Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Steve Martin, whose influence spans decades and mediums.
Steve Martin 101
Steve Martin has been a part of pop culture for so long, and a force in so many mediums, that the best way into his career is to start small. Consider the absolute minimum for entertainment: a performer onstage. Here, the performer speaks calmly— even dully—about an art exhibition touring the country. While his costume is ludicrous, an excessively clichéd take on ancient garb, his tone is so serious that it’s conceivable he actually is some kind of expert, perhaps one coerced into dressing up. When he announces a song about the exhibition, it’s almost plausible that the music will be respectful, even scholarly, toward Egyptian pharaoh King Tut. That is, until he begins to dance:
If you were to condense the genius of Steve Martin down to one moment, you could do worse than “King Tut,” which contains elements that appear throughout his career, cutting across his acting, writing, and stand-up. There’s the sudden juxtaposition between utter seriousness and total goofiness, the lack of self-awareness, and material that works both ironically and sincerely.
When Steve Martin started out in comedy, he found the standard structure of performers reciting monologues based on their life or persona frustrating, and he approached his dissatisfaction philosophically. “What bothered me about this formula,” he wrote in Born Standing Up, a memoir of his early career,
was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song… What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?
The result was an act founded on surrealism and non sequiturs, bits that zagged where every other comic had zigged. Martin counted on the audience knowing entertainment conventions; the joke was how those conventions were being subverted. “My act, having begun three years earlier as a conventional attempt to enter regular show business, was becoming a parody of comedy,” he wrote of his creative evolution. “I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one.” That led to famous bits like this one with balloon animals:
Or this one, where he wows the crowd with “magic.”
His comedy was dubbed “anti-humor” for the way he toyed with traditional forms of jokes and entertainment; Martin would play similar games in his movies and theater work. It can be difficult to appreciate how revolutionary this was at the time, given how his sophisticated relationship toward entertainment has since taken hold in pop culture. While conceptual comedy has largely vanished from major stages, you can see Martin’s influence in almost every notable comedy of the past 30 years. If Louis CK doesn’t owe him a debt, Louie does.
Martin found kindred spirits at both The Muppet Show, which also sent up showbiz conventions, and at the then-new Saturday Night Live, which was experimenting with its own form of comedic deconstruction. His appearances there were the meeting of two comedy zeitgeists. In addition to “King Tut”—a single that would go on to sell more than a million copies—SNL was where a number of catchphrases and other creations would be popularized, most notably his half of the Festrunk brothers with Dan Aykroyd, two “wild and crazy guys” from Czechoslovakia.
Over the coming decades, Martin would go onto host SNL 15 times, a record second only to Alec Baldwin’s. He was the fastest inductee to the “Five Timers Club,” doing it in under two years.
In addition to his legendary concert performances, Martin released two Grammy-winning comedy albums—1977’s Let’s Get Small and 1978’s A Wild And Crazy Guy. But because of the visual and physical elements to his stand-up, these—while still very funny—may not be the best representation of his act. That’s found in his first starring movie role in 1979, which used some of his signature stand-up gags and is one of the most influential film comedies of the modern era.
The Jerk flouts cinematic standards, chucking a complex story or characters in favor of gags that ranged from wildly lowbrow to incredibly intellectual. The title itself is a nod to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to tell the story of Navin R. Johnson, the “poor black child” Martin plays. He and director Carl Reiner threw in slapstick and wordplay, sexual farce and social satire, absurdist detours—cat juggling!—and bits that dip into surrealism. There’s an “anything goes” mentality that many have tried to replicate, only a few successfully.
After what’s essentially an anti-comedy, Martin made an anti-musical with 1981’s Pennies From Heaven. While the film flopped (though it has since been embraced as a forgotten classic), it may be the best example of why Martin has stayed relevant for decades. Just when he could have been typecast, he turned in a dark and nuanced performance in a work of deep and serious ambition. Pennies explores the space between reality and fantasy, using the structure of Depression-era musicals to illustrate how much was omitted by the glamour of Astaire and Rogers. It’s a film of unattained dreams and broken hearts, where music serves as an ineffective salve over the tragedy of life. It’s one of the most challenging musicals ever made, because it’s one of the few to really analyze what musicals mean, why we need them, and their limitations.
