Is Worse Really Better?

You may think of Steve Martin as a stereotypical family friendly comedian today-- the center of saccharine movies like Parenthood and Father of the Bride. But it wasn't always this way. Steve hit his stride in the early 80's. At that time, I don't think there were any popular comedians exploring the ragged edge of humor in quite the same way Steve Martin was. I'll forever remember finding a copy of his book Cruel Shoes as an impressionable teenager. It's a collection of very strange short stories. At my tender young age, I had certainly never read anything like it. It's hard to explain. Read for yourself. Here's the complete text of the eponymous Cruel Shoes short story:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I read Steve Martin’s new book Born Standing Up and there are plenty of insights both personal and professional. Read it if only for the story of Steve’s relationship with his father.

Professionally Steve toughed it out as a stand up comic for 12 years (more if you count his childhood) and honed his craft. Almost as a soon as he reached the pinnacle of success as a comic he realized he couldn’t be a stand up comic anymore mostly because his fame made it impossible to do “real” stand up. I think there are some parallels to the point where programmers and designers find themselves becoming software architects and art directors.

This is crazy. Last night my feet were hurting and I told my wife the story of “The Cruel Shoes”. I kid you not! What are the chances of it appearing in my reading the very next day?

I don’t get why that “cruel shoes” story is funny. Somebody care to explain it?

Steve Martin might be successful, but he isn’t funny and never was. But we were 30 years younger then and hadn’t yet realized that.

@Stewart: The story is a joke without a punchline. The funny thing is that you expect a punchline that never comes, but you get an anticlimax instead. Mr Martin explains the concept in his article in the Smithsonian Magazine.

I don’t get why that “cruel shoes” story is funny.

Ask a woman how much her feet hurt after a night in high heels.

People work towards these epics for the same reasons they play the lottery (possibilities, fame, quick wins, etc). Just as in the lottery, some people win. Your odds aren’t that good, but some still win.

Personally, i don’t think this is an either/or type situation. I like to be consistently good - while keeping my eyes pealed for the epic.

Does the greatness really take care of itself ? If everyone strived to be consistant - would anyone be great ? Would google/microsoft/etc even exist ?

To borrow from “The Jerk”: “I’m not a bum. I’m a programmer”

Hey Now Jeff,
I like your statement: strive to be consistently good
Coding Horror Fan,

The Cruel shoes story is funny in the same way that this weeks Slashdot Poll was superb. Does that help?

Better(or Excellence) is Hard to achieve. A lot.

So, what do you choose, Hard or Easy?

This post is very similar to the ongoing debate between Tom Peters and Jim Collins. In “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” Collins looks at companies that achieve greatness by being consistently good, just like this post is saying. But Peters says companies should be “Built to Flip”, that they should aim for world impact rather than longevity. Like Netscape. Collins and Peters have different ideas of greatness. Peters would argue that the “Good to Great” philosophy is actually incrementalism and worse-is-better.

Steve Martin Voltaire Lisp?!?!? The context switching is killing me!

But seriously, I too encountered Cruel Shoes at the age of 10 and was mystified by it. I secretly saw some SNL episodes back then that featured Steve Martin and though didn’t completely understand the humor I knew that something was going on. It’s hard for me to reconcile that the same guy who was singing about King Tut 25+ years ago is the same man appearing in romantic comedies with Queen Latifah. Not that there is anything wrong with Queen Latifah, romance, or comedies. It’s just quite a change.

Terrific post. I highly recommend Atul Gawande’s book “Better” for more in the same vein.

the early 80’s. At that time, I don’t think there were any popular comedians exploring the ragged edge of humor in quite the same way Steve Martin was.

Granted, I wasn’t around then, but what about Richard Pryor?

There is something wrong with phrase “Worse is better”. It’s simply too abstract. It doesn’t mean anything.

LIPS is better than in C++ in expressiveness but worse when it comes to learning curve.


McDonald’s is better than any other average restaurant when it comes to value for money but worse when it comes to quality of the meal.

it’s always matter of perspective. What is worse to you might be better for someone else.


I live in Pennsylvania. I don’t need to be a great programmer, just better than the Amish.

“The idea being, of course, that enough goodness slowly accreted over time usually trumps any epic (and usually ill-fated) plans to create any brand new great thing”

An interesting example for this are some MMORPGs: There are many small, really crappy games, that evolved from someones “I want to learn how to code C/PHP/whatever” attempt, that have gigantic following and make ridiculous amount of money (compared to the professionality of the game). At the same time, I know of so many epic failures of perfectly planned, professional games that would be the end all awesome games and tanked so horribly, and not because they were truly bad.