In one of the special features included on Shout! Factory’s Steve Martin: The Television Stuff box set, the comedian explains that he began making specials in the mid-to-late ’70s, at the behest of his quintessentially old-school manager, without quite realizing that the heyday of the celebrity-hosted TV special had already passed. Then again, Martin was a bit of an old-school figure himself—a singing, dancing, trick-performing vaudevillian in a post-vaudeville age. As Martin dryly recounts on the DVD, by the time he was in a position to headline his own high-profile specials, he’d done hard time—as a writer, performer, or both—on variety shows with Troy McClure-friendly names like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Pat Paulsen’s Half A Comedy Hour, The Ray Stevens Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show, and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. And that doesn’t even include his star-making appearances on Saturday Night Live. Martin wasn’t just experienced at the broad mugging and family-friendly shenanigans favored by old-time variety shows and specials; he’s practically a one-man variety show himself.
Even before he segued into the highbrow realm of droll New Yorker pieces and novels, Steve Martin was a quintessential renaissance man. He could perform magic, make balloon animals, play the banjo, do rope tricks, sing both show tunes and comedy numbers of his own devising, and—in perhaps the most astonishing feat chronicled in the box set—keep up with Gregory Hines while they sing and hoof their way through an elaborate song-and-dance number centered around “Fit As A Fiddle” on 1981’s Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever. At the height of his creative powers, Martin could seemingly do it all and make it look effortless. But the icon’s memoir, Born Standing Up, underlines just how much cold calculation, discipline, and meticulousness went into everything he did. It took an awful lot of smarts and mental energy to look like a guileless, giggling moron with happy feet and a rubber arrow through his head.
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff offers a surprisingly exhaustive retrospective of Martin’s golden years through two stand-up hours (1976’s On Location: Steve Martin and 1979’s Homage To Steve); four sketch-intensive specials Martin shot for NBC (1978’s Steve Martin: A Wild And Crazy Guy, 1980’s Steve Martin: Comedy Is Not Pretty, 1980’s All Commercials… A Steve Martin Special, and 1981’s Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever); and finally, a fascinating disc of odds and ends from 1966-2005, which compiles everything from Martin’s appearance on a black-and-white children’s show called Dusty’s Attic to bits he performed on SNL and Late Night With David Letterman to acceptance speeches from The People’s Choice Awards and The Mark Twain Prize For American Humor. The box set provides a good sense of the scope and variety of Martin’s career at its height of innovation and creativity, before he grew bored with stand-up and television and focused his energies on film and literature.
In his early days, Martin was just about everything. On Location establishes him as both a consummate entertainer and a glib, knowing parody of a consummate entertainer. He was at once a hammy populist with an uncanny, unprecedented feel for the tastes of a mass audience and a sly intellectual whose goofy shtick cunningly deconstructed stand-up comedy. Martin operated on multiple levels that allowed him to be the most popular comedian in the country, while at the same time being comedy’s most meta performer. The Steve Martin of this time was a mass of compelling contradictions: a prop comic with an intellectual pedigree, and a man whose spastic physical comedy doubled as an ironic commentary on spastic physical comedy. He constructed radical new ideas to fit staid pre-existing forms, but sometimes those forms proved resistant to new ideas. A Wild And Crazy Guy, Comedy Is Not Pretty and All Commercials all represent tugs of war between Martin's slyly subversive, meta sensibility and the demands of the curious, already anachronistic variety-special format. For example, the conceptual purity of All Commercials—whose gimmick can be gleaned from its title—is hindered just a little by seemingly network-mandated stand-up from Robert Klein and a musical performance by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Martin’s sensibility invariably triumphs, but the aforementioned specials do sometimes feel like backdoor pilots for a Steve Martin Smile Time Variety Hour that was never to be.
The sketch specials peak with 1981’s Best Show Ever, a Lorne Michaels production that represents the last gasp of the brilliant original incarnation of Saturday Night Live, thanks to the presence of many of the show’s core writers and performers. Like kindred spirit Albert Brooks, Martin delighted in inhabiting the oily skin and oversized egos of smarmy show-business pretenders. In one of the special’s most inspired sketches, he plays the title character in The Elephant Man as a glad-handing, narcissistic phony more concerned with scoring stage time than being treated with dignity. Best Show Ever feels like the end of an era for Martin and guests Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, and John Belushi alike, the work of dedicated professionals with uncommon chemistry intent on going out on top.
The two stand-up specials nicely bookend the most exciting and terrifying period in Martin’s stand-up career: On Location captures him at the beginning of his furious ascent to the top as he performs boldly conceptual comedy in the guise of a pandering show-business phony, a sentient ooze of smarm. By the time Martin performed at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1979 for the show captured on Homage To Steve, the comedian had ascended to a rarified realm of success and popularity beyond his wildest dreams. Yet this unprecedented success came at a steep cost. He was threatening to become a non-ironic version of the grinning hack he impersonated onstage: a cynical trooper professionally obligated to perform the routines his stoned, rapturous audience demanded, even if they no longer meant anything to him. By that point, stand-up comedy appeared too easy for Martin; it was a matter of playing the hits rather breaking new ground.
The final disc of the three-disc set (“Bits And Pieces”) traces Martin’s ascent from obscurity to legend via a series of television appearances that take him from wild-eyed kid to white-haired recipient of lifetime-achievement awards. These appearances attest to Martin’s genius for adding ironic quotation marks around everything he does, whether he’s reinventing stand-up or merely accepting a People’s Choice Award for his performance in Housekeeping. A sense of the innate absurdity of show business has continued to serve Steve Martin over the course of a long, checkered, but often brilliant career, even if that genius for ferreting out the ridiculous and absurd within the accepted and commonplace has dulled since the radiant early prime chronicled in these essential discs.
Key Features: An older, wiser, and decidedly not wild or crazy Martin offers brief but compelling reflections on his distant past on each of the discs.