By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
In spite of having worked in other areas, are you resigned to "comedian" always being listed first in biographical references?
I guess so, yeah. I call myself a comedian. But I think "comedian" means more today than just doing stand-up. Jerry Seinfeld acted on a television show, but he's still a comedian. I think of my own interests as being developed along the way. Life is long. You could make movies for 10 years and still have 10 years left over for writing. I think it's all intertwined in a kind of nice way because I was writing material for my stand-up act, then I started writing movies or co-writing movies, then I started writing movies alone and that led to theater and that led to prose. They seem like they're all different but linked.
You seem like someone who was not so much "born to comedy" as someone who picked comedy as a profession and worked at it until you were a success.
I think I was born to be in show business, and becoming a comedian was the easiest way in. . . . Actually, I knew I wanted to stay up in front of people and do stuff, probably around the age of 8. I was debating whether to be a magician or an electrician. For some reason, electricity fascinated me.
Chapter 4 of your book, "The Bird Cage Theatre," about acting on a ramshackle stage at Knott's Berry Farm, was excerpted in the New Yorker, and the excerpt ends with you looking back nostalgically at the moment just before, for you, comedy became "serious."
I actually had a different ending for that piece. I talk about why the Bird Cage was so potent nostalgically for me -- because it was before comedy turned serious, or something like that. When I first wrote it, I wrote: "It was the last time I was happy." But that sounded like I haven't been happy since then, which is not true. What I meant was there was no pressure then, you know. You're young, you're not thinking of the future at all. Your first time in love, your first time onstage, your first learning to do things -- that is a very exciting time.
How did you get from Knott's Berry Farm -- and making funny animal balloons at Disneyland -- to the writing staff of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS?
I was dating a girl who was a dancer on the show. I met her at college. She told me they were looking for young writers, so I gathered up some of my material -- some stories and crazy things I'd written -- and she sent it over, got it to them, and I went in and actually auditioned with my comedy act, and they hired me as a writer.
I really wanted to be on the show and I couldn't quite make that happen. I liked the job. It was tremendous fun. We were laughing a lot. It was also a high-stress job. You're 22 years old and you're writing for network television and you've never done anything in your life. Comedy can be stressful. When it misses, it misses. I wish you had the book in front of you, because this is all discussed.
Were you affected by all the political turmoil on the "Smothers Brothers" show -- the CBS censorship over the Vietnam protests and other controversies?
Absolutely. We all were. First, we lost our job. We were "young campus lefties." My partner Bob Einstein and I [he played Super Dave Osborne for years and now plays Marty Funkhouser on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm"] were writing a lot of that, with that bent, although I think Mason Williams was the most ardent political person on the show -- and Tommy [Smothers], of course. Dickie didn't care, but he went along with it, he was fine. He just wasn't as motivated as Tommy was.
Did you have any ambitions, even before "Seinfeld," to do a sitcom?
Early in my career, I would have done anything. But at a certain time, I did lose my sitcom ambitions. I auditioned for one and I realized, this'll never happen, and I went out on the road with my act. I knew I would never get the part. It's all in the book -- a sitcom called "Fireman's Ball." No relation to the Czech comedy film of the same title. This was an American sitcom about some funny firemen.
I'm not up on the current state of comedy that much. I don't watch sitcoms, so I don't really know where that's at. Rarely do I watch a show on television, so I don't know what the real state of it is. I listen to old stuff on the radio -- XM or Sirius or something.
I do love Larry David's show. I couldn't watch it this season, so I TiVoed it and I'll watch it when I'm on vacation.
Was turning 60 at all traumatic for you -- more than turning 30, 40 or 50?
Yeah, a little bit. There's no kidding yourself when you turn 60. It's worse than the others. You start to see the dark at the end of the tunnel. But everyone I talk to says, 'Yeah, you do that for a couple years and then you completely forget about it.' "
Do you worry about "things not done" that you wish you had?
I don't think about that. But I do want to do something with the banjo. I don't know what yet -- make a record or something. Might play a couple of songs and then just present the banjo on a record the way I like to hear it. I've been playing it for 40 years and I like it, I really like it. I find it exhilarating and actually melancholy, too.
You're on a kind of award-collecting bender, but one award has eluded you. Do you long to win an Oscar?
I gave up on that a long time ago. The academy doesn't give awards to comedians. It took me a long time to [realize]: Oh yeah, I see, yeah. It's sort of a dream that I think every actor has, but I realized it's not really what I do, acting. I do it incidentally.
I'm very excited about the Kennedy Center, frankly. I've had some kind of endurance. I'm proud of certain moments in my work -- a joke here or there -- but I'm also proud that I'm just still around. That's why the Kennedy Center is a real nice validation, a way of saying: You're still around.