In Defense of Steve Martin’s “King Tut”

 

On the latest Ricochet podcast, Minnesotan segue-master @jameslileks 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.

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There are 79 comments.

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  1. Contributor

    Ahem.

    Star Wars came out in 1977, not 1976.

    I know. I was there.

    • #1
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:20 pm
    • 8 likes
  2. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    Kevin Creighton (View Comment):
    Ahem.

    Star Wars came out in 1977, not 1976.

    I know. I was there.

    Ugh. I’ll fix it.

    • #2
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm
    • 1 like
  3. Thatcher

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: I was just 11 when “King Tut” came out and all my friends and I loved it.

    Thanks for making me feel as old as King Tut. I was in college, dammit!

    Yes, this routine cracked me up to no end. I wish there was a link to the one SNL Steve Martin I missed, and that was his skit to the tune of the Waitresses’ song, “I Got What Boys Like”.

    • #3
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm
    • 5 likes
  4. Member

    I’ve heard the song on the Dr. Demento show but I don’t recall seeing the actual SNL clip before. It’s a lot funnier with the visuals, especially Martin’s goofy expressions.

    • #4
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm
    • 5 likes
  5. Member

    One question: is that Obama playing the saxophone at the 2:00 mark?

    Nah. Couldn’t be. Clinton was the one who played the sax.

    Seawriter

    • #5
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:27 pm
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: I was just 11 when “King Tut” came out and all my friends and I loved it.

    Thanks for making me feel as old as King Tut. I was in college, dammit!

    I was born in 1976…

    • #6
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:27 pm
    • 2 likes
  7. Member

    This is fairly astute, and I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    One might suggest that today’s self-important “comedians,” whose acts are little more than anti-Trump/anti-Republican screeds, could do with a similar disruption dropped in their midst.

    • #7
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:39 pm
    • 21 likes
  8. Inactive

    Had the 45 of “King Tut” as a six-year-old. Today, it remains a bedrock of my go-to playlist.

    • #8
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:41 pm
    • 5 likes
  9. Member

    You guys are both right. Lileks’ quote on the King Tut act is spot on. Jon’s point about Steve Martin’s opportunistic emergence as the anti-self-important comic is absolutely true.

    Steve Martin the comic was just so funny back then that people just wanted to laugh whenever he went on stage. And, yeah, we were stoned.

    • #9
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm
    • 9 likes
  10. Thatcher

    Jon isn’t disinterested here. He’s clearly defending a fellow Arizonan.

    • #10
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:47 pm
    • 11 likes
  11. Member

    rico (View Comment):
    You guys are both right. Lileks’ quote on the King Tut act is spot on. Jon’s point about Steve Martin’s opportunistic emergence as the anti-self-important comic is absolutely true.

    Steve Martin the comic was just so funny back then that people just wanted to laugh whenever he went on stage. And, yeah, we were stoned.

    But never at dusk.

    • #11
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm
    • 4 likes
  12. Contributor

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: The self-important 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.

    And we need more people making people laugh now more than ever. Comedy is dead right now, D-E-A-D dead, and political correctness killed it.

    • #12
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:53 pm
    • 14 likes
  13. Member

    He holds up. My kids and I love Steve Martin: Wild and Crazy Guys!, Thodoric of York, just stupid/goofy humor.

    I’m going to shoot some cans…

    • #13
    • November 6, 2017 at 1:53 pm
    • 8 likes
  14. Coolidge

    I didn’t really care whether the song was funny or not; I just thought it was catchy. (I was born in 1978, so it had passed its prime by the time I noticed it.)

    But this post makes Steve Martin himself understandable in a way I haven’t yet seen, so thank you for that.

    • #14
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:01 pm
    • 4 likes
  15. Contributor

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: But as a product of its time, “King Tut” remains a comedy classic. QED.

    Jon, you are correct. And Lileks is a philistine.

    The guy collects matchbooks, for crying out loud. Or, I don’t know. Bottle caps. Whatever.

    • #15
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:02 pm
    • 8 likes
  16. Member

    Umbra Fractus (View Comment):
    I didn’t really care whether the song was funny or not; I just thought it was catchy.

    That’s the thing. I can remember laughing at it and dancing to it. My friends and I all thought it was hysterical. (And I can assure you that none of us were stoned at the time.)

    Also, when the Ricochet podcast closed with the song? I immediately started smiling. Because it’s funny. (And I was still not stoned.)

    • #16
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:16 pm
    • 14 likes
  17. Coolidge

    I was just going to comment on the podcast and instead found your intelligent defense of the song. The podcast ends with the song and I was laughing at it. Laughing at it’s silliness. That is what it was silly. It remains silly. Those who don’t like silly humor will not like it. In today’s politically correct world, there is much to take offense at. But then comedy is now much more serious than George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman would ever have predicted.

