PERFORMERS: STEVE MARTIN

by David Hirsch (reprinted from LAUGH magazine #6, 1993)

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Americasaw a rise of talented young comedians in the manner of Saturday Night (later known as Saturday Night Live). Such a bunch included John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner. But among them was a particular clown called Steve Martin, who started out as a comedy writer and starred in a film short in 1976. Now, decades and many major films later, Martin is still associated with comic genius in the United Statesand beyond.

Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas, but was raised inSouthern California. He graduated in Theatre Arts at UCLA, with a major in philosophy. He wanted to be a professor in philosophy, but fate clearly had other plans for him. He formally began his career writing for Pat Paulsen, Sonny andCher, John Denver and the Smothers Brothers. The Brothers’ television show was a perfect venue for Martin to perform his own material, which he took on the road for several years, as well as on NBC’s Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live and The Muppet Show.

From viewing his stand-up material, one can see why Martin has often been dubbed as a clown; a large portion of his routine is exactly what one might find from a clown on the street rather than a stand up comedian. He would wear an arrow through the head, bunny ears, and a Groucho nose-with-spectacles. He made balloon animals (sometimes he would even blow them up), and juggled oranges. Aside from the clown act, he was (and still is) a first rate banjo player, always ready to strum one to get out his aggression. His best known banjo tune was Ramblin’ Guy followed by improvisation (babbling). His jokes were seldom conventional or logical: “I bought me a $300 pair of socks, I got a fur sink … electric dog polisher … and I bought some dumb stuff, too.” So often he did not need to tell jokes – just watching or listening to Martin was funny enough. His stand-ups delivered catchphrases like “Excuuuuuuuse me”, “a wild and crazy guy” and the unpredictable “happy feet”. Although he hasn’t done concerts for well over a decade, such phrases still stick with him.

As well as touring, Martin expressed himself through book and song in the late 1970’s. His book, Cruel Shoes was number one on the bestseller list. It was a compilation of short, surreal stories with titles like, The Day the Dopes Came Over, How to Fold Soup, Cows in Trouble, and, of course, Cruel Shoes – a horror story about dangerous shoes which did hideous damage to the feet. Also, when the world was going crazy over the King Tut exhibition, Martin’s hit single King Tut sold over 1½ million copies.

Martin’s first film breakthrough was in 1976, in a film short based on one of his sketches entitled, The Absent Minded Waiter. He plays Steve, a waiter who has incredible incompetence and equal confidence. His memory span is about three seconds. Buck Henry and Teri Garr play Bernie and Susan Cats, the people Steve is to wait on. After Steve pours water on the table, then sets the glasses, and serves the wrong order, Susan is exasperated, but her mood changes when he gives back $10,000 in change when no cheque has even been issued.

In 1977, Martin starred in his first full-length movie, Carl Reiner’s The Jerk. (Reiner must have felt comfortable with Martin in his nutty films – enough to cast him in three more.) Martin played Navin Johnson, the “Jerk” in question. Navin was raised by a poor black family inMississippi, and after learning he was adopted, he goes out into the world to seek his fortune.

Unlike the family who raised him, Navin was incredibly naïve and clueless in the real world; hence a perfect comic opportunity for Martin. After working in a gas station and a carnival, and being in love with Bernadette Peters, he strikes it rich by inventing the Opti-Grab, a wire device that holds spectacles onto the nose. Sadly, this same Opti-Grab is to be his undoing when it proves to have some cockeyed side effects. This film was a new vehicle for Steve Martin to use many of his stand-up jokes, such as being brought up in a poor black family, using lots of money to buy weird things (an all red billiard room, his own disco ballroom with his own dancers) and watching someone juggle cats. Although The Jerk was given lukewarm reviews, in the long run it became a cult classic.

One of the most hilarious aspects of Martin is that in his many different character roles, be they stupid or smart, evil or good, childish or responsible, he has a certain aura in his face and body gestures, as if to say, “Well, hey, folks, here I am.” He ended his touring in the early 1980’s, and his career was to be shaped mostly by the movies he was to star in.

His second film was Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, directed by Herbert Ross. The scene is Chicago in 1934. Martin plays Arthur, a sheet music salesman, who copes with the Great Depression, has marital problems with his wife, Joan (Jessica Harper) and has an affair with a schoolteacher, Eileen (Bernadette Peters). The grim reality of life would usually jump into happy musicals, with people suddenly dancing to and miming popular songs of the time, by artists such as Gene Kelly and Bing Crosby. It mattered not if the lip-syncing was unrealistic such as Martin singing the woman’s role and Peters singing the man’s in Life’s Just a Bowl of Cherries. The film was panned by most critics, as they felt that the music productions were not enough to carry an otherwise grey film.