The film’s key inspiration is to have characters leap into beautifully choreographed dance sequences when things get rough. While the actors do their own hoofing, vocals are blatantly dubbed in, and the lip-syncing reinforces how these fantasies fail to solve anything. In the clip below, Martin has just been turned down for a loan:
Martin then returned to straight comedy, reuniting with Jerk director Carl Reiner for a pair of spoofs: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains. The first is an inspired take on 1940s private eye films, starring Martin as a too-cool gumshoe out to solve the mystery of a murdered cheesemaker. The underrated comedy offers an uproariously deadpan take on hard-boiled dialogue (“Carlotta was the kind of place where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you”) and the genre’s most popular archetypes.
As a genre, parody neatly fit into Martin’s career-long tweaking of formula, but fun as those elements are, the film’s biggest pleasure are tactile. The black-and-white cinematography and studio style not only lovingly recreate the era in question (legendary costume designer Edith Head was hired for an extra touch of verisimilitude), but do it so well that the jokes are funnier. The 1982 film counts Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, James Cagney, and Lana Turner as co-stars, through the film’s unique conceit of having Martin interact with footage from old movies. This works surprisingly well, though the laughs arise from how Martin’s dialogue is obviously stretched to meet his co-stars’ responses.
In Brains, a 1983 riff on mad-scientist films, Martin played his first “egotistical asshole,” as he would later describe a favorite type of role in Judd Apatow’s Sick In The Head. Martin’s rarely better than when he’s convinced of his own greatness, and a doctor so genius he performs two brain surgeries at once fits that mode perfectly. Brains is coarser than the average Martin comedy, though there’s a romance between him and a disembodied brain that’s almost touching, under the circumstances.
His fourth collaboration with Reiner, 1984’s All Of Me, is perhaps the only entry in the body-switch subgenre that achieves greatness. The premise is high-concept—Martin’s uptight lawyer is forced to share his body with the soul of Lily Tomlin’s miserable millionaire—but who cares when the execution is this hilarious? Martin has always been a peerless physical comedian, and the battle over his body gives him one of the best showcases for those skills.
But beyond these moments, All Of Me works on narrative and emotional levels as Martin’s and Tomlin’s characters grow to care for each other. It’s slapstick with a heart.
Martin moved from that certified classic to another one with fervent admirers, though how much viewers enjoy it may depend on the age they first encountered it: 1986’s ¡Three Amigos! The film is a goofy take on The Magnificent Seven as a town under siege by bandits (led by the “infamous El Guapo”) seeks the help of powerful protectors. The heroes are a trio of clueless silent movie-era action stars (Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short) unaware the bullets are real this time. The humor here is by no means sophisticated, but it’s so endearing and goofy that its charms are hard to ignore.
The affectionate friendships at the heart of Amigos hinted at Martin’s underlying warmth and empathy, something that became explicit in his next roles. In 1987, he made a pair of comedies more memorable for their emotions than their laughs. First, Martin penned Roxanne, a modern take on Cyrano De Bergerac in which he plays a big-hearted small-town fire chief who fears he will never find love because of his abnormally large nose. There are some funny bits as he helps an inarticulate hunk seduce the town beauty by ghost-writing love letters, but the appeal of the film is in the dignity and wounded pride Martin brings to the role. In Roxanne’s most famous moment, he counters a drunk’s stupid insult with 20 better ones against himself, a scene that plays like a thesis statement for Martin’s career, showcasing how humor—even bad humor—can be used as both a shield and a weapon.
Even more affecting was John Hughes’ transcendent Planes, Trains & Automobiles. While ostensibly a road comedy, with Martin’s uptight executive going home for Thanksgiving with the annoyingly gregarious John Candy as a traveling partner, the 1987 film packs so much pathos between the pillows—er, laughs—that at times it plays like a drama, and a fairly dark one at that. Low-key films like this one rarely get the acknowledgment they deserve, but Planes is damn-near perfect.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels marked a return to pure comedy in 1988, with Martin’s small-time grifter pitted against Michael Caine’s erudite con man in a wager to take someone for $50,000. As he did with Candy, Martin has terrific chemistry with Caine, as their opposing styles crackle nicely against each other. Where Caine mines humor from his subtly ridiculous take on the aristocracy, Martin scores just as much by going broad.
