A Happy Feat
You Know What's Funny About Twain Prize Winner Steve Martin? Everything.

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


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."

And he's modest. When an important concept is explained to him over a recent lunch in New York -- the theory of awarding Twain in his name, not him in Twain's name -- he gives a little chuckle but backs away fast as a startled snake.

"Oh, he was very great. He was a great man. No, no, no. He took real risks."

Does it follow then that a great comic has to take risks?

In journalism we call this a trick question. They teach it at Columbia. The deal is, if he says yes, which he almost certainly has to, then your professional reporter will say, "Hmm, and what would be your biggest risk?" to which he would have to answer by defending his whole career, and the questioner gets to appear wise and all-knowing and -- but Martin's too "clever" for that. He says, honestly and correctly, "No."

And that's the truth. His job is to lighten the load, not to reform the world. His job is to acknowledge the surrealism that flickers through the ionosphere, point out the folly and the craziness, yet at the same time stand for decency and stability, all of which Martin does, again without breaking that sweat.

"Hi, I'm Steve Martin. With so many celebrities endorsing cosmetics these days, I wanted to make sure the cosmetic I endorsed was very special. That's why I'm proud to put my name on . . . Steve Martin's all-natural Penis Beauty Cream."

Typical Martin. Notice the soft setup, which is in the banal form of the celeb-endorsement, and then the arrival of a strange word that twists the whole thing off in an absurdist direction. I mean, really . . . beauty .

In this palmy, pale Manhattan eatery, he is a study in graceful cool. Sweat seems inconceivable. He's dressed for style, speed, stealth. Black slacks, dark green shirt, a ball cap and jacket, soft-soled shoes, shades on a loop, he moves fast, not making eye contact, negotiating an aisle among swells slurping vichyssoise and nibbling on brie and frisee without a ruffle. He seems more like a .300 hitter than a showbiz celeb, quick and peppy and pink, blooming with health and purpose, ticking off today's agenda. He's in so fast no one notices him, and the funny thing is that in this particular eats-joint, there's another celeb.

Who is that guy?

At another, far more visible table (Martin's, by design, is snugged in the corner, blocked largely from view by a colonnade of some sort) is the famous face of a man who knows the meaning of adoration, who sold affability and aplomb as a product for decades. He's the buzz in the room where nobody has caught on that the dark flash with the snowy roof is the famous S. Martin, well-known wild 'n' crazy guy.

"Who is that guy?" Martin is asked, and he is not so vain that he gets anxious when the attention is directed elsewhere.

"Isn't he a quiz show guy? Something on TV. Or maybe a host guy. He's some kind of host."

And though this famous fellow's name can't be conjured, he brings a certain rumble of memory with him and the disclosure that Martin . . . knew Paul Lynde!

Now, what about giving Paul Lynde -- you know, fabulously funny comedian and center square on "Hollywood Squares" all those years -- a Steve Martin Prize for American Humor. Like Mark Twain, Lynde was funny for a lifetime, unique, brilliant, had cool hair and is now dead. But we didn't come all this way to talk about ghosts, even if the comedian is pro enough to laugh and show delight at a reporter's mention of Paul Lynde. Because Steve Martin knows comics. His may be a postmodern stylization, but it's not without its foundation of respect for those who came before.

As a kid, he says, he wanted to be like the TV comics of the '50s and that's where it all began for him, that's why he's sitting in this room before an egg-white omelet and persnickety water ("Tap water. No bottled water. Tap water"), wealthy, famous, beloved all these years later.

"I watched Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis. A lot of it was stupid but funny, but that's all right. Comedy is comedy."

By high school, the essential Steve Martin was already in place. He looked like he does now, handsome but unremarkable, with a thick shock of hair (then it was black; it would turn gray in his late twenties, white in his thirties but stay thick forever) and a slightly fleshy nose. Not quite sexy. Not quite smoldering. Never brutal or dark. Not the sort of man good girls would throw their lives away for. Yet not regular, either; something too mischievous in the eyes, something too ironic in the face. A guy who'll stick a fake arrow on his head for laughs can never seriously brandish a gun in a movie. Why, he almost looks like the sort who might have worked at Disneyland.

In fact, he did. His first showbiz job was the magic shop at the Anaheim theme park, where he prepped under a magician called the Great Aldini.

"I had some dexterity, so I could be a juggler, a coin manipulator, a lasso artist. I would do anything to get onstage. That's where the banjo came from. Folk music was big then."

His hunger for the stage also included election as Yell Leader with his pal Morris Walker at Garden Grove High School in Garden Grove, Calif., where he grew up (he was born in Texas; his family moved west when he was 6). The two ran for office on the policy position "Martin and Walker are 1 Percent Human and 99 Percent School Spirit."

A picture survives from that golden Jurassic, and Walker reprints it in a book he wrote, "Steve Martin: The Magic Years." Both kids wear Eisenhower era skinny ties and Stay-Prest white shirts and dark suit coats. Theirs could be anybody's youth, and at the same time there's something utterly moving about the image. (Walker, still friends with Martin, became a video producer in Oregon.) "At school, whether throwing a fancy line of double talk or just conversing with classmates, the active pair make things interesting for all," a local newspaper reporter wrote in the early '60s, in what must be Martin's first shot of press coverage. "Makes things interesting for all." Hmmm, how's that for prognostication.

After high school, Martin attended Long Beach State for a while, majoring in philosophy.

This would be Serious Steve. He yearned to get onstage but wasn't sure how. He seemed to need some kind of philosophical underpinning to his work.

"I knew there was something funny besides a joke, but I didn't know what it was. Maybe a feeling of glee, something less formal, less programmatic than a joke. I couldn't express it, I couldn't do it, but I had a sense of it."

