Friday, December 24, 2010

Damn You, Steve Martin

It may be too soon, and perhaps a tad excessive, to blame the downfall of Western civilization on Steve Martin, but we reserve the right to say “I told you so” if and when the time comes.

Steve Martin is, by any account, a tremendously gifted comedian, actor, musician, and writer, having won an Emmy Award (in 1969, for his work on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), four Grammy Awards (for his 1978 and 1979 comedy albums Let’s Get Small and Wild and Crazy Guy, and 2002 and 2009 musical albums Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Crow), and a best actor award (from the New York Film Critics Circle for 1984’s All of Me). His novellas Shopgirl and the Pleasure of My Company have sold pretty well and been well-received, as have his humorously offbeat collections Cruel Shoes and Pure Drivel.1 

His sense of humor ranges as wide as his other talents, too; he’s equally at home with goofiness (note the bunny-ears photo above, or his King Tut music video from Saturday Night Live), satire (L.A. Story, Bowfinger), or sociopolitical analysis of race relations and wealth stratification in pre-recession 1970s American society (The Jerk).2 

For all his valuable contributions to society, though, Steve Martin may eventually be best remembered—or perhaps vilified—for popularizing, if not actually creating, a hand gesture more offensive than the fig, the bird, the arm of honor, or even the legendary Belgian Elbow: 

Air quotes.

Except for Chris Farley—who is only playing a character here3—what
looking at is an awful mix of smarminess, insanity, and
ill-advised mustaches.
Don’t be like these fuckers.

Steve Martin, according to author David Frum, used air quotes extensively in his early, wildly successful stand-up routines.4 Had Martin been less funny, less famous, or less likeable, the gesture may have died a quiet and well-deserved death, but, sadly, he was not.

It was hoped that having a roundly disliked public figure of approximately equal stature adopt the same gesture could counteract Martin’s influence and kill the air quote, but, regrettably, the ideal choice for the job lacked the motor skills needed to correctly accomplish the gesture.
“Blast these damned arms! That’s it, you bastards, I’m putting you both on my list.

Despite our noble Nixon’s best efforts, air quotes not only survived but thrived in post-Watergate America. More recent attempts to defame the air quote, involving increasingly despicable participants on a global scale, have met with spectacular failure for much the same reasons.

“Is this right? No? Shit. I really suck at this, but it’s Israel’s fault.
I’ll figure out why once
my anti-psychotics wear off.”

It would be reasonable to worry that air quotes are here to stay. Most troubling about this is that not only do people use them too often—especially in cases where regular human voice inflection and facial expressions do a better job of conveying meaning than extraneous pseudo-punctuation ever could—but also that the damned things simply get used at the wrong times.

There is a proper time to use what are called scare quotes: when you want to change the meaning of a given sentence. Here’s how it’s done. We’ll start with a straightforward sentence, explain it, and then show how scare quotes alter its meaning. Stop us if you get dizzy:

  • Billy is a smart guy. This perfectly normal sentence implies (by which we mean “states”) that Billy is a smart guy.
  • Billy is a “smart guy.” This implies that Billy is actually not a smart guy.
  • “Billy” is a smart guy. This implies that the smart guy’s name is not actually Billy.
  • Billy is “a” smart guy. This implies that Billy is actually multiple smart guys. You’re not likely to run into this state of affairs all that often, either in grammatical or interpersonal situations.
  • Billy is a smart “guy.” This implies that Billy is smart, but that we know something you don’t about “his” gender.5

If your aim is to imply any of the above, use the quotation marks accordingly and you’re all set. Unfortunately, though, most people use air quotes for emphasis rather than to change the implied meaning of a sentence, which means that they’re unwittingly saying something far different than what they mean.

For example, let’s say you run into your all-time favorite singer, Bono,6 and want to tell him that you think he’s great. What you want to say is this:

I love your CD!

But instead, because you didn’t keep your hands in your pockets, what you said was this:

I love your CD!

Congratulations, jackass, you just told Bono that his CD sucks, that you hate it, and that you’re willing to go way out of your way to let him know. You’re the worst fan ever. He’s going to go home and cry himself to sleep on his huge pile of money, and probably throw away the macaroni-shell portrait you sent him.7

So the power is in your hands. It’s up to you to choose whether to begin to undo the damage done by Steve Martin and his wacky hands, or continue to follow his most misguided footsteps—acting like a smarmy prick, an musclebound asshole with a bad mustache, or a space alien masquerading8 as a pop musician—butchering unoffending English and making Bono cry. It’s all on you now. Don’t screw this up.

1. I thought they were pretty damned funny, anyway. I don’t actually know if anybody else on Earth actually liked them, or even read them.
2. That’s what that movie is about, right?
3. I realize that Mike Myers is technically playing a character as well, but I would argue that Goldmember puts him safely in the “smarmy” list, and The Love Guru suggests insanity.
4. According to How We Got Here: The ’70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse, 2000.
5. Did you pick up on what I was doing with the scare quotes around “his”? Nice.
6. You want us to believe it’s Bono, but it’s not. It’s actually Tiny Tim. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
7. Yeah, we know all about that.
8. Until recently.


  1. 1) People who abuse air quotes (which is pretty much using them at all)tend to be cretinous.

    2) I've never read Steve Martin's writing (fiction or otherwise), but I understand it's quite good.

    3) All of Me was just okay. Nobody should have won an award for that.

    4) Tiny Tim has two things over Bono:
    1) The ukele.
    2) Never became ashamed of the mullet.

  2. Also, Bono may throw away YOUR macaroni art, but I just know that mine is kept in a treasured place in the Great Man's Potato Palace.

  3. I read Pure Drivel. I liked it a lot. And I saw the Shopgirl movie and enjoyed it immensely, so I'm guessing the book is even better.

  4. The only movie we've seen that was better than the book from which it came is Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe was not a good read.