Steve Martin to Join Kennedy Center's Pantheon of Humor

Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in the 1987 film
Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in the 1987 film "Roxanne." (Columbia Pictures)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Steve Martin, the "wild and crazy guy" who has spread his comic skills throughout the arts, has been selected to receive this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The Kennedy Center, which has given the award for humor for the past eight years, said Martin embodies the American zest for versatility and funny, as well as biting, portrayals.

"The Kennedy Center is pleased to give Steve the Mark Twain Prize for an extraordinary career," said center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, who announced the award yesterday. "His creations, be they onstage, on film or in a book, have created a collective memory of humor and joy for all Americans."

Martin issued a statement saying: "I think Mark Twain is a great guy and I can't wait to meet him."

Martin, 59, was born in Waco, Tex., but raised in Southern California; he started his career writing for television and soon won an Emmy for skits he created for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Martin made his first impression on American audiences on late-night TV. He enjoyed early success on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." Then later, he hosted "Saturday Night Live" so frequently that many viewers thought he was a member of the cast. He brought down the house in the 1970s with his "wild and crazy guy" routines and fully costumed King Tut.

He developed not only physical interpretations -- with the lopsided-shoulder walk -- but also a droll approach. When a friend from childhood wrote a book about their early lives, Martin said in a cover blurb: "Finally a book about me! I loved this book and fell deeply in love with the central character."

His film career started with a short called "The Absent-Minded Waiter," which was nominated for an Oscar. Then he teamed with Carl Reiner, a previous Twain winner, on "The Jerk," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains" and "All of Me." In the last, he played opposite Lily Tomlin, another Twain recipient, and won best actor awards from the New York Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.

His hit comedy work includes "Parenthood," "Father of the Bride," "Father of the Bride Part II," "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House." This summer Martin will re-create a role played by a comic legend. He will play Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther," made famous by Peter Sellers.

Martin has won Grammys for two comedy albums and another for best country instrumentalist; he played banjo in the Earl Scruggs video "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." He also sat in with B.B. King in his video of "In the Midnight Hour."

"The Jerk," he may or may not be. Martin also has written two best-selling novellas and off-Broadway plays, and assembled a remarkable art collection that includes works by Picasso, Hooper, O'Keeffe and de Kooning.

The Twain award will be presented Oct. 23 at the Kennedy Center. Previous winners, in addition to Reiner and Tomlin, were Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart and Lorne Michaels.

The essence of comedy is notoriously elusive, but Martin once took a stab at defining it: "What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company