He found a kind of key in philosophy.

"Philosophy taught me two things. First, the reality of the absurd. Absurd was funny. You didn't need a punch line, a structure, you just needed an ironic juxtaposition. Second, there's a logical progression to things, but when you disrupt it, that's very funny. I got that from Lewis Carroll. There's a word for it. I don't know it, but I know there's a word for it."

Example, from an old monologue: "I'd never divorce you, because I love you, I cherish you, I honor you and I don't want to lose half my stuff."

Armed and undangerous with his new insight, he took to the road to find material. He also worked as a writer on TV shows, honing his material. But his laboratory was always the road, opening for folk groups and then rock bands, trying desperately to find a persona.

"I did everything I could to get up to 15 minutes of good material. Some nights I had nothing. But it's like Windows, you know the way screens just keep coming on to cover other screens. You pile it on. Or it's like evolution. One night you mutate. You're all alone, you and 40 people in a room somewhere, and you're just looking for something that works and it just happens."

What Martin settled on was something that could be called The Deluded Man. It's a kind of postmodernism, a figure so steeped in showbiz realities and traditions that he just doesn't realize what he's doing isn't funny. It's a parody of showbiz conventions by someone who doesn't realize it's a parody.

The arrow through the head, an ancient vaudeville trope, is a perfect case of this. If you put an arrow on your head, nobody would laugh at it. But if you put an arrow on your head and sell the audience on your being so naive and uncool and clueless that you think they'd think such a lame-o stunt is funny, then magically the oldest joke in the biz is reinvented and becomes hysterical.

Martin's lunch companion believes (but can't verify) that he saw the breakthrough moment: his first network appearance on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" on Feb. 15, 1972. It was a time when American comedy was particularly dead, the buttoned-up comics of the '50s long forgotten, the war in Vietnam sucking much of the comic oxygen out of the nation, Woody Allen in his serious phase and "Saturday Night Live" three years away. "Steve Martin"? What could someone with a Fuller Brush salesman's name add to this?

He blew the house up and the reporter can recall being dazzled by the guy's antic craziness, his deft use of showbiz idiom but skewed slightly toward the insane, his vivid energy.

"Steve, Steve, people say to me, you're a ramblin' kind of guy, what makes you ramble?"

Sheer genius. He got the comic power of a word like "ramble," never used in conversation except by the delusional, by someone so clueless that he thought being called ramblin' was really cool. But it was also in the body language. Martin had a powerful way of expressing irony through his body. It was his facial expression, faux-smug, a little too sure of the self, not aware, really, how off-key he was; and it was his physical exuberance, subtler than slapstick but still expressed in flesh. But most of all it was his sense of language.

He had a great gift for finding the apposite word and then infusing it with comic meaning so profound it would become funny even when shorn of context.

"Excuuuse me!" is one such, or "We are two wild and crazy guys ."

"I was very lucky," he recalls. "Before he died, Johnny sent me a disc with all my appearances on it. That first night, the camera happened to cut away from me to Sammy Davis Jr., falling out of the chair. That sold me. What I didn't realize was that Sammy always fell out of the chair; the camera cut just happened to catch it."

It was the first of five performances on "Tonight" that year; to date he's been on a total of 45 times, for the second most appearances (Bob Hope is first with 103; David Letterman third with 44). "Saturday Night Live" ginned up around that time, and his talents meshed perfectly with the show's -- his gift for sketch humor, his quickness with an ad-lib, his ability to rally the young cast, who didn't yet realize they themselves were on the way to becoming the new establishment.

One of Martin's gifts is consolidation: He masters a form, then moves on. The first feature film came in 1979, "The Jerk," directed by old pro Carl Reiner. Many of his early films were simple projections of his stage persona. But he was adventurous as well, as witness the flop that became a cult hit, "Pennies From Heaven" in 1981. "All of Me," in '84, where he shared a body with fellow Twain winner Lily Tomlin, put him over the top critically. From then on his pattern, a kind of pinball ricochet between more serious "acted" works (frequently he wrote and produced as well) and lesser, more popularly oriented broad comedies. In 1999, for example, he made "The Out-of-Towners," a broad, stupid comedy, and "Bowfinger," a much smaller and more focused film, which he wrote and co-produced. He'll follow up this month's "Shopgirl," which he wrote from his novella, with the upcoming "The Pink Panther."

"Martin seemed one of the few American artists of any sort who, working within a late-modern, ironic self-conscious sensibility, have found access to a vein of real feeling and genuine poetic invention, without ever becoming sentimental, precious, or self-congratulatory" the critic Adam Gopnik wrote of him in 1993. It's still true.

"I don't think I ever made a conscious career plan. Something always seems to come up. I never feel disciplined."

He describes his process as a constant search for "topics." He never knows where he'll find one, what it'll be, where it'll take him. But he's always looking for something to engage his imagination and take him on a little voyage.

"Shopgirl," which he stars in with Claire Danes, is typical: He wanted to try to imagine a young woman's mind, based on an encounter he'd had, but he didn't want to stoop to cheap psychology. He tried to write a paragraph that summed her up, feeling that if it worked, if it were accurate, it would take him to an interesting place.

"I think of it as about behavior. The book does not analyze this young woman. If you describe intently, you get the psychology." And then it's time to rush off. He has some German art collectors to meet, to see the paintings in his New York apartment as opposed to his Beverly Hills house. Glasses come on, baseball cap covers the permafrost, jacket is pulled tight, and fast and silently he departs, unnoticed by a room that has spent the past hour gawking at -- Peter Marshall.

Martin probably remembered Marshall that afternoon, as he joked he would; and maybe he wished he'd said a word or two to the retired old "Hollywood Squares" host.

But he had to hustle on.

"I just want a new topic in my life," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company