A Comedian Who Knows No Routine
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Steve Martin is less nostalgic for the years he spent as the biggest comedy superstar in the nation -- years of what he calls "wild success" -- than he is for the moments he spent on the precipice, just before that: days, nights and years of relative and somehow comfortable obscurity.
In intervening years, since helping to turn stand-up comedy into a gigantically popular art form (he is widely considered the first comic to be rock-star,
arena-show famous) and going on to triumph in other fields, Martin has acquired loads of laurels. He refuses, as the saying goes, to rest on them, or to do much resting at all. Sharks have to swim to live, Steve Martin has to keep doing funny stuff.
Stopping now and then to accept awards is, practically speaking, not his idea of evolving or progressing, but when you get to be 62 and still thriving, awards are almost inevitable. There are the plain old perfunctory awards that people in show business never tire of giving one another, however, and there are genuine honors, and Martin knows that the Kennedy Center Honors are one of those.
For all his fame as a stand-up comic, he looks upon those stand-up days as ancient history. And if he hadn't managed also to succeed at more highfalutin endeavors -- writing and acting in films, writing essays for the New Yorker, writing a couple of novels and plays for the theater (including an intellectual romp with the too-precious title "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"), he probably would not be joining the four other artists being celebrated tonight.
Contrary to a popular and overly quoted quote, Steve Martin's American life did have a second act, and then a third, and he doesn't want to think about the curtain coming down. He keeps busy, to put it mildly: "Born Standing Up," which reads like the first book in a multivolume autobiography (and which he refers to umpteen times in the course of an interview), was just published by Scribner. He has finished filming a sequel to his re-imagining of Inspector Clouseau, due out next year. And, he proudly points out, he has a hit tune climbing the bluegrass charts.
As a reflection of an eclecticism that has always been part of his life and career, Martin is interviewed in the current issue of Banjo Newsletter and still loves playing the instrument he used as a prop in his stand-up days.
A young Martin fan may have no memory of the craftily manic comic in the bright white suit (the better to be seen from great distances in cavernous stadiums) who was the king of catchphrases ("well ex-cuuuuuze me") and who laughed at laughter itself. And until they have read the book, they may not even know that he got his start in television not by singing "King Tut" on "Saturday Night Live" but earlier, as a writer for the Smothers Brothers on their controversial CBS "Comedy Hour."
Martin can look back on those times as if they had been lived by another person, a separate incarnation of himself, and thus he can even view the incredible success he achieved in stand-up as mere preparation for later lauded efforts in seemingly loftier (if less visible) realms. Everything has been a preface to something else, or at least a link.
Over the years, some stars have had to be talked into accepting the Kennedy Center Honors because, prestigious though they are, they're essentially a life achievement prize, and that suggests a certain finality, even a cap on a career. Martin sees no such inference.
Some people only accepted the Kennedy Center Honors after considerable negotiation, because they were afraid it made them seem old. Did you have any problem with that?
No, there was no "negotiation" at all. I was tremendously excited. I've got a book out and it looks like it's going to do well, and I just finished a movie, so I don't feel any career ebb. The award is definitely a venerated situation. I love the award. I just think it's a real honor. I couldn't think of it in any kind of practical terms. There's no downside at all to me -- only if I fall out of the balcony.