Martin was back in regular-guy mode in Ron Howard’s underrated Parenthood, a Robert Altman-lite look at family dynamics. The 1989 film tracks a large cast, but Martin is the nucleus, an average guy struggling to find a balance between work and home, between protecting his kids and coddling them. It’s not a showy performance, but it is a deeply felt one, and while the film has moments of unwieldy drama, the sections with him glow. When, stressed by various obligations, he complains that “my whole life is ‘has to,’” he completely sells a quietly devastating moment.
Martin’s best roles were ones he wrote himself, and it’s difficult to imagine 1991’s L.A. Story, a lovely ode to romance, performance, and magic, coming from anyone but him. While the film is a featherweight comedy about talking road signs and Californian solipsism, at its core is a sincere examination of whether constant pleasure is the same as long-term happiness. That film marks Martin’s last great starring role to date. Since then, his film career has featured a lot of broad comedies and some interesting turns into drama. While there are some high points, L.A. Story feels like a swan song. Martin’s next great work was in an entirely different medium.
Picasso At The Lapin Agile, first produced in 1993, is a quintessential Steve Martin work—perhaps the quintessential one, given how it fuses his humanism and playfulness with structure. The play imagines a meeting between Picasso and Einstein—along with Elvis as an unnamed “visitor”—just as the pair are set to debut world-changing works. While it has some amusing post-modernist elements (there’s confusion when Einstein enters the stage third, contrasting the “cast in order of appearance” page, which lists him fourth) and a lot of funny lines, what really makes it sing is Martin’s consideration of the creative process across different fields.
Martin’s Born Standing Up is one of the great celebrity memoirs, as essential as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and far more clear-eyed. He writes that he’s so removed from the person he was when he did stand-up that the 2007 book is more biography than autobiography. The tale of someone achieving success at the expense of happiness is a familiar one, but Martin makes his own version heartbreaking, illustrating how everything he had and loved became warped by fame. Not only does Born provide an engaging account of his life—including his complicated relationship with his father— but it’s an invaluable look at his own creative evolution. Anyone in an artistic field will find something in it that speaks to them.
The first decade of Martin’s film career didn’t always produce greatness, but it tended to have a level of ambition that’s rare in today’s comedies. Amid his brilliant work with Carl Reiner, Martin also starred in 1984’s The Lonely Guy, a film that’s mostly notable as one of the first times he attempted to tackle a serious theme though a comedic lens. While never getting too deep into pathos, the film—directed by Love Story’s Arthur Hiller—is sincere about the gravity of its central theme, using comedy to explore loneliness, not mock the lonely. The jokes are too suffused with melancholy to be truly gut-busting, and while the film isn’t one of Martin’s best by any metric, it’s appealing and sweet, and sympathetic about the naked need that exists at the core of relationships (romantic and platonic).
One of his most underseen roles is in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, a sprawling social-issue drama from 1991 that could depressingly be remade today with little adjustment. The title refers to chasms in American society, especially ones of race and class, delving into issues of white and male privilege, police action in black communities, and violence in the media. Martin plays a hotshot producer of action movies who briefly questions what he’s putting out into the world after experiencing an act of violence himself. In a film that’s generally optimistic, he’s the cynical counterpoint. One can imagine a much slimier actor really making a mark in the role, but the counterintuitive casting serves its own purpose: If someone as genial as Steve Martin is corrupted in this way, then the problem is societal, not personal.
Leap Of Faith, an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful 1992 drama about religion, features Martin’s most intriguing performance. He plays a evangelist who bilks the clueless faithful out of donations—easily one of his most complex characters, and he tackles it with gusto, bringing undeniable charisma to the sermons and hinting at the moral compromises he’s required to make. Leap’s first two acts are terrific, up until a twist that could have taken the film to greatness had it kept its nerve (this is a case of ambiguity being a cop out). It’s worth seeing for Martin, though, who reveals the darkness behind his performer’s facade. It’s surprising more directors haven’t played him against type like this, and also a shame.
