Steve Martin started his long and storied career as a magician at Disneyland in California. He turned television writer most notably with the Smothers Brothers and then became one of the biggest draws in stand up comedy history filling stadiums (yeah football stadiums) with fans. Martin became a top box office comedy star. He earned an Emmy, Grammy, and Academy award while writing books and plays. And now Steve Martin seems content being a world class banjo player having released two albums and toured with Steep Canyon Rangers.
To call Steve Martin a renaissance man doesn’t really do him justice. He really is in a category all by himself. This blog touches on a very small part of his career. He came to our attention in the early 70’s prior to Saturday Night Live, even before his infamous One Night Stand comedy special on HBO. It was the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where Steve Martin first brought his brilliance.
Martin didn’t just do a five minute stand up spot. His appearances on the Tonight Show were always an event. Like the episode where Johnny said “I understand you have to go Steve”, something Carson often said to stars who really didn’t want to spend 90 minutes on the couch. Steve got up to leave only to get to the curtain, turn around and say to Carson “Johnny I don’t really have anywhere to go, I just wanted to seem like a big shot” as the crowd and Johnny both roared with laughter. Steve doesn’t just sit back down on the couch. He takes the cushions off to pull out a sofa bed then put on his nightcap for the rest of the show. You could tell Johnny did not know about this beforehand. It was a typical Steve Martin Tonight Show appearance.
The only thing better than hearing Steve Martin was a guest on the Tonight Show was hearing announcer Ed McMahon say now heerrreeeessss Steve! Because Martin was such an epic guest, he was one of the few comedians Johnny hand picked to sit in as guest host. One guest host spot that stands out was seeing Steve drive a car through the stage curtain because why walk? That wasn’t enough, Steve drove the car to each side of the stage to greet Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinsen.
After reaching the height of comedy including several appearances on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, Martin segued perfectly into movies. His first movie, The Jerk directed by Carl Reiner, was well received by Martin’s fans and most critics though some found it juvenile and silly. Critics seemed to tire of Martin’s comedy films, until probably one of his best, referenced in an early Oh Brother episode, a modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac perfectly titled Roxanne. A hit with critics, but not as big with Steve’s comedy base. Even his toughest critic Roger Ebert heaped praise on Roxanne after calling one of Martin’s previous films The Lonely Guy “the kind of film made to play in empty theaters”.
As Martin started loosing his grip on comedic roles, he proved he could play drama just as well. Movies like The Spanish Prisoner, Grand Canyon, And the Band Played On were all solid performances by a guy who was used to being cast as wild and crazy.
Today Steve Martin is really just taking on passion projects. He’s back on the road with good friend Martin Short doing a bit of stand up as well as playing his iconic banjo. Asked recently if he would appear in a movie any time soon he did not seem to have much interest, but to say he would like to work with the Coen Brothers. We would certainly enjoy seeing that collaboration.
It would be a lot easier to write a novel than a short blog in covering Steve Martin’s illustrious career. We will pay tribute to Martin again this year on a November podcast featuring one of our favorite Thanksgiving films Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The film stars Martin alongside the late great John Candy. It’s a film that makes us laugh and sometimes cry, but always thankful for the work of such talent.