At least "Steve Martin's The Winds of Whoopee" does not represent yet another step down for Steve Martin. It's just more of Steve Martin marching in place. Marching in place while looking backward, actually, since almost everything on the special is culled from previous Martin TV appearances, including his own specials, "Tonight Show" gigs and routines from the original "Saturday Night Live."
The NBC special, at 10 tomorrow night on Channel 4, isn't quite as funny as the promos for it, with Orson Welles reminding viewers that "Whoopee" could be seen "all in one hour"--thus cheekily tweaking ABC and its captured dinosaur, "The Winds of War," which begins with a three-hour episode that also airs tomorrow evening--and that's only a sixth of it.
Unfortunately, the tweaking ends there. Nothing in the special mocks "Winds of War." It opens with a sliver of new stuff--a setup for the premature retrospective that is to follow--in which Martin plays a profligate Italian director lambasted by a network executive (Ron Liebman) for past spending binges and told his next special must come in at $1,200 tops. The two men have one quick cute visual joke involving breath sprays. From there on, however, we're off to familiar territory. The past.
Most of the best sketches, appropriately enough, come from "Steve Martin's Best Show Ever," a Lorne Michaels production that aired live, and almost completely without warning, on Thanksgiving Eve of 1981. In one, "The Elephant Guy," Martin plays Charles Merrick as a show-biz egomaniac whose handicap, and meal ticket, consists of two big gray floppy ears and a moderately obscene dangling trunk where his nose should be. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Lynn Redgrave appear in this sketch.
Another sketch from the same special revives the wild and crazy swinging Festrunk Brothers, Martin and Aykroyd, and, for a finish, brings back another familiar face: John Belushi, in an absurdly hilarious drag turn as the world's most zaftig Czechsa. Belushi was outfitted for this bombastic appearance with a pair of artificial breasts that have lives of their own, swiveling around his torso as if on ball bearings.
It's a merry, bawdy, gleefully outrageous moment.
And, oh John, how we miss you.
Strother Martin is electronically resurrected, too, in a turtle-racing sketch; Martin sings "King Tut" again, whirls into "Dancing in the Dark" with Gilda Radner (also from "Saturday Night Live") and, early in the show, reprises a socko dance routine, "Fit as a Fiddle," with Gregory Hines (from "Best Show Ever"). Martin really is, and always was, a very musical comedian. It's too bad he's so determined to make truly lousy movies.
As the Italian director in the show's opener, Martin recalls that in describing his earlier productions, "the reviewers used words like 'ponderous.' " While "Winds of War" certainly has a lock on that adjective this week, "Winds of Whoopee" isn't nearly the pomposity-deflater one might have hoped for.