Steve Martin appreciation thread


The prematurely white hair. The sometimes wild and crazy, sometimes mild and smart humor. A staying power matched by few of his or any generation. Steve Martin has done it all, done it well, and done it for a long time now. He's a comedy icon, but he's also proven he can do dramatic work on camera. Behind the scenes he's a writer. I mean writer having typed out jokes, screenplays, stage plays, essays and novels. His style is sometimes absurdist and silly, sometimes serious and witty, and often within the very same scene or paragraph. He has starred in hugely popular blockbusters, sold millions and millions of albums, written betsellers, hosted everything from "The Tonight Show" to the Academy Awards, won Emmys, Grammys (just about everything but an Oscar), and generally proven himself in every medium there is. Oh, and he plays a mean banjo. And damnit...he seems like a nice guy, too.

Steve Martin started small...real small. As a young boy and then teenager he worked in the magic shop in the castle at Disneyland, which opened not far from his Orange County home in 1955. From there he moved down the road to Knott's Berry Farm where he performed on stage as part of a musical and comedy revue. He enrolled in Long Beach State College with a major in philosophy, considering a career in teaching. But the performing bug was still inside him, and though the philosophy classes informed his sensibility, he decided to try and make it as a comic. This was the late 1960, long before there were such things as regular comedy clubs. So you wound up playing coffeehouses and small clubs, college campuses, and opening for Rock or Folk music acts. Steve was experimenting in blending his magic tricks, Vaudeville style theatrics, and serious philosophy into a coherent and original act. For many, many years it didn't have the right balance and didn't click for the audience or the man performing it. He lucked into a writing gig on the popular "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS and was often paired in assignments with another young up and comer, Rob Reiner, son of the great comedian Carl Reiner. Steve appeared on camera from time to time, though he was mainly behind the scenes, getting a masters education in comedy. Tommy Smothers was in constant battles with the network and censors over the political content of the show, and even though it had great ratings it was abruptly canceled. That fall after cancellation, the show won the Emmy for best writing, including Steve Martin for his contributions.

The television show was a great learning experience, but Steve knew he wanted to make it on his own, doing his own thing. Through lots of hard work and lots of time on the road, the stand-up act finally began to work. It was full of non sequiturs and what would later be labeled ironic "anti-comedy". Whatever you want to call it, it was something new. The gigs started getting better, and he was getting more and more exposure as a guest on talk shows. Then came a happy coincidence in that his fanbase started increasing at the same time a new show called "Saturday Night Live" hit the airwaves. Steve's style and persona were a perfect fit, and he guest hosted so often and so memorably in the first few years of the show that he is often mistaken for an original cast member.

His novelty record launched on the air, "King Tut", about the mania surrounding the museum tour of Tutankhamun's artifacts, was a smash best seller, as were his live stand-up albums. By the late 1970s, Steve was a bonafide superstar, his act so popular that he was filling arenas and stadiums instead of clubs. The size and impact of his stand-up during this period has really been unequaled, before or since. Martin was a cultural phenomenon, with catch phrases on T-Shirts, and a seeming ubiquity in the day's pop culture.

The movies were the next logical step. In 1977 at the height of his "SNL" and stand-up popularity he made a comedy short, "The Absent-Minded Waiter". Directed by another "Smothers Brothers" alumnus, Carl Gottlieb, who had adapted the screenplay for Spielberg's Jaws, and starring Buck Henry & Teri Garr playing off some of Steve's antics partially developed in his act, it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject. His first two roles in big feature films were in support. He played Doctor Maxwell Edison in the embarrassing flop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton in a plot loosely assembled from Beatles songs. No matter. His second film was another comedy cameo, playing a waiter to Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog in the all-star The Muppet Movie (1979).