    • #17
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:25 pm
    • 4 likes
  18. Admin

    I don’t think the song (or the video) needs context. I mean, other than the context a vague understanding of who King Tut was. The guy in the sarcophagus with the saxophone and the mustache was super funny.

    • #18
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:35 pm
    • 7 likes
  19. Admin

    kelsurprise (View Comment):

    Umbra Fractus (View Comment):
    I didn’t really care whether the song was funny or not; I just thought it was catchy.

    That’s the thing. I can remember laughing at it and dancing to it. My friends and I all thought it was hysterical. (And I can assure you that none of us were stoned at the time.)

    Also, when the Ricochet podcast closed with the song? I immediately started smiling. Because it’s funny. (And I was still not stoned.)

    So…. Are you high right now? ?

    • #19
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:38 pm
    • 3 likes
  20. Member

    Max Ledoux (View Comment):
    I don’t think the song (or the video) needs context. I mean, other than the context a vague understanding of who King Tut was. The guy in the sarcophagus with the saxophone and the mustache was super funny.

    Looked a lot like Blue Lou Maroni from The Blues Brothers.

    • #20
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm
    • 5 likes
  21. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: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.

    I saw Steve Martin live in Baton Rouge on Ash Wednesday 1978 (my freshman year at USL (now UL) in Lafayette). We had spent the previous few days in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, then caught his show on the way back to school.

    I prepared for the show by making some “arrow through the head” gags for my self and my friends. We got there early, and this guy comes up to us, with our arrows on our heads, and tells us he is with Steve’s crew and that he wants to trade us autographed pictures for the arrows, since they were always breaking them on the road. My initial reaction was, “sure, and I’m King Tut.” He assured us he was legit, and said we should wait after the show, and sure nuff, he comes out with 4 autographed pen shots.

    By the way, he told one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard that night. Sorry, but I can’t repeat it here… However, what was cool about it was that it started as one of his typical gags, as Jon describes above, but then, with a perfect set-up and devilish timing, he blindsided the whole audience. He didn’t have to do anything for a full 2-3 minutes because everyone was still laughing. Perfect, and mainly because we weren’t expecting a standard punchline. Great show.

    • #21
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm
    • 10 likes
  22. Contributor

    AchillesLastand (View Comment):
    Sorry, but I can’t repeat it here… However, what was cool about it was that it started as one of his typical gags, as Jon describes above, but then, with a perfect set-up and devilish timing, he blindsided the whole audience.

    The cat joke.

    • #22
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:49 pm
    • 2 likes
  23. Member

    Au contraire: Steve Martin’s King Tut performance WAS topical commentary. He came out with it right around the time of the first Tutankhamun exhibit that traveled around the country. All the usual cultural mavens and our elitist betters were all agog about it.

    I remember standing in a two-hour long line at the Seattle Center to get into see the magnificent artifacts. Wow!

    And along comes Martin with a ridiculous parody song about King Tut, complete with goofy moves and . . . everything! It was GREAT.

    Also, Steve Martin is one helluva banjo player.

    • #23
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm
    • 17 likes
  24. Member

    Cultural appropriation before it was cool.

    • #24
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm
    • 8 likes
  25. Member

    It was a laffriot, I agree.

    As I recall, the King Tut exhibition was the first of those damnable blockbuster museum exhibits, promoted like movie openings or something. Everybody was talking about it, posters everywhere. That was made it so funny, the “boy-king”…”condo made of stone-o”.

    Whats puzzling to me is why anybody would, at this point, either denigrate it or defend it.

    • #25
    • November 6, 2017 at 2:56 pm
    • 5 likes
  26. Thatcher

    Fritz (View Comment):Also, Steve Martin is one helluva banjo player.

    I knew somebody would beat me to it.

    • #26
    • November 6, 2017 at 3:02 pm
    • 3 likes
  27. Thatcher

    Funky Tut

    • #27
    • November 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm
    • 3 likes
  28. Thatcher

    The King Tut exhibit was at the Field Museum in Chicago about the time this song came out and the television commercials promoting it were non-stop. Without that backdrop, it’s only so-so.

    • #28
    • November 6, 2017 at 3:15 pm
    • Like
  29. Admin

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Max Ledoux (View Comment):
    I don’t think the song (or the video) needs context. I mean, other than the context a vague understanding of who King Tut was. The guy in the sarcophagus with the saxophone and the mustache was super funny.

    Looked a lot like Blue Lou Maroni from The Blues Brothers.

    It is indeed Lou Marini.

    • #29
    • November 6, 2017 at 3:16 pm
    • 2 likes
  30. Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    AchillesLastand (View Comment):
    Sorry, but I can’t repeat it here… However, what was cool about it was that it started as one of his typical gags, as Jon describes above, but then, with a perfect set-up and devilish timing, he blindsided the whole audience.

    The cat joke.

    Bingo

    • #30
    • November 6, 2017 at 3:22 pm
    • 2 likes
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