A Happy Feat

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005

NEW YORK

See, here's a much better idea.

Instead of the Kennedy Center giving Steve Martin the eighth annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor tonight, the Marble Sepulcher folks should give Mark Twain the first annual Steve Martin Prize for American Humor.

Twain was great. Twain was fine. Twain was courageous. Twain was wonderful. Twain wrote a great novel. Twain had cool hair.

But he was no Steve Martin.

As who is?

Answer: Nobody.

"I prefer to mix the old comedy bits with the new comedy bits because that way there's more . . . money."

Since he first broke out nationally on the late-night talk show circuit in the early '70s, the frosty-haired comic has moved with ease between the various worlds of comedy. Seemingly without breaking a sweat, he's been a great TV stand-up, a record album smash (he sold more comedy albums than anyone until this summer, when Dane Cook surpassed him), a "Saturday Night Live" host of mythic dimensions, a movie star, writer and producer, a comic essayist for the New Yorker, a playwright, a novelist, the master of just about any form that by its noble reach makes audiences cough their lungs up in laughter.

And he has much cooler hair than Mark Twain.

Best of all, he seems rage- and neurosis-free, apolitical, unmoored in time, unaffiliated to a particular generation (at 60 a classic baby boomer, he seems to have missed that generation's infinite patience with its own narcissism). He's unaffiliated with the zeitgeist: He has happy feet but also a happy soul, and a guarded private life of no interest to gossip-mongers. Divorced from actress Victoria Tennant years ago, he now quietly dates a New Yorker fact-checker. He does one thing: He's just damned funny, all the time. It ranges from gut-splitting oxygen debt to reserved, ironic bemuse ment. But always some form of funny.

"You know that look women give you when they want to have sex with you? . . . Neither do I."


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