“Being blessed with success today doesn’t guarantee it tomorrow.” – Steve Martin on the fleeting nature of fame and experiencing failure and public embarrassment on television.

“Being blessed with success today doesn’t guarantee it tomorrow.” – Steve Martin on the fleeting nature of fame and experiencing failure and public embarrassment on television.


I was surprised by how funny Steve Martin was. His unique style of humor was evident in films such as The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, LA Story, and Bowfinger, which were all brilliantly creative. He was also the first comedian to have double-platinum-selling records and go on stadium tours; he even started wearing a white suit on stage so that his fans in the faraway seats could spot him. He expertly crafted uproarious slapstick scenes in films like All of Me and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even showcased his literary skills in his most ridiculous performances. Those who have watched Roxanne, a modern version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, will undoubtedly appreciate the Lear-like brilliance of the line “earn more sessions by sleeving”.

However, when he is not taking on a lead role in the crime-comedy show Only Murders in the Building, which he helped create, he is quite serious. He is a playwright, musician, and art connoisseur – possessing extensive knowledge in the subject. (He previously sold an Edward Hopper painting for nearly $27 million.) Currently, he is the focus of Steve! (Martin), a two-part, three-hour documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, covering his life and accomplishments. The likelihood of finding humor in his portrayal seems slim today.

But to my surprise, the first thing he says is a joke.

I simply inquired with both him and Neville, who are currently communicating with me through a video call from different places, if they could hear me properly. Martin responds, “I’m unsure. Your voice seems to have a British accent on my end.” And with that, our conversation takes off.

The actor, who is 78 years old, is currently in his New York City apartment. Behind him is a bookcase full of books and a sofa in a mint color. He is wearing brown glasses and is looking at his screen. He has white hair that looks soft like cotton and his friend and comedy partner Martin Short once compared it to an uncolored page in a coloring book.

What was the reason behind his decision to create the documentary? “You can’t objectively evaluate your own life and accomplishments,” Martin explains. “I am intimately familiar with the chaos and confusion within, but what does it look like from an outsider’s perspective?” What was his takeaway from the documentary? “To be honest, I’ve only watched it once. I’ll have a better understanding once others see it. After watching it, I did reach out to Morgan and ask, ‘Shouldn’t the awards have been mentioned?'”

“Neville has been a devoted fan for his entire life. Despite not fully understanding Steve’s work as a child, he was drawn to its absurdity,” he explains from his residence in Pasadena, California. “As he grew older, he began to appreciate its sophistication.” When making the documentary, what did Neville require from Martin? “He needed Martin to be receptive and it was evident from our first meeting that Martin was genuinely curious about his own life.”

The first part of the book “Steve! (Martin)” discusses the early years of Martin’s life, including his childhood and his job at the Disneyland magic shop during his teenage years. It also covers his standup comedy career and his transition to film with the release of The Jerk in 1979, after which he retired from performing standup live. In the second half of the book, the rest of Martin’s story is revealed, including his failures, anxieties, and disappointments prior to achieving his current success and happiness in his professional and personal life. He has been married since 2007 to Anne Stringfield, who used to fact-check his writing at the New Yorker magazine, and they have an 11-year-old daughter together.

The title of the movie, with the flashy exclamation mark, showcases Martin’s portrayal as a satirical entertainer: “I was a performer pretending to be a performer, and not a very good one,” he wrote in his memoir Born Standing Up about his early days. “It’s a false sense of self-importance that I have maintained throughout my life,” Martin reflects now. “It also stems from my time performing in Las Vegas in the 1970s when everyone would have a one-name identity like ‘Cher!’ So I found it humorous to use ‘Steve!'”

The film shows that Martin’s performance was a daring exploration of delivering jokes without releasing their buildup. He understood that if he didn’t use the typical cues of comedy (setup, punchline), the audience would have to choose when to laugh and the humor may never reach its peak. His fabricated self-confidence, his image of superiority even while wearing a fake arrow through his head on stage, made him unbeatable. He stated, “The audience had to be convinced that I was indifferent to their laughter, and that this act would continue with or without their participation.”

Steve Martin on Johnny Cash and Friends in 1976View image in fullscreen

During the peak of his popularity in the 1970s, Steve Martin had an ironic attitude towards his fans. He even carried cards with him that read, “This confirms that you have personally met me and found me to be friendly, courteous, intelligent, and humorous – Steve Martin.”

Mentioning it brings a smile to his face. “This was back when you’d be asked for autographs,” he says. “The card had a signature printed on it. I’d give them out, but people would just be puzzled. Then they’d ask me to sign it, so it didn’t really work.”

Currently, the trend is taking selfies. The traditional method of signing autographs was inconvenient because it required finding a pen and often ended up with signing a shoe receipt. Is the person now at ease with fan interactions? “Not really. It’s all about me, so there is no true interaction.” After a brief pause, the person adds, “Not that I am interested in asking about them,” with a noticeable sense of disgust.

