is a capable joke-teller. But like so many mildly funny jokes, this one would have had twice the impact if it were only half as long. Writers are running out of Times Roman periods, so they have to make do with not quite satisfactory punctuation - ellipses, umlauts - or use other not quite satisfactory fonts.

Near the end, Martin's grasping at guffaws, alas, and coming up empty: "In fact, there is a movement toward alternate punctuation; consider the New Punctuation and Suicide Cult in Southern Texas, whose credo is "Why not try some new and different kinds of punctuation and then kill ourselves?"

Martin often used to remark that comedy wasn't pretty - but it isn't petty either (at least good comedy isn't), and the half-hearted hack absurdity of the New Punctuation and Suicide Cult is the sort of uninspired improvisation that should have died anonymously in the smoky ether of an open-mike night. Indeed, it's hard to imagine such a line getting laughs in a stand-up environment. It doesn't mean anything, and yet its absurdity is so superficial - unlike an S.J. Perelman piece - that it fails to create the sort of manic, minutely rendered alternate universe that becomes crazily entertaining in its own right.

-- G. Beato

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