Be oblong and have your knees removed: Steve Martin's turbulent history with song
The last 20 years or so of Steve Martin's career have taken place in parallel universes. On one plane of existence, we have those two Cheaper By The Dozen movies and the Queen Latifah buddy vehicle Bringing Down The House, and on the other, the innovative comedian/actor's forays into increasingly serious and diverse obsessions: Fiction writing (starting with his 2000 novella Shopgirl), essays in The New Yorker, serious writing for the stage (the play Picasso At The Lapin Agile), and, finally, the banjo. Even when Martin used the five-stringed instrument as a mere comic accessory (on stand-up albums like 1977's Let's Get Small, for example), his clawhammer-styled flurries of notes hit like turbo-sprinkles of Appalachian dew. Even with this in mind, it'll be hard for some fans to adjust to Martin's current tour, which stops April 20 at Pabst Theater: He's playing with bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers—and presumably without an arrow through his head—behind the new album The Crow: New Songs For The Five-String Banjo, a real roots-music outing on a real roots-music label. But it's rare that Martin writes a song without it feeling outlandish somehow, so The A.V. Club offers this brief survey of Martin's musical detours.
"Picking Out A Thermos"
Sample lyric: "I'm picking out a Thermos for you / Not an ordinary Thermos for you/ But the extra-best Thermos you can buy / With vinyl and stripes and a cup built right in."
Is it funny? It's an unexpectedly bittersweet laugh. Born a "poor black child" and then swept up in the rough-and-tumble world of a traveling carnival—where a pouty-faced Bernadette Peters steals him away from his biker-chick lover—Steve Martin's title character in The Jerk develops some screwy ideas about love. Like everything else in the movie, "Picking Out A Thermos" is part of one long running joke about how eagerly naïve and stupid Martin is. It's absurd that buying a lady a Thermos could work as a gesture of affection. But as Martin sings this tune from the bathtub, unaware that Peters is quietly leaving him, it reveals the core sweetness and good intentions that the world constantly turns against him. Ridiculous as it is, this might be the most pathos-ridden moment in all of The Jerk.
"Be A Dentist"
Sample lyric: "I thrill when I drill a bicuspid / It's swell, though they tell me I'm maladjusted."
Is it funny? Most of the songs here are of Martin's own playful devising, but in Frank Oz's 1986 remake of the musical comedy Little Shop Of Horrors, he has to inhabit the genuine sadism of greaser dentist Orin Scrivello. Something about musical theater's penchant for wordy rhymes suits Martin's nerdy comic sensibilities. But even with black hair and a leather jacket, Martin doesn't come off as enough of a tough guy, so Orin becomes more of a strained caricature. Though Martin does seem tough enough to pick on the film's leading man, Rick Moranis.
Sample lyric: “Dancin’ by the Nile (Disco Tut, Tut) / The ladies love his style (boss Tut, Tut) ... He gave his life for tourism.”
Is it funny? Martin’s 1978 tribute to Tutankhamun was an over-the-top, satirical response to the crassly commercialized traveling exhibit of the pharaoh’s treasures at that time, but his novelty song is probably more remembered than the exhibit that inspired it. “King Tut” stands as an excellent monument to the kind of unabashed but straight-faced silliness he was capable of at this point in his career. Only Martin could pull of a zany stunt like donning authentic Egyptian garb, lecturing his audience about how gift shops have nothing to do with history, and then yielding to a saxophonist emerging from a sarcophagus during a disco interlude while Martin dances like a jelly-limbed loon.
"Late For School"
Sample lyric: "Leapt across three lawn flamingos / Waved to Sal, he's Filipino / Jumped a fence and found that I was headed toward a pool."
Is it funny: If not uproarious, "Late For School" is something of a relief: It demonstrates that Martin still appreciates the simple joys of wordplay and yelping like a jackass after years of branching out into New Yorker essays, plays, and inconsistent (a.k.a. sometimes downright crappy) films. It's somewhat uncharacteristic of his first straight-faced Americana album, The Crow: New Songs For The Five-String Banjo, which draws extra bluegrass cred from such guests as Earl Scruggs. The song's a sort of reverse Ferris Bueller routine coupled with some nice acoustic Appalachia: A kid wakes up, realizes he's late for class, and makes a colorful, misadventure-ridden dash toward the schoolhouse. Martin's songwriting and banjo chops slide most of this album humbly but ably into the bluegrass landscape, but his singing voice, which grows increasingly silly throughout this song, might need a few jars of moonshine dumped on it before it meshes.
Sample lyric: “Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus / Be dull, and boring, and omnipresent / Criticize things you don't know about / Be oblong and have your knees removed.”
Is it funny? The surest sign Martin is going to be off the wall is when he gives a somber, heartfelt speech. Near the end of Let’s Get Small, he reins in the audience’s exuberance after his signature “Excuse Me” bit by expressing his desire to share a song his grandma used to sing to him as a child. It’s a heartfelt, tender moment, but of course complete bullshit. He launches into a sweet-sounding lullaby that starts off with good advice for kids (“Be courteous, kind, and forgiving / Be gentle and peaceful each day”) while carefully plucking on his banjo, but the song veers into absurdism without missing a beat, imparting sage wisdom about eating cactus, being excited at a yawning festival, and living in a swamp.
“Song For Diane Keaton”
Sample lyric: N/A—it’s an instrumental tune.
Is it funny? No, but it wasn’t intended to be. Of course, that didn’t stop the Film Society Of Lincoln Center audience from guffawing at Martin’s lovely little ditty in 2007 honoring Diane Keaton. The writer-comedian was returning the favor his Father Of The Bride co-star, who sang him a song while he was being celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors years prior. The poignant song isn’t terribly complex or even conceivably humorous, but this points to why Martin has probably been making a concerted effort to distance himself from his comedy: Even when he isn’t doing anything funny, he can’t be taken seriously.
Sample lyric: Martin showcases one of his lesser-known talents by performing "Mr. Sandman" with his crotch lip-synching the song.
Is it funny? On the other hand, there's a side of Martin that demands never to be taken seriously. Without uttering a single word, he can entertain a crowd for a solid two minutes. His Letterman audience applauds ravenously and cheers at what's essentially the most juvenile humor imaginable. Martin injects theatricality by sweeping his arms proudly from side to side, executing some minor choreography, and taking a mid-song risk by accidentally sitting on his balls. But then, only Martin can make sitting on his sack look clever.