For his first starring role, Steve assembled Carl Gottleib and friend Michael Elias to help him truly turn a bunch of his stand-up material into something they could expand upon for a feature length movie. Directed by Carl Reiner, the resulting movie was The Jerk (1979). Aided by his already massive popularity, it was a smash at the box office, and Steve was an immediate movie star. Full of classic gags, The Jerk is simultaneously crass and smart, and its success plus the grueling grind of the road made Martin retire from stand-up and focus on the cinema. He also figured there was no way to best the kind of phenomenon his stage act had become, so why not go out on top?

In his first two projects after The Jerk he tried to prove he could do more than just the wild and crazy stuff he had become uber-famous for. Pennies from Heaven (1981) is one of my favorite movies, a dark fantasy that is the Musical as psychotic episode, a Depression era tale of love and death with splashy numbers. I think Steve is brilliant in the complicated lead, but it was probably too much of a turn too soon. I love it, but you can kind of see why it would have been tough to market, at that stage in Martin's career. The Jerk it ain't. Read many, many more of my thoughts on Pennies from Heaven HERE.

His third movie was a re-teaming with director Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), and it is another favorite of mine. It ingeniously blends footage of Steve into about twenty old Noirs and Melodramas from the classic period of Hollywood and has him seamlessly interact with screen legends like Bogart, Cagney, Bette Davis, and Cary Grant in scenes from movies including White Heat, Notorious, Double Indemnity, and This Gun for Hire. Not only is it exceedingly clever in its execution, but as a spoof of private eye flicks I think it's a real winner. However, again, it was a commercial failure.

Steve and Carl Reiner's third collaboration was The Man with Two Brains (1983), and this one was zanier, more akin to The Jerk, and has plenty of big, broad laughs. His next project tried to go a little more serious with the comedy in a script by Neil Simon, but The Lonely Guy (1984) was a forgettable dud. His fourth movie with Carl Reiner was their biggest success and much closer to the mix of silly and poignant that Steve was aiming for. All of Me (1984) has Lilly Tomlin's rich b!tch heiress accidentally transmigrated into Steve's body, leading to some absolutely hysterical physical comedy as he only has control over one half of his body. It was a hit with both audiences and critics. He also got a wife out of the deal when he married his co-star, British actress Victoria Tennant. He followed that with another outrageous comedy, Three Amigos! (1986) with Chevy Chase and Martin Short, directed by John Landis. It has grown a deserved cult following, but it wasn't a big hit, and the critics pretty roundly hated it (for some reason). He also had fun hamming it up as the villain in Frank Oz's Musical re-make of Little Shop of Horrors (1986) where he plays a sadistic dentist who treats Seymour's would-be girl badly and needs to be fed to the mean green muther from outer space!

His next movie was his first, true cinematic home run. Steve had been co-writing many of the screenplays, from The Jerk onward, but for Roxanne he went solo and expressed his sole cinematic vision for the first time. A very funny Romantic Comedy that cleverly updates and modernizes Cyrano de Bergerac and places it in a Colorado mountain resort town where the man with the impossibly huge schnoz, Charlie C.D. Bailes, is a fire chief rather than a swordsman. It is sincerely sweet, it is hysterically funny, it is smart, and it is silly...and it all works! Roxanne was a hit at the box office and the critics loved it. It probably remains Steve's best script, and it was perfectly realized.

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"Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film." - Frank Capra

Steve's on-screen persona was maturing now. Yes he could still be wacky with the best of 'em, but he was also viable as a real leading man. His next few projects continued his maturation. In John Hughes' Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) he is the perfect flabbergasted foil to John Candy's boorish lout when they get stuck with each other on a disastrous road trip, trying to get from New York to Chicago in a couple of hysterical days before Thanksgiving. It's funny as Hell, but it also has a heart, and is now a holiday classic. Frank Oz's dark comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) was another triumph, pairing Steve with Michael Caine as two competing con men on the French Riviera. It's a remake of the 1964 flick Bedtime Story with Marlon Brando and David Niven, and it's a flat-out scream, containing some of Steve's all-time funniest screen moments. And in Ron Howard's ensemble dramedy Parenthood (1989) Steve even makes the transition to star of a great family film. At this point I'd say his film career was at its apex, and he was nearly as successful an actor and screenwriter as he had been a stand-up comedian and pop culture phenomenon.