In the 1970s, it must have been strange for him to challenge traditional show business practices, only to be accepted by those in power. Steve! (Martin) includes a scene of Sammy Davis Jr embracing him on The Tonight Show. “I felt incredibly honored,” he explains. “But later I discovered that Sammy hugged everyone.”

Did it seem like he was chosen for a special role? “I didn’t think of it as being chosen, because you could easily be rejected tomorrow.” It was only in the middle of his response that I realized the joy in hearing him use the word “anointed” with such precise enunciation, just as he did in The Man With Two Brains while reciting Pointy Birds by the made-up writer John Lillison, also known as England’s most talented poet with one arm: “Oh triangular birds / Oh so sharp / Bless my head / Anointed.”

Martin is concerned about receiving praise in the present because he fears that it will lead to embarrassment in the future. Jerry Seinfeld mentions Martin as “the most admired comedian of all time” on Steve!, but Martin admits that he feels uncomfortable with this type of admiration. He views idolization as temporary and shares an example from his childhood of a comedian, Joe Penner, whose famous catchphrase was “Wanna buy a duck?” However, now that phrase is no longer funny and Martin reflects on how fleeting fame can be. He avoids investing too much in seeking recognition and admiration.

A portion of his modesty may stem from his father, Glenn, who worked as a real estate agent but aspired to be in show business and had those aspirations crushed. In his book, Born Standing Up, Martin shares examples of physical mistreatment he endured from his father, as well as his father’s irritable behavior once Martin’s career took off. When Martin made his debut as a host on Saturday Night Live, a role he would go on to hold 15 more times, his father wrote a negative review of the performance in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors. Following the release of The Jerk, Glenn stated that his son could not compare to Charlie Chaplin.

Steve Martin with Kathleen Turner in 1983’s The Man With Two Brains

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Of course, he was wrong. In his pomp, Martin really was one of modern comedy’s closest equivalents to Chaplin. “Absolutely!” agrees Neville. “This will make Steve blush, but he was a cultural phenomenon.”

Steve (as Martin) delves into some of Martin’s perceived failures, offering a surprisingly nuanced portrayal. A significant amount of attention is given to the 1981 film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, which was a bold attempt by Martin to showcase his range instead of taking an easy path with a sequel to The Jerk. Personally, I admire his role as a 1930s sheet-music salesman who is a murder suspect, but he is unconvinced of its success.

“I believe they made a mistake in selecting the cast,” he nonchalantly comments. “I felt that I portrayed the internal pain of the character convincingly, but I am not able to accurately assess it. It extends to all of my non-comedic roles, including my admirable performance as a deceitful conman in David Mamet’s thriller The Spanish Prisoner from 1997. I am unsure how to evaluate my dramatic performances. If somebody compliments me on my work in The Spanish Prisoner, I am grateful, but unsure if I did well.”

I complimented him on his performance in The Spanish Prisoner and he responded with gratitude. “Thank you so much, was I really that good? I’m happy to hear that.”

Neville sees Martin as “the ultimate puzzle-solver. It’s in everything he does, from magic to standup to playing the banjo. He never sits back and says: ‘That was great.’ It’s always: ‘How do I make it better?’”

Steve Martin with Selena Gomez and his long-standing comedy partner Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building

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Having committed in Steve! (Martin) to showing low points as well as highlights, it was incumbent on Neville to feature the infamous clip of the British comic Paul Kaye, in the guise of the irksome celebrity-insulting hobgoblin Dennis Pennis, ambushing Martin on the red carpet in 1996. “It was nasty,” says Neville. “And I wanted to show how the world judges you when all you’re trying to do is be creative.”

It’s still painful to watch an evidently weary Martin deciding to oblige after he clocks the BBC logo on Kaye’s microphone. “What’s the question?” he asks good-naturedly, only for Kaye to deliver the killer blow: “How come you’re not funny any more?” Martin then turns back to the throng, fatigued and deflated, and continues his dead-man-walking trudge past photographers.

He expresses that it was painful because he was in a fragile point in his career. The event occurred at the first showing of Sgt Bilko, which could be considered Martin’s least successful film. He declined the lead role in The Birdcage to work on it, but The Birdcage ended up being a hugely successful gay comedy, earning $185 million worldwide, while Sgt Bilko only made $38 million over its entire run.

According to Wikipedia, Martin decided to cancel all of his scheduled press interviews after the incident with Dennis Pennis. However, he denies this and dismisses it as inaccurate information. He advises others to find a way to cope with negative reviews, as they can be quite painful. Instead of dwelling on them, he suggests a nonchalant approach by acting as if he is unaware of the criticism when encountering a critic in person.

Martin and Kaye haven’t seen each other since then. However, before I leave, I bring up the fact that the line still affects Kaye: he claims it’s now the most common thing strangers say to him on the street. Upon hearing this, Martin throws his head back and laughs heartily, without any sense of enjoyment in another’s misfortune. “I don’t hold any resentment,” he says. “Things have turned out well.”

Source: theguardian.com