About a year later, Martin was to emerge in a 1930’s parody, this time having fun with old private detective movies. The film was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, another Carl Reiner project. (Martin himself also co-wrote the script.) Martin plays private eye Rigby Reardon, who takes the case of Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward). Her father, a famous scientist and cheese maker is reported dead, and she believes it was a conspiracy. Reardon follows ridiculously complicated clues which all connect and inevitably lead to his dressing as a woman and travelling down to Peru to track down a killer. Some of the most lively moments are when he spends two long minutes pouring coffee, shaves his tongue to prepare for a date; and goes berserk when someone says, “cleaning woman”. Also, this film splices clips from other movies so Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and James Cagney can join in the dialogues. The film was a tremendous hit.

The following year, Martin appeared in Reiner’s wacky comedy, The Man With Two Brains. He played Dr. Hfuhruhurr (you try to spell it), a brain surgeon who loves his work because of the brains and mess involved. Kathleen Turner appears as Dolores Benedict, the doctor’s lover who makes him very tense. In a laboratory, he falls in love with a certain brain and communicates with it through “some kind of telepathy”. (Says the doctor, “For the first time, I’m aroused by a mind.”) He escapes with the brain, intending to put it into a beautiful woman, perhaps Dolores. (See, it all comes together, doesn’t it?) The funniest scene is when he’s stopped for driving too fast in

Austria, and the local police put him through a strict sobriety test which includes him walking on his hands, doing flips, juggling and singing. The sheer nuttiness of the film was hailed by the reviewers.

By 1984, Martin had vowed to keep on doing movies until he was thrown out, and it was clear that the movie industry was far from contemplating that. The year was a mixed bag for Martin. He starred in Neil Simon’s The Lonely Guy, based on Bruce Jay Friedman’s book, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life. Martin plays Larry Hubbard, who speaks for “lonely guys”, a sect of people we are probably all familiar with. Set in New York City, Hubbard, who has just loved and lost, will try to overcome his loneliness, while a professional “lonely guy” (Charles Grodin) guides him through the inevitable phases (playing chess against machines, throwing parties for cutout people, et al.). This was a charming and predominantly low-key film, and also a great New York comedy, at times resembling Woody Allen classics Annie Hall and Bananas. Still, it was generally ill-perceived by the critics.

But later that year, Martin bounced back in Reiner’s All of Me. In this, he plays lawyer Roger Cobb and Lily Tomlin appears as dying aristocrat Edwina Cuttwater. She intends to pass along her soul, as she’s rich enough to. Through a fluke convenient for the plot, the stubborn soul gets into Cobb’s body. Martin, who had started out as the straight man, now plays half-straight man, and half-posh woman in his most popular physical comedy yet. The film relied mainly on that running joke, but it held out well.

1986 was a very successful year for Martin. First, there was the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors, in which he appeared as Orin Scrivello, a dentist with a formidable combination of sadism, stupidity and song-and-dance. It was not the leading role, but it was a positive element for the film.

Later that year he starred with Chevy Chase and Martin Short as one of a group of simple Hollywood actors who play The Three Amigos from the movie of the same name. These heroic charros were known for their perilous fighting, happy dancing, and rude words. (“You son of a motherless goat” ) That film was a smash for the Christmas season.

The following year, he starred as C.D. Bales in Roxanne, a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Bales is a chief fire fighter, a karate expert, and popular in his community. He is able to laugh about his enormous nose, enough to make 20 jokes about it on the spot. (“Laugh and the world laughs with you – sneeze and it’s goodbye Seattle”). Still, he finds himself very insecure when he encounters his love, Roxanne (Daryl Hannah). There is undoubtedly a bit of The Lonely Guy in Bales, as in other Martin roles which involve romance.

Later that year, Martin played straight man Neal Page in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Page’s intent to travel home toChicago for the holiday is outrageously complicated by travel inconveniences sending him all over the country by means of planes, trains, and even automobiles. All the while, he is pestered by Dell Griffith, (John Candy), a friendly but clueless loudmouth. The film was a disaster at the box office, and Martin’s character was far too restrained to be funny.