After a bit of an odd misstep backwards with the Mafia comedy My Blue Heaven (1990) which is a good idea but had no consistent tone, for me his other very best screenplay came with L.A. Story (1991). I absolutely love this movie. A Romantic fantasy set against the town Steve grew up in and adores, it's a fable about the power of love, starring Steve and his then-wife Victoria. It still has plenty of insane gags and outrageous jokes, but it has some very smart stuff as well, and most importantly shows how joyous love can be. It also has some nice pointed satirical barbs for Hollywood, but at its core, for me it works best not as a comedy but as a romance. It also feels the most like Steve's worldview, and in his singular voice.

In the first half of the 1990s Steve really tried to establish his dramatic chops. Yes he still gave us a standard romantic comedy with Goldie Hawn in Frank Oz's HouseSitter (1992), and he played to the family-friendly crowds with the re-make of Father of the Bride (1991), but he also had a role as a jaded studio executive in Lawrence Kasdan's drama Grand Canyon (1991) and played a traveling con man disguised as a Holy Healer in the satirical Leap of Faith (1992). OK, so it's not Elmer Gantry, but Martin is quite good playing a largely unsympathetic character, the phony preacher going town to town bilking folks. He had a cameo in the made-for-HBO AIDS drama "And the Band Played On" (1993) with an all-star cast. Then he got another one of his own scripts made, a modernized re-working of George Eliot's Silas Marner called A Simple Twist of Fate (1994). Unlike Roxanne, this adaptation was played mostly for drama, not laughs. I rather like it, but it was not a success.

In the later 1990s and into the 21st century, Steve found a few projects that were unexpected, and continued to increased his range. David Mamet cast him as the casual smooth-talking villain in his movie The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Steve was more than up to the task playing a charming cad. He took it up a notch further, starring in the black comedy Neo-Noir Novocaine (2001) as a dentist involved in sexy blackmail and murder. He also has a supporting role in Stanley Tucci's understated drama Joe Gould's Secret (2000). These roles were a far cry from super-moron Navin Johnson in The Jerk.

Sadly around this same period he also started appearing in some of the dumbest crap. I don't begrudge any actor taking a gig just for the paycheck every now and again - Hell, it must be difficult to turn down multiple millions of dollars for only a couple months work, and doing such garbage could pay the bills while you're looking for the good, smaller, more challenging stuff. But Steve has been doing way too many of these turkeys the past decade, or so. It started with the disaster that is Nora Ephron's dark Christmas would-be-comedy Mixed Nuts (1994), which is just mind-numbingly bad. Then came a soulless and completely unnecessary re-make of the old '50s TV show Sgt. Bilko (1996). W-H-Y-?!? Then it was an ill-advised and pointless re-make of The Out-of-Towners (1999) with Steve and Goldie Hawn standing in for Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. Of course that looks like a masterpiece compared to the offensively awful Bringing Down the House (2003), which was followed by the misguided family dreck of Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) and the re-make of Cheaper by the Dozen and its inevitable sequel (2003 & 2005). YAWN! All of that was just prelude to the cinematic sacrilege that is The Pink Panther (2006). I hope Peter Sellers does more than just spin in his grave, I hope he comes back as a zombie and eats the brains of the hack director and whatever Studio idiots green lit this travesty. Naturally there is a sequel due out this coming February 2009. How dare they?

Now to be fair he did write and star in a couple movies in that period too. One was the Hollywood satire Bowfinger (1999) co-starring Eddie Murphy in a dual role, and the other was an offbeat romantic drama called Shopgirl (2005).

