Mathematical One-Liners Exert a Magical Draw

April 30, 2003

A character obsessed with magic squares had Steve Martin looking for a mathematical adviser. Bob Osserman stepped in, to be well rewarded for his effort not long afterward: In October, Martin joined him in the latest of MSRI's "public conversations" with artists intrigued by things mathematical. Photo by Marsha Borg.

Sara Robinson

When the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute announced last September that Steve Martin would join Bob Osserman in the next MSRI public event, I confess that I was stumped. Steve Martin, the wild and crazy guy, talking about math? Would anyone actually want to go to this thing?

As it turned out, finding an audience was not a problem. "Funny Numbers," although scheduled for a large theater next to the opera house in San Francisco, had already sold out to the members and friends of its sponsors, MSRI and City Arts and Lectures, before the public announcement. By October, some desperate soul had even placed an ad offering to exchange his World Series tickets for admission to "Funny Numbers." Clearly, Martin has maintained a sizable and devoted following. Osserman, too, has gained a loyal following for his public events. In the Martin interview, as in his earlier conversations with playwrights Michael Frayn (Copenhagen), David Auburn (Proof), and Tom Stoppard (Arcadia), and with John Nash biographer Sylvia Nasar (A Beautiful Mind), Osserman engaged in no clever questioning to elicit the unexpected, and he did more talking than is customary for an interview host. Still, he manages something remarkable by being warm and approachable yet unashamedly an intellectual. He is fearless (or so it seems) and without ego or pretention. He is utterly charming.

Osserman and Martin had met a year earlier at a social event in Berkeley. Martin told Osserman about his new book, The Pleasure of My Company, due out later this year, and asked if Osserman would mind checking some excerpts with mathematical content. (The latest book is one of several Martin has written, along with humorous essays and even an award-winning play.) This led to an extended e-mail exchange, at the end of which Martin sent Osserman the entire manuscript. After reading it, Osserman decided that it had enough mathematical content to warrant a public event. He issued an invitation to Martin, who accepted.

Osserman approached his interview with Martin as he had all the others: by reading everything available by and about his subject and making use of a stack of books with marked passages as topics for discussion. Martin didn't allow him to stay with this approach for long, however, launching a volley of quips that had the audience howling.

Bob Osserman: "I've got a book here from 1612. . . ."
Steve Martin, in a deadpan drawl: "And I thought this was going to be dull."

Dull it was not. At Osserman's prompting, Martin read from his essays, books, and plays, excerpts with mathematical content in each case, keeping the wildly entertained audience with him the entire time. He even played a couple of songs on a banjo. The mathematical content was fairly superficial, with the highlight being some passages from the new book, whose main character is obsessed with magic squares.

Still, I was impressed. I remembered Martin for his arrow-through-the-head routine, Saturday Night Live skits, and movies like The Jerk. Like many people, I didn't know about his novels or humor columns in The New Yorker.

The high point of the evening was the surprise appearance of Robin Williams, a San Francisco resident and a longtime friend of Martin's. The appearance was a surprise even to Osserman, who knew Williams would be present but wasn't sure he'd be willing to join them on stage. Steve Martin called out a question to Williams, telling the audience that Williams knew quite a bit about math; Osserman invited him to come on stage and prove it.

Steve Martin: "We've talked. There's something you're good at."
Robin Williams, in a stage whisper: "Can't do that here."

After someone found Williams a stool, Osserman invited him to join Martin in a reading of passages from Martin's play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, about a fictional meeting between Picasso and Einstein. Williams, as Einstein, couldn't quite get a German accent and so cycled instead through a bunch of hilarious accents, including Marlon Brando, Jack Benny, Elmer Fudd, and a heavy French one that I didn't recognize.

After that, the conversation degenerated into a free-for-all, with Osserman fading into the background and the audience practically weeping with mirth. Williams, perched on a stool, rattled off a series of hilarious, stream-of-consciousness routines as Martin tossed in an occasional sarcastic one-liner. Some of their quips were even mathematical.

Robin Williams: "Infinity, Montana---you never get there, you just get closer and closer. 1/4 inch, 1/8 inch, . . ."

Steve Martin: "Up until the crusades, numbers 1 through 9 didn't exist in Western Civilization."
Robin Williams: "That's a lie!"

Briefly regaining control at the end, Osserman read some questions from the audience and then managed to get Martin talking about philosophers and writers who interest him (among them Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, and T.S. Elliott). The two guests carried the night, though, and Osserman wisely stepped back and let it happen.

As most of the audience trooped out of the theater, still laughing, I asked a few of the mathematicians present what they'd thought of the event. The response was mixed. A few found the event "fluffy" because the mathematical content of the conversation was far less than in other Osserman interviews. But others thought that a high-profile event pairing a mathematician and a famous comedian and sponsored by a mathematics institute could not help but promote mathematics, even if the math content was limited. Everyone, without exception, found the event extraordinarily entertaining, and more.

In that setting, it was easy to see genius in comedy as not so different from mathematical genius: Both comedians demonstrated an incredible ability to think quickly on their feet, fold remarks back on themselves to form jokes, and draw clever connections between seemingly disparate topics. From a mathematician's standpoint, it was a performance of sheer brilliance.

Sara Robinson is a freelance writer based in Pasadena, California.

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