In 1988, he came back swinging in one of his most hilarious films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, directed by Frank Oz. The “scoundrels” in question were two confidence tricksters each trying to outdo the other in their own way. Martin played Freddy Benson, who used an approach rather like The Jerk in contrast to Lawrence Jamenson (Michael Caine) and his suave, sophisticated style. One instance in this film which shows Martin at his funniest, when he poses as a Quasimodo type called Ruprect, during a joint scam by Benson and Jamenson.

In 1989, Martin developed a new character in Ron Howard’s Parenthood. It was Gil Buckman, a father of three young children, who is trying to manage his kids and career, but feels he is not where he should be. Other than knowing he can be a comic relief, like dressing up as a cowboy for his son’s birthday, he feels he is an inept father. It was a new beginning for Steve Martin, where viewers could see a serious and well acted side of him, dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. As he described Buckman: “A very regular guy with regular problems in a simple life showing how complicated that really is.”

This new character was to show up in later films, but not in his next one, My Blue Heaven. Here, Martin plays Vinni Antonelli, an Italian mob criminal. Rick Moranis appears as Barney Coopersmith, an FBI agent hired to protect Vinni, as he was needed as a trial witness. The difficult task was keeping Vinni out of mischief. The Vinni character was most likely a parody of Andrew Dice Clay, but was not Martin at his best. The film had little else to offer, and was inevitably a disaster.

At the beginning of 1991, Martin appeared as weatherman Harris K. Telemacher in L.A. Story. The film went though the love life of Telemacher, who was “deeply unhappy, but (he) didn’t know it because he was so happy all the time.” This was a hilarious parody of Los Angeles, where people were unmoved by earthquakes, reckless car driving (especially through the neighbour’s yard) and shooting on the highway as if it was a regular sport. This was a comic masterpiece for Martin, and it treated L.A. as The Lonely Guy treated New York.

Martin had a relatively cameo role in Grand Canyon as Davis, a middle-aged, eccentric movie writer, whose films thrived on bloody violence. This was not as much a comedic role, but a well acted display of a real person mired in his own world and not really “there”.

As 1991 came to a close, the next major film for Martin released was Father of the Bride, a remake of the 1951 classic. Martin played George Banks, a father who goes through the psychological trauma and financial strain when his daughter is to wed and he has to foot the bill. In the original, the role of the father (here called Stanley Banks) was played by Spencer Tracy. The storyline remained the same, as well as the setting; in each the family was upper-middle income living in the suburbs. But whereas Tracy’s character was alcoholic, bad tempered and at times spiteful, Martin’s was a continuation of the Gil Buckman role. Naturally, each movie was a reflection of the times, so viewers would never have heard Tracy make a gaffe that Martin did: “Don’t forget to fasten your condom … seat belt.” In a strong sense, the remake of Father of the Bride was Parenthood many years later; both had hilarious scenes and at the same time were very moving.

1992 saw him teamed with Goldie Hawn in House Sitter where he finds himself host to an unwelcome and totally neurotic female who uses an assortment of means to stay put not only in his home, but his life in general.

This was followed up with a much more dramatic role in Leap of Faith playing a money-motivated evangelist who tours the country luring in the religiously gullible. A far cry from the arrow-through-the-head crazy who entertained live audiences fifteen years earlier.

(In the years since David’s profile was written, Steve Martin has starred in many more movies, written a number of books and hosted the Academy Awards in 2001, 2003 and 2010)

 

 

Recordings

Let’s Get Small
Warner Bros. LP KBS 3090, CD 45694-2 (1977)
Ramblin’ Man
Theme From Ramblin’ Man
Vegas
Let’s Get Small
Smoking
One Way to Leave your Lover
Mad at My Mother
Excuse Me
Grandmother’s Song
Funny Comedy Gags
Closing

King Tut/Sally Goodin
Warner Bros. 45rpm single (1978)

A Wild and Crazy Guy
Warner Bros LP HS 3238, CD 3238-2 (1978)
I’m Feelin’ It
Philosophy
Religion
College
Language
Creativity in Action
I’m in the Mood for Love
A Wild and Crazy Guy
A Charitable Kind Of Guy
An Expose
Cat Handcuffs
You Naive Americans
My Real Name
King Tut

Comedy is Not Pretty
Warner Bros LP HS 3392, CD 3392-2 (1979)
Born to be Wild
The All Being
McDonald’s
Men’s Underwear
Drop Thumb Medley
Googlephonics
Hostages
Cruel Shoes (from the book Cruel Shoes)
Comedy is Not Pretty
How to Meet a Girl
Rubberhead
Jackie O. and Farrah F.
You Can Be A Millionaire