Martin would get darker in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, the only time he’s played an unambiguous villain in a drama. The 1997 film is an enjoyably twisty mystery (the title refers to an old con game) that stars Campbell Scott as a man who invents “The Process” and stands to make untold millions for a company. Worried about his cut, he unwisely confides in Martin’s Jimmy Dell, a new friend he believes he can trust. While Martin is obviously not a bruiser (the actor—not the character—seems uncomfortable holding a gun at one point), it’s fun to see how neatly he lays his trap. As with Grand Canyon, the against-type casting pays off: Scott can be forgiven for getting duped by the imminently likable Steve Martin.
These ominous notes would be retested in 2001’s Novocaine, a modern noir that’s fun before it sputters out dramatically. Martin’s mild-mannered dentist finds himself woefully out of depth when he’s seduced into giving a false prescription to femme fatale Helena Bonham Carter, a decision that leads to criminal activity. He makes a good noir hero—smart, sympathetic, weak-willed—but writer/director David Atkins belly-flops on the plotting, making his “surprise” villain boringly stereotypical even before the thuddingly obvious “here’s what we did and why” speech. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was better constructed.
Though it fails to reach the highs of his earlier work, the last Steve Martin comedy that really feels like a Steve Martin comedy is the 1999 film Bowfinger, set in the bottom rungs of the film industry. Martin—who wrote the script while frequent partner Frank Oz directed—stars as a wannabe director who believes his accountant’s ludicrous script is a sure-fire hit. Desperate to catapult himself into the big-league, he decides to surreptitiously film paranoid A-lister Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy, the last time he was truly funny), who he has cast without the actor’s knowledge.
Martin had been in Hollywood for 20 years by the time Bowfinger was made, and his cockeyed views toward the industry are readily apparent, most notably with “MindHead,” a wicked take on Scientology. It isn’t his funniest film, but the shots at celebrity culture land, and it makes a nice companion to his other looks at creative types. A career that had started by mocking “so bad it’s good” entertainment was now sincerely honoring the people with the drive to make it.
Advanced and Miscellaneous
As one might expect of an actor of Martin’s longevity and variety, he’s appeared in dozens of titles, including some that amount to blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos. Two years after his appearance on The Muppet Show, he played “Insolent Waiter” in The Muppet Movie. Decades after that, became part of another zany universe for kids, appearing as “Mr. Chairman” in Joe Dante’s Looney Toons: Back In Action. No supporting gig, however, compares to Dr. Orin Scrivello in the musical adaptation of The Little Shop Of Horrors. Scrivello is an outrageous character—an abusive boyfriend patterned on a poor man’s Elvis—and Martin gets a laugh with every line and choice of body language. The film as a whole is excellent, with a bunch of terrific numbers, but “Dentist!” is in a league of its own.
Martin’s one-scene performances include dramatic turns in And The Band Played On, Joe Gould’s Secret, and an introduction in Disney’s Fantasia 2000. (Visitors to Disneyland, where Martin had his first job growing up, can also see him in video introductions there.) In “Trash Of The Titans,” the 200th episode of The Simpsons, he voiced Ray Patterson, Springfield’s Sanitation Commissioner and perhaps the city’s sole competent civil servant. Not all of those roles were good enough to overcome the shock of recognition, but he was used well as the title character of 30 Rock’s season-three episode “Gavin Volure,” playing an ex-titan of industry under house arrest.
In 2000, Martin added another artistic form to his repertoire with Shopgirl, an affecting novella about a young woman’s struggle to find happiness. Much of the book deals with her tentative relationship with Ray Porter, a wealthy older man who cares for her but is unwilling to end his lifelong bachelorhood. Fans who know Martin as the nut behind “Happy Feet” will be surprised by the book, not just for its decidedly non-comedic premise and tone, but also for the nuance and tenderness Martin conveys in his prose. His depiction of the title character—especially her clinical depression—is profoundly sympathetic, and he shows remarkable self-awareness in Porter, a character with heavy autobiographical undertones. (This would be even more pronounced when Martin played him in Anand Tucker’s 2005 adaptation of the book—a fine film that adds little to what was written.)
Shopgirl avoids simple answers and searches for deeper truths. Martin’s follow-up novel, 2003’s The Pleasure Of My Company, recycled some of its themes to diminished results, but his third, 2010’s An Object Of Beauty, is fantastic. Not only does it offer a compelling look at the New York art world and a wonderfully complex heroine, but his exploration of what makes art valuable is just as insightful as his other looks at creativity.
