Well, Incluuuude Him: Martin Joins Twain Pantheon

Steve Martin accepted the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night.
Steve Martin accepted the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2005

There's so much of Steve Martin to love -- actor, comedian, writer, banjo player -- that it was hard to hit all the high spots when he received the eighth annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center last night.

This year's ceremony, which was taped for broadcast Nov. 9 on PBS, had a homecoming feeling to it. Martin, who has been a frequent presenter of the award, was this time honored by previous winners Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin and Lorne Michaels. Which meant that half of the eight Twain winners were in the house (the other four: Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Pryor).

In receiving the award, Martin called it "the only significant American award for comedy -- except for money."

He added: "When I look at the list of people given this award it makes me satisfied. When I see the list of those who haven't been given the award it makes me even more satisfied."

He then pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, to read his favorite Twain "quote": "For God's sake, please don't name an award after me."

Not that anyone is keeping track of such things, but Martin, 60, is by far the most versatile of the illustrious group of winners. He has, among many things, won an Emmy for comedy writing ("The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"), won Grammys for two best-selling comedy records; done sketch and stand-up comedy; written two off-Broadway plays and best-selling novellas (one of which, "Shopgirl," has been made into the new movie starring Martin and Claire Danes); and assembled a world-class art collection. In the did-you-know category, Martin also won a Grammy for his banjo playing in the Earl Scruggs video of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

And so the evening inevitably skimmed the highlights. It was, in fact, like a Steve Martin career highlight reel, with the occasional roast as intermission.

Martin Short, who has made four films with Martin, recounted that "Steve got his first job in comedy as a writer on the 'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' because he was dating one of the dancers. Oh, by the way, Steve, Tommy Tune says hi."

Short correctly noted that Martin took comedy from clubs to the arena ("and back to the comedy clubs"), becoming "the first comedy rock star." Roll clip of Martin's 1978 stand-up performance at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, with all the iconic bits: arrow through the head, the banjo, "Happy Feet" and, of course, "Well, excuuuuse me ."

Lily Tomlin, who starred with Martin in "All of Me," noted his somewhat overlooked gifts as a physical comedian. And indeed, one look at his work in that movie, in which Martin's body is inhabited by Tomlin's character, and his fancy footwork in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," was enough to prove the point.

The biggest surprise of the evening may have been Diane Keaton, accompanied by a piano, singing a spare and lovely version of "The Way You Look Tonight" to Martin, beaming in the mezzanine. Diane Keaton, singing? And it was lovely? Yes and yes.

Dave Barry, who wrote jokes for Martin's Oscar-hosting gig two years ago, mentioned that he performed his Academy Awards monologue with his fly open. "And," said Barry, " I think it says something about Steve as a performer, and as a man, that no one noticed."

The most off-message message of the evening came from Larry David, who told a hilarious shaggy-dog tale in which Martin mistreats a homeless guy, plagiarizes a Dorothy Parker story, abuses a cat, acts boorish in a theater and finally insults David's Jewish heritage. "Maybe next time you'll give this award to someone who deserves it," said David. "Someone whose personal conduct is beyond reproach. Someone like . . . uh, you'll figure it out."

Tom Hanks introduced "The Great Flydini," Martin's brilliant silent bit from "The Tonight Show" in which all manner of things -- flowers, telephone, eggs, a martini -- emerged from Martin's fly.

Martin has been so good at so much for so long, in fact, that the pre-show chatter from his comic peers and friends quickly ranneth over.

Larry David called Martin "quite smart and quite fastidious." Huh? "Well, he has art in his apartment. It's stacked floor to ceiling. And he can name the artist for every single painting." Could David do that? "If they were pictures of the Yankees of the past 50 years, I'd do just as well."

Lorne Michaels recalled how Martin had guest-hosted on "Saturday Night" at the beginning of the show's second season, and then went on to host more than a dozen times, a record, with more appearances as a guest over the years. "He helped make the show."

Martin engaged in a bit of tomfoolery with old pal Martin Short on the Kennedy Center's red carpet. As Short worked the delighted crowd, Martin arrived to louder applause. "It's my night!" he yelled, waving Short off. When Short refused to give way, Martin put his hand over Short's head in the universal applause gesture. The crowd clapped tepidly. Martin then held his own hand over his head. Wild applause.

It was his night, after all.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company