The Steve Martin Brothers
Warner Bros LP BSK 3477, Wounded Bird CD WOU 3477 (1981)
* Cocktail Show, Vegas:
American photography
A Scientific Question
What I Believe
A Show Biz Moment
* Comedy Store, Hollywood:
The Real Me
Love God
Make The Rent
The Gospel Maniacs
(the remaining tracks are all banjo playing)
Sally Goodin’
Saga of the Old West
John Henry
Saga (Reprise)
Pitkin County Turn Around
Hoedown at Alice’s
Song of Perfect Spaces
Freddie’s Lilt (parts I and II)
Waterhound
Banana Banjo

Little Shop of Horrors
Geffen LP M5G 2425 (1986)
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Martin as Orin Scrivello, sings Dentist
(song also released as a promotional 12” single: Geffen PRO A 2643)

Pure Drivel
Simon and Schuster 2CD audio book 0-671-04336-6 (1998)
Steve reads his book 

Shopgirl
Simon and Schuster 4CD audio book 0-7435-5-90-0 (2000)
Steve reads his book

The Pleasure of My Company
Hyperion 4CD audio book 978-1-4013-9033-4 (2003)
Steve reads his book

Born Standing Up
Simon and Schuster 4CD audio book 0-7435-6972-5 (2007)
Steve reads his book 

Late for School
LA Films Music CD track (2009)

The Crow
Rounder CD 11661-0637-2 (2009)
a selection of musical tracks:
Daddy Played the Banjo
Pitkin County Turnaround
Hoedown at Alice’s
Late for School
Tin Roof
Words Unspoken
Pretty Flowers
Wally on the Run
Freddie’s Lilt
Saga of the Old West
Clawhammer Medley
Calico Train
Banana Banjo
Blue River Waltz
The Crow
Late for School
The Slow Crow
Calico Train

Rare Bird Alert
details unknown

 

Television

On Location: Steve Martin
HBO October 31 1976 (60 min)

Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy
NBC November 22 1978 (60 min)

All Commercials … A Steve Martin Special
NBC September 30 1980 (60 min)

Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty
NBC February 14 1980 (60 min)

Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever
NBC November 25 1981 (60 min)

Steve Martin’s The Winds of Whoopie
NBC February 6 1983 (60 min)

 

Films

1977    The Absent-Minded Waiter (short)
1978    Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1979    The Jerk
The Kids are Alright
1980    The Muppet Movie
1981    Pennies From Heaven
1982    Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
1983    The Man With Two Brains
1984    The Lonely Guy
All of Me
1985    Movers and Shakers
1986    Little Shop of Horrors
Three Amigos!
1987    Roxanne
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
1988    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
1989    Parenthood
1990    My Blue Heaven
1991    L.A. Story
Grand Canyon
Father of the Bride
1992    House Sitter
Leap of Faith
1993    And the Band Played On (cameo)
1994    A Simple Twist of Fate
Mixed Nuts
1995    Father of the Bride – part II
1996    Sergeant Bilko
1997    The Spanish Prisoner
1998    The Prince of Egypt (voice only)
1999    The Out-of-Towners
Bowfinger
The Venice Project (cameo)
2000    Joe Gould’s Secret
2001    Novocaine
2003    Bringing Down the House
Looney Tunes – Back in Action
Cheaper by the Dozen
2004    Lalawood (cameo)
              The Merchant of Venice (cameo)
2005    Cheaper by the Dozen 2
2006    The Pink Panther
2008    Baby Mama
2009    The Pink Panther 2
It’s Complicated

 

Videos 

The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada (1974)
Comic material at a Canadian nightclub plus a Steve Martin video tour of Montreal and Toronto.

Steve Martin Live (1986)
Martin’s 1976 short, The Absent Minded Waiter plus a concert performance at the Universal Amphitheatre, California on September 28, 1979

 

DVDs

Saturday Night Live – the Best of Steve Martin
DVD

 

Books 

CRUEL SHOES
by Steve Martin (1979)

PURE DRIVEL
by Steve Martin (Viking, 1998)

SHOPGIRL
by Steve Martin (2000)

THE PLEASURE OF MY COMPANY
by Steve Martin (2003)

BORN STANDING UP – A COMIC’S LIFE
by Steve Martin (Scribner, New York 2007)

LATE FOR SCHOOL
by Steve Martin (2010)

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY
by Steve Martin (2010)

 

STEVE MARTIN
by Greg Lenburg (1980)

STEVE MARTIN
by Daly (1980)

STEVE MARTIN – THE MAGIC YEARS
by Morris Walker (SPI Books, 1999)

 

 

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