The latter was adapted from his own novella of the same name. In fact he's published two works of fiction now, the second being The Pleasure of My Company. Both books are quite good. He's also been writing plays, the best one being Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a production I saw three different times (the original in New York, then traveling casts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). It's a rather brilliant comedy about an imagined meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. Oh, and Elvis Presley, too. Great play! He's also been sporadically writing absurdist humor pieces for The New Yorker magazine, most of which were collected in the book Pure Drivel. He got divorced and remarried. And after all these years he finally wrote an autobiography covering his childhood up through the mega-success of his act, called Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life (such a great read for any fan). Plus he hosted the Academy Awards a couple times. Oh, and he was given the Kennedy Center Honor and the Mark Twain Prize for his body of work.

So, yes, I feel he's really sold out in a shameful way for way too many of these bad movies from Mixed Nuts to The Pink Panther 2, but he has been busy doing other, worthy things. Just fewer and fewer of them seem to be in front of the camera, these days. But he's certainly still capable of more cinematic greatness, and I'm a fan for life. Steve Martin turned sixty-three this past summer, and I hope he's around for at least sixty-three more.

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OK, so may favorites are...

1. Pennies from Heaven
2. L.A. Story
3. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
4. Roxanne
5. All of Me
6. Planes, Trains & Automobiles
7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
8. Parenthood
9. The Jerk
10. ¡Three Amigos!

He was actually on the daily show a few days ago and it got me to thinking to do something like this... but i have midterms and essays and what not to do and couldn't find the time to do something like this so kudos to you Holden

my favorite movie of his is definitely Planes, Trains & Automobiles
it's been a favorite of mine since i was a lil' tyke... him and John Candy were just hilarious together
One day you will ask me, what's more or your life. I will answer my life and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life

Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Great thread, Holds!

Here's the Steve Martin episode of "The Muppet Show" from 1977.


It's what you learn after you know it all that counts. - John Wooden
My IMDb page

Oh, yeah, and one of my favorite little things Steve does that I think sums up his sense of humor and public persona perfectly. Since the 1970s when asked for his autograph he usually politely declines but retrieves a business card and hands it out with a smile. It reads...

"This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me, Steve Martin, and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny."

To me, that's better than any scribbling on a frippin' cocktail napkin.

And while he worked out most of the magic tricks from his act years and years ago, one comedy stage piece he perfected after he had retired from the road using some of the tricks of the trade he learned as a boy is The Great Flydini. Watch it here on one of Johnny's last broadcasts of "Tonight Show"....

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Great stuff Holden. Love Martin to death, though the fact that my mom practically raised me on his stuff had a lot to do with it. She started so early that the first time I heard Let's Get Small, it was on vinyl. I know, I know! Stone-age stuff.

Still haven't seen Pennies From Heaven (I've seen just 7 of the 10 you list), but of the Martin films I've seen I'd rank them something like this:
1. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles
3. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
4. The Jerk
5. Roxanne
6. L.A. Story
7. Parenthood
The only two I'm really sure about, though, are the first two. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is just too much fun, and has too many brilliant moments, for anything else on this list to overtake it. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it, but I never get tired of it. I still squirm every time Freddy Benson (Martin) pulls his shameless routine in the dining car, still laugh every time someone throws Lady Fanny into a nearby shrub, and still giggle like an idiot every time that cork hits the eye patch. It's the kind of movie I like to see with someone who's seeing it for the first time.

Anyway, after the first two you could mix them all around and I wouldn't object much.

I saw Roxanne when I was a bit younger, as well, so there's a good chance I'd like it more now.

You're a Genius all the time
Yep, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is my favorite Martin flick, too. That character, more than any other I think, perfectly showcases everything he does so well. He was also a natural fit for early SNL (which I've been watching a lot of recently) and The Muppet productions because both of those shows had such a slapdashed, ramshackle, thrown-together feel that Martin personifies in his sleep. Sometimes the guy doesn't work for me, I'm not a big Roxanne fan, but he definitely had more hits than misses in his heyday and that's more than you can say for most comedians. I'd actually like to see him stretch a little more as an actor and take a few more quirky, dramatic roles because he was really great in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and I feel like there's a lot of untapped brilliance there.