Since 2009, Martin has released four musical albums, his first of any type since 1981’s half-stand-up, half-music release, The Steve Martin Brothers. The recent quartet—The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo, Rare Bird Alert, Love Has Come For You, and So Familiar—all highlight his love for bluegrass music, and are less essential for Martin fans who aren’t fans of the genre. While the songs often have goofy elements—including a new version of “King Tut” on Rare Bird—music is one medium where Martin has shown limited interest in deconstructing established traditions.
One of Martin’s most famous roles is the exasperated George Banks in 1991’s Father Of The Bride and its sequel; it’s also his most overrated, a pale imitation of his similar work in Parenthood. Both Father films revolve around a happy and successful man unraveling into mid-life crises when faced with signs of aging (his daughter’s wedding in the first film, becoming a grandfather—and a father again—in the sequel). The theme is a potent one, and there’s real warmth in the depiction of his marriage to Diane Keaton, but for every poignant moment there’s a mood killer like Martin Short’s over-the-top wedding planner. The big comedic moments clash with the underlying heart, and it doesn’t help that the big comedic moments aren’t terribly funny. There’s also something off-putting about a movie that paints its protagonist as unreasonable for not wanting to drop $1,200 on a wedding cake.
Among his most interesting failures are My Blue Heaven and Mixed Nuts, both written by Nora Ephron. The former is a 1990 comedy about a mobster in witness protection, and it’s the rare Martin film that’s actually hindered by his participation. While the script is too messy to work under any circumstance, Martin’s spectacularly ill-conceived performance cripples it outright. Not only does his character’s shock of hair and tacky clothing immediately out him as someone who could never go incognito, but his incessant mugging and terrible eye-talian accent are hard to get past. Ephron took inspiration from Goodfellas, which her husband co-wrote, and it’s the rare comic take on a story that’s less funny than the dramatic version.
Nuts is a 1994 Christmas film set in a suicide prevention center, the kind of premise that could lead to black-comedy gold but isn’t funny or edgy here. Along with Leap Of Faith, it’s an interesting attempt to probe despair beneath Martin’s genial exterior, but it’s too tidy and needs more momentum to work on a screwball level.
Other titles aren’t so much objectionable as forgettable: Two Pink Panthers, two Cheaper By The Dozens, a redo of Neil Simon’s The Out-Of-Towners, and remake of Sgt. Bilko. Even films with great co-stars—Goldie Hawn in Housesitter, Tina Fey in Baby Mama, Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated—make little impression.
The biggest impression a recent Martin film has made, unfortunately, is 2003’s Bringing Down The House, an unfunny comedy that digs offensively into racial humor. Martin’s best performances are rigorously disciplined; here, cast in his basic exasperation mode, he mugs with little conviction or interest while the script offers stereotype after stereotype. It’s awful.
1. The Jerk (1979)
Martin’s first major movie is not only one of his best, but one of the funniest and most influential comedies ever to come out of Hollywood. While a lot of the jokes are beyond dumb, the intellect needed to devise gags of this sublime inanity is abundantly clear. A good way to tell whether someone has a sense of humor is to quote, “He hates these cans!” and gauge their reaction.
2. Born Standing Up (2007)
Self-awareness is not a trait associated with many celebrities, but Martin’s honest memoir is startlingly forthright about not just what he did onstage and why, but how he felt about his eventual success. Beyond the insights, his gifts as a writer of simple and heartfelt prose are on full display.
3. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
A masterpiece of balanced tones and comedic escalation. Rare is the movie that can make audiences weep with laughter, then make them weep out of empathy a minute later. Martin—a consummate nice-guy actor—was never a part of a nicer movie.
4. Let’s Get Small (1977)/A Wild And Crazy Guy (1978)
Even if conceptual stand-up was still a major force in comedy, it’d be hard to imagine anyone topping these legendary works, which on their own would be enough to assure Martin’s place in cultural history.
5. Picasso At The Lapin Agile (1993)
Martin’s lovely play is an ode to all types of creative processes, in awe of the ability of geniuses to see new truths and express them in forms of beauty. It’s well worth reading even if you can’t see a revival; if there’s a single work that sums up Martin’s worldview in all its warmth and complexity, this is it.