I don't know why he's been in so much garbage lately; it can't just be the money, can it? But he had a nice little funny role in Baby Mama this year and he's gonna be on 30 Rock in a couple of weeks, so at least he's mixing in a few bright spots on an otherwise lame 21st century resume. Unlike HP, though, I do lose a little respect for people as talented as Steve Martin who whore themselves out on such a regular basis to movies that feature Ashton Kutcher. But, yeah, I still really like the guy.

He's a wild and crazy guy!

Put me in your pocket...
I love Steve too. I think I like him best when he plays the straight character who has to deal with the chaos and wackiness around him. When he was younger I thought he could get away with playing the fool, but now that he's older I don't like seeing him play those type of parts like in 'Looney Tunes' and Pink Panther. It sort of reminds me of when I'd seen Jerry Lewis on a late night talk show and he was acting in his silly/foolish persona and his act was hard to watch and was kind of sad. I would hate to think of Steve in that same light one day. I hope after PP2 he finds another hit and does well. He's too good to be repeating the same type of act. favorites of his...

Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Guilty Pleasures...
Cheaper By The Dozen ( I know it's not a great movie, but it's a solid family flick)
My Blue Heaven (I can't help myself! )

Registered User
He has a lot of range as an actor--but seems to have been under used as of late. Let's put him something interesting, like his films from the 80's.

Put me in your pocket...
I hope I wasn't too hard on Steve. He's one of the few people I'll pop my head up for and will be interested to know what he's up too or what he'll be in.

On the positive side of him re-making Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther, is that he's introduced himself to alot of kids. Maybe it will spark more interest with them to see his other movies.

He's a wild and crazy guy!
I still have that album. I think I should dust it off and listen to it again. The kids might get a kick out of it.

So many good movies, so little time.
Steve Martin is one of the actors I can watch, and enjoy in anything, even bad movies. My favorite movies with Steve :

1. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
2. Roxanne
3. The Jerk
4. Pennies from Heaven
5. L.A. Story

"Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others."- Groucho Marx

So many good movies, so little time.
And to illustrate my point. Steve was in a pretty bad movie, Baby Mama, which for some reason is not listed in his IMDB Bio. But, every scene that he was in was interesting to me, even though the writing was pretty weak.

Holden, how come it isn't in his IMDB bio?

I always wanted to see Steve Martin in a war movie.
"If you can't be funny be interesting."
Harold Ross

Holden, how come [Baby Mama] isn't in his IMDB bio?

I think only because it's late on a Saturday night and your reading comprehension has gone to Hell. The first list of credits on his IMDb page are for his writing. He had nothing to do with the Baby Mama screenplay, thus it ain't there. If you go down the page a bit, the next list you'll see are his credits as an actor and Baby Mama is right there, between The Pink Panther and his upcoming guest appearance on "30 Rock".

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And Steve Martin has done a guest voice on "The Simpsons". It was in the season nine episode titled "Trash of the Titans", the 200th episode of the series. It was a little disappointing in that I expect all of my favorites to get amazing guest roles like Albert Brooks' Hank Scorpio in "You Only Move Twice" or Dustin Hoffman's Mr. Bergstrom in "Lisa's Substitute". But sometimes it doesn't always work. Steve's character, the sanitation commissioner, is nothing terribly special and after Homer gets his job he's not even in the episode very much.

Oh, well.
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You're a Genius all the time
He had a nice little funny role in Baby Mama this year and he's gonna be on 30 Rock in a couple of weeks, so at least he's mixing in a few bright spots on an otherwise lame 21st century resume.
Hey! Speaking of Steve Martin guest starring on 30 Rock in a couple of weeks, he's guest starring on 30 Rock tonight